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Essay: Between fragility and resistance – The need for democratic literacy

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This essay by student David Schäfer (MIA 2025) won 2nd place in the Hertie School 20 Years essay competition. Read more about the essay competition here

Views expressed by the author may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.

Between fragility and resistance – The need for democratic literacy

An essay by David Schäfer

“Democracy is not a fragile flower; still, it needs cultivating,” US President Ronald Reagan famously said during his address to the British Parliament in 1982 (Reagan, 1982). Over time, democracy has withstood the trials of history, adapting to global shifts and persevering in the face of challenges. Nonetheless, its resilience depends on the presence of informed and engaged citizens. In this symbiotic relationship, citizens enrich the vibrancy of democracy through active participation. In the absence of this fundamental connection, democracy would experience a significant shift, and future decision-makers could face a daunting reality: lacking the necessary groundwork for effective decision-making and the essential support needed for electoral and political success.

Today, the resilience of democracy seems more fragile than ever. On a global level, cautionary signals of a new authoritarian backlash were already issued years ago (Merkel 2010; Saxer 2009). As anticipation for the next global wave of democratization remains unmet, the core group of liberal democracies also appears to be facing increasing challenges. This prompts a pivotal question: has the indispensable act of cultivating the institution of democracy been overlooked?

Almost four decades after President Reagan’s speech, as Joe Biden prepared to take office, the world witnessed a failed uprising at the US Capitol. An armed mob mobilized by the outgoing president pushed forcefully to overturn the outcome of an election already decided at the ballots (DeBonis/Alemany, 2022). In the aftermath, recent polls reveal a disturbing reality: roughly one in five Americans believe that resorting to political violence is an acceptable way forward (Elliott, 2023). This troubling sentiment points to a broader democratic discontent within the world's oldest democracy, where abandoning the rule of law appears to a significant proportion of people to be a justifiable response. However, focusing solely on the American context would overlook similar dynamics around the globe.

Turning the clock back to 2018, a global survey revealed a dangerous trend: people express more dissatisfaction than satisfaction with the state of democracy in their respective countries (Kent, 2019). In essence, governments around the world are struggling to effectively address the needs of citizens, driving individuals to express their grievances on social media platforms. While some may argue that this is the climax of free speech, the reality of social media platforms resembles a jungle of proven facts and pundits but also misinformation and hate speech. Notably, the orchestrated upheaval at the US Capitol in 2021 has its roots in these very platforms (Frenkel, 2021).

Over time, the notion of media literacy has emerged as a response to the challenges posed by today’s information landscape. The basic concept can be compared to a driver’s license, equipping individuals with the essential skills to navigate the turbulent seas of information on media platforms. However, driving schools do not automatically make you a good driver. According to the German media expert Alexandra Borchardt, media literacy does not solve the problem on its own. In her view, while media literacy is crucial, it’s insufficient on its own. Borchardt advocates for a shift towards democratic literacy, arguing that a more educated understanding of democratic processes, institutions, and civic engagement is essential. In the face of evolving challenges, a comprehensive educational approach is needed to bolster individuals with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary for defending democratic principles (Borchardt, 2019).

Delving into this issue, it is worth looking at the United Kingdom. A November 2021 report on political literacy reveals that a substantial number of young individuals exit the educational system without a fundamental political education. This deficit goes beyond a lack of awareness of current affairs; it also includes the crucial ability to critically evaluate different perspectives.

At the same time, only a small number of teachers have felt they are in the position to teach political literacy (Weinberg, 2021). The consequences of this development are evident, as demonstrated by the fact that only 47% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the UK general election in 2019 (Fearn, 2022).

While focusing on mostly young people, the older generations may be forgotten. While older voters could potentially have a more pronounced political literacy, media literacy lags behind drastically. Research studies have found that older people are much more susceptible to fake news on social media than younger generations (Tett, 2019). However, most target children and teenagers when it comes to explaining digital media or algorithm choices while their grandparents seem to be forgotten. However, “in a democracy knowledge is power” (Jerit et. al, 2006: 266). Recognizing that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, future decision-makers must prioritize initiatives that instill fundamental political knowledge and civic understanding.

Upon closer examination of political education nuances, a notable aspect can be found in the German government’s latest budget proposal. The Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), a state-funded institution dedicated to promoting political and media literacy through education, faces a cut in funding of almost 20% (Zeit Online, 2023). This development takes place at a time when the membership of political parties in Germany continues to decline as it has for more than thirty years (Destatis, 2021). The decision is at odds with promoting an engaged and informed citizenry and cultivating the institution of democracy.

In this sense a misconception needs to be cleared up: democracy does not reproduce itself automatically, but it can contribute to its own demise. The indications are evident: a fundamental pillar of democracy, the delicate equilibrium between power and participation, faces notable challenges in numerous countries. In this respect, the interplay between media literacy and political or democratic literacy is crucial. If decision-makers do not pay attention to these issues, democracy as we know it will find itself in an increasingly difficult situation.

As a German citizen, having a retrospective examination of the turbulent times of the Weimar Republic, concerns about the state of democracy seem essential. This chapter of history serves as a reminder of the perilous path democracy can take when abused and neglected. It underscores the vulnerability that can lead to its downfall. Undoubtedly, the global landscape has changed significantly since then, and so have the threats to democratic systems. But the inherent ability of democracies to undermine themselves remains.

So, what will future policymakers do differently? Hopefully cultivate the fragile flower of democracy. Amid the prevailing notion that democracies worldwide are undergoing a stress test, today’s response by decision-makers appears to lack clarity. Therefore, new seeds should be sown. This can only be achieved through an intensified education commitment that leaves no one behind, whether young, old, poor, or rich. This offensive must aim to significantly increase media and political literacy.

In a perfect world two decades from now, the future generation understands the urgency of adapting institutional frameworks to the realities of the digital age better. In this sense, they advocate for policies combating the spread of misinformation and reinforcing the foundations of informed civic participation. At the same time, decision-makers should take advantage of social media platforms to foster democratic education. Considering the German Agency for Civic Education: despite its financial constraints, why hasn’t it embraced platforms like TikTok yet to increase its reach?


The responsibility to renew an entire mindset rests on the shoulders of the upcoming generation. A considerable portion of Western generations has experienced nothing but life within a liberal democracy, and as they ascend to decision-maker roles, it becomes their duty not to consider the form of governance as a given. Instead, they must comprehend the imperative of consistently upholding the institutional foundations that underpin these democracies. This, however, is subject to a nuanced education on these matters.

In this light, it becomes imperative for decision-makers to grasp the relationship between an informed citizenry, the resilience of democratic institutions, and, most importantly, the functionality of a democratic government. After all, in a democracy it is ultimately the voters who decide who they think is best suited to lead the country. In view of the pressing global challenges, we cannot afford to take this responsibility lightly.

Ronald Reagan, in his address at Westminster, further noted: “If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy” (Reagan, 1982). These words serve as a timeless directive, urging future policymakers to develop a deeper awareness of the fragility and to ensure that the undercarriage of our democracy is intact so that we can venture into the uncertain future.



Borchardt, Alexandra (2019): Only Democratic Literacy Can Save Democracy, Project Syndicate, published: 28 November    2019,  available at: https://www.project- borchardt-2019-11


DeBonis, Mike, Alemany, Jacqueline (2022): Trump sought lead armed mob to Capitol on Jan. 6, aide says, The Washington  Post,  published:  28 June 2022, available at: mob-capitol-jan-6-aide-says/


Destatis (2021): Datenreport 2021 – 11 Politische und gesellschaftliche Partizipation, Statistisches Bundesamt, 10 March                   2021, available at: 2021-kap-11.pdf?blob=publicationFile


Elliott, Philip (2023): Startling New Poll Finds Political Violence Gaining a Mainstream Foothold, Time, published: 25 October 2023, available at:


Fearn, Hannah (2022): ‘We are weakening democracy’: fears over lack of lessons in how government works, The Guardian,    published:   22    January   2022,    available at: over-lack-of-lessons-in-how-government-works


Frenkel, Sheera (2021): The storming of Capitol Hill was organized on social media, The New York Times, published: 6 January 2021, available at:


Jerit, Jennifer, Barabas, Jason, Bolsen, Toby (2006): Citizens, Knowledge, and the Information Environment, American Journal of Political Science, 50(2), published: April 2006, available at:


Kent, David (2019): The countries where people are most dissatisfied with how democracy is working, Pew Research                Center, published: 31 May 2019, available at: dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/


Merkel, Wolfgang (2010): Das Ende der Euphorie, Internationale Politik 3, published: May/June 2010, available at:


Reagan, Ronald (1982): Text Of President Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Address, United States Department of State – Bureau of Public Affairs/ Office of Public Communication, published: June 1982, available at:


Saxer, Marc (2009): Neue Ansätze für die Demokratieförderung, FES Briefing Paper 16, published: November 2019, available at: 20091209.pdf


Weinberg, Dr. James (2021): The Missing Link, All Party Parliamentary Group On Political Literacy, published: November 2021, available at: content/uploads/2021/11/REPORT_souk2021_view_v8-1.pdf


Zeit Online (2023): Kritik an Kürzungsplänen für politische Bildung, Zeit Online, published: 5 August 2023, available at: ampel-bpb-kuerzungen-politische-bildung

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