The head and the heart

Images and stories of the literal defense of democracy in Europe should inspire us to act on its behalf at home.

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Sometimes – most times? – our heads and our hearts aren’t on the same page. That is, as rational beings we certainly have the capacity to understand facts and data, but absent an emotional entry point to illustrate them, we can fail to grasp why the data truly matter.
To illustrate this, let’s consider the Varieties of Democracies Institute’s new report. V-Dem, as it’s called, is an independent research foundation at the University of Gothenburg. It uses the most granular and elaborate measures possible to determine the state of democracy around the world. Each spring, V-Dem issues a report and an exhaustive “democracy dataset” on its findings.
This year, V-Dem reported that:
›› Of the 195 sovereign nations in the world, fewer than 20 percent – just 34 – are liberal democracies. In terms of global population, that’s a mere 13 percent of humanity.
›› Dictatorships are on the rise. Today, autocratic states harbor more than 70 percent of the world’s population. That figure is up from 49 percent just a decade ago.
›› An increasing list of countries are “autocratizing” – not fully authoritarian, but in the process of breaking down democratic norms and institutions.
›› All factors included, V-Dem ranks the United States 29th on its global democratic scale, which kinda hurts – until you realize we actually moved up four spots from last year’s ranking.
As the premier democracy-building organization in our state, we encourage you to view the report. If you’re daring, check out the full dataset, which is enough to choke a supercomputer. Not really. It’s exhaustive but in the best sense of the word.
That this report is released while one of the world’s aspiring democracies is literally under siege by its authoritarian neighbor is not lost on its authors. The image on the report’s cover is simple yet powerful:
With this image, the head and the heart align. The war in Ukraine is a harrowing, yet an inspiring reminder of how truly precious democracy is, especially at a time when autocracy is on the march almost everywhere. In America, we have the relative luxury of watching this conflict unfold from relative safety. But the stories of men, women, and children defending democracy on the Eastern European Plains should inspire us to act daily on its behalf here on the Great Plains.
The question often asked in the run-up to the invasion was: Why does this matter to me? Now we see why. As Ukrainians push back against Russian ground assaults, we too can reject ­­ideological attacks on our democratic norms right here at home. This means jealously protecting the core tenets of liberal democracy – things like free expression, fair elections, and independent media. It means focusing less on the daily outrages flashing across our screens. And it means reminding ourselves that living in a democracy, on balance, is better for us both as persons and as a people.
Freedoms aren’t divined, and they’re certainly not assured. They’re from generations of Americans imagining, establishing, and expanding our people-powered society. The threat of its erosion is never something to trivialize. Especially not while thousands are dying for it, and while other democracies are literally disappearing.
So today, let’s digest the data. And, let’s take in the images. Then, let’s resolve to defend democracy in our own way. And do it again tomorrow and the day after that. Some days that will require our heads; some days that will require our hearts. Most days, it’ll take both.

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