Democracy Creates the Circumstances of its Own Demise

When Simon Sachs, my great, great grandfather, left Thüringen, Germany in the early 1850s and journeyed across the Baltic Sea to start a new life in Sweden, he likely saved my life.

In Stockholm, his adopted home, Simon started a family and built a successful retail business. In the capable hands of his son, Josef, the business grew to become Nordiska Kompaniet, the Selfridges of the Nordics.

And so, when Germans overwhelmingly voted the Nazis into power in 1933, Josef and his family could count themselves, affluent Jews in Sweden, fortunate. Though waves of aryanization put pressure on Josef and his business, forcing him to step down from leading the company in 1937, my family was spared from the death camps.

Many years later, after my first visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance monument in Jerusalem, this unfathomable insight turned into a lifelong commitment to defend and strengthen democracy and open society.

Too many people think of democracy simply as a governance system. But it is also a set of values. Those values were violated by the democratically elected Nazis. And today, those values are under threat once again by democratically elected leaders around the world with an interest in growing and sustaining their own power.

Let’s tick off the warning signs: The rise of authoritarian and nationalist figures from the Philippines to Poland means less than one-fifth of the world’s population now live in “fully free” countries; the media is under threat in three-quarters of all countries; civil society is under immense pressure, with 7 billion people now living in countries where government critics are harassed and their fundamental rights are curtailed; and voting by young people is on the decline globally, dipping below 15% in a recent European election.

This is what makes democracy so fragile — it creates the circumstances of its own demise.

The Zeitgeist of Our Era

The impact of these trends should sound familiar — it is the zeitgeist of our era:

  • One in two people around the world think their politicians are corrupt
  • One in two people are not satisfied with how democracy is working in their country
  • Two in three people think that elected officials don’t care about what ordinary people think

Political systems are increasingly viewed as broken. Without the necessary support, efficient and effective governance is in retreat. This should alarm all social investors because we know that the poorest and most vulnerable pay the highest price when governments are dysfunctional and can’t protect or deliver on people’s rights. If our goal is to establish a fair and robust economy and a society in which everyone has equal opportunity to flourish, effective and trusted governance is a fundamental requirement.

We can reverse these trends by supporting what my co-founders of the Apolitical Foundations, Lisa Witter and Robyn Scott, call democracy’s flywheel. This flywheel includes three parts: principled and skilled politicians providing effective representation and delivering on their campaign promises, knowledgeable and well-resourced civil servants dedicated to boosting the greater good, and informed voters who value and participate in democratic processes.

The superpower of flywheels is that if you feed any one component, the whole system strengthens. Their kryptonite is that if there is too much friction within one component, the whole system suffers.

To build momentum on the democracy flywheel, my first instinct was to invest in “get out the vote” efforts focused on young people. Inspired by Rock the Vote in the U.S. and Bite the Ballot in the U.K., I launched Raise your Voice in my native Sweden. But I soon realized that showing up in town squares or in people’s inboxes a few weeks before an election was not a substantive way to strengthen the democratic system.

This led me to make strategic investments in the two other components on the flywheel: improving the caliber of people we elect and strengthening the skillset of civil servants across governments.‍

If our goal is to establish a fair and robust economy and a society in which everyone has equal opportunity to flourish, effective and trusted governance is a fundamental requirement.

Building Better Politicians

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been inspired by youth movements around the world from Fridays for Future to Black Lives Matter.

These young leaders are incredibly optimistic. Eighty-three percent of young people today say they believe they have the power to change their country, yet few are going into politics. More should. Because securing trust in government and our institutions is an essential ingredient in a functioning democracy and in all of our efforts to create a sustainable world. What’s more, governments directly control finances equivalent to 40% of gross domestic product and give marching orders to the world’s largest workforce of 200 million public sector workers. Good government is key to achieving positive social and economic outcomes at scale.

Apolitical Foundation is building an on-ramp to help passionate and visionary community organizers and civil society activists transition from agitators outside the system to leaders within the systems they want to change.

Our keystone project, Apolitical Academy Global, is a global network of political training academies founded to equip a wave of young people with the skills, priorities, and vision they need to run for office and be successful in that office, regardless of political affiliation or where they sit on the political spectrum. We believe that as these young people achieve a critical mass within government, they will gain the confidence and authority to lead and reinvigorate our democratic institutions.

The academies are nonpartisan, but values-driven. Participants must have demonstrated interest in ethics, transparency, diversity, and evidence-based policymaking; a history of public service; and a commitment to improving and serving their community through active participation in government.

We see our graduates as shifting the center of gravity in the political system to skew more youthful, more optimistic, and trustworthy — and as they better reflect society, they reinvigorate democratic systems, and strengthen the foundation of free societies.

Strengthening Public Servants

I’ve also invested in Apolitical, a for-profit certified B Corporation. It is as a global learning platform used by more than 160,000 public servants in 170 countries from Argentina to Zambia. The platform helps equip public servants with the skills, knowledge, and community they need to solve our biggest challenges through online learning and workshops and a Quora-like Q&A function. With articles such as “Smash the bureaucracy” and “How to break down barriers to local government innovation,” the resources provide actionable insights for civil servants interested in achieving impact.

The platform was developed to address a simple challenge: People working in governments around the world are tackling similar problems, but there are few mechanisms for sharing their learnings. As a result, best practices often remain confined to a country, city, or sometimes even a department. This leads to duplication of effort, wasted taxpayer money, and poorer services.

Democracy Is an Act

U.S. Congressman John Lewis said shortly before his death in 2020, “Democracy is not a state; it is an act, and each generation must do its part …”

With democracy under threat, it is the obligation of everyone who has benefited from free and democratic societies to join this act.

Traditionally, philanthropists have been reluctant to engage in political systems. However, regardless of whether your philanthropic endeavors or impact investing focuses on sustainability, poverty alleviation, or social justice, they will fall short if governments are illegitimate and untrustworthy. Building better politics is existential to all of us.

In a democracy, there are no bystanders. If it needs changing, we need to change it.