On September 21, 2021, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) hosted an all-star event to assess the current challenges to democracy and hear from those in the forefront of the struggle to protect and advance democratic rights and values. The Carl Gershman Democracy Symposium was convened in honor of NED’s founding President Carl Gershman, who retired in July 2021 after 37 years of service.
The symposium featured remarks from Gershman himself, and two panel discussions with frontline activists and leading thinkers in the democracy field.
Introducing Gershman, NED Chairman Kenneth Wollack, commented on how Carl himself is both a thinker and an activist: “Carl has the head of an intellectual and believes passionately in the power of the thoughts, words, and writings of the intellectual. At the same time, he has the heart of a political activist who brought his engagement with the grassroots civil rights movement here to the mission and work of the Endowment. Today’s symposium includes both disciplines.” [Watch additional tributes to Carl Gershman from the evening Carl Gershman Celebration of Service event on Capitol Hill.]
In his remarks, Gershman acknowledged that although democracy is facing challenges around the world, the Endowment as an institution is prepared to continue supporting activists even during tough times.
“The leadership in the struggle for democracy in my view will inevitably have to come from the people at the grassroots who are fighting for democratic rights and decent governance and to have their voices heard and their dignity respected,” said Gershman. “After almost four decades, the NED and its institutes have the experience, the staff, the capacity, the contacts, and now the funding as well to provide some of the support that these citizen movements will need to survive, to grow, and over time, to prevail. Our job will be to stay the course with the right combination of solidarity, skill, intellect, and humility.”
During the first panel, The Fight for a Democratic Future, NED President and CEO Damon Wilson spoke with activists Igor Blaževič, Rosa María Payá Acevedo, Nathan Law, and Zainab Bangura about their personal motivations to continue fighting for democracy and the need for international solidarity and support for those on the frontlines. [Read the activists’ full biographies here.]
“I can tell you it’s the most inspiring thing for an activist, knowing that there are people who support you morally as well as financially,” said Bangura. “NED has to be there for the people in the front line, to support them, to give them hope, to inspire them, to provide a moral guarantee that we’re here for you, we listen to you, we hear you, and we support you.”
Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama led the second panel, The Challenge of Democratic Renewal, featuring experts Anne Applebaum, Ambassador Reuben Brigety, Michele Dunne, and Larry Diamond. The experts discussed how autocracies are interconnected and the need to strengthen democratic governance so democracies can deliver on their promises.
“It’s important for democracy to deliver,” said Ambassador Brigety. “Democracy and governance are not inherently the same thing. We believe obviously that democracy is best in terms of delivering governance. But part of why you see this sort of retrenchment is not only because obviously there are individual governments or governmental leaders that don’t want to deal with the mess of democracy, but also, quite frankly, to the extent there is some popular support for autocratic regimes, it is based on the argument that they actually can deliver and it’s less messy than democracy.”
Wilson also announced the creation of the Gershman Fund for Democrats at Risk, which will expand the NED’s ability to support democracy advocates, especially those targeted by repressive governments for their democracy and human rights work.
“I think we all here at NED understand that we are stewards of a remarkable institution and a remarkable legacy, and we will work to make you proud, Carl,” said Wilson.