Since the mid-2000s, democracy has regressed in nearly every part of the world. The global monitoring organization Freedom House has recorded declines in global freedom for 12 years in a row. In Thailand, Bangladesh and Turkey, democracies have all but collapsed. Countries where democracy seemed to be making gains in the early 2010s, like Myanmar and Cambodia, have slid backwards, with Cambodia reverting to one-party rule. Some states where democracy was believed to be well-rooted, such as Poland and the Philippines, have regressed under populists with authoritarian tendencies. Their democracies have not fully collapsed but are in grave danger, as leaders pack courts, jettison judges and threaten the states where autocratic-leaning populists are dismantling democratic foundations, democracy may be even harder to rebuild than in places in the past where old-school strongmen have simply crushed it. In part, this is because this new generation of elected populists, unlike junta leaders or other traditional autocrats, often continue to enjoy a degree of popular legitimacy, even if they eventually lose an election. Their corrosive impact on democratic institutions and norms can persist for years after they finally leave power. 

But all hope is not lost. The road back to free societies and open political systems is certainly arduous. There are, however, some ways that citizens in declining democracies can help preserve their political institutions, keep hopes of democracy alive, and possibly help their political systems rebound in the future.For one, just because populists are elected doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy will completely collapse.At other times, populist strongmen do much more damage. In those cases, it is imperative that the political opposition and civil society not embrace strategies that make it even harder to claw back democratic institutions and culture. By embracing coups or de facto coups—like those that ousted elected populists in Thailand and the Philippines, and threatened populists in Turkey and Venezuela—populism’s opponents do more harm than good. They empower actors like the military to play a bigger role in politics and further trample democracy.There are other steps citizens in democracies under threat can take to limit the damage while a populist is in power.

They can build up local support, making cities and other regions bulwarks against potentially autocratic presidents or prime ministers. Using city and state laws to empower local judges and challenge national-level laws can help restrain an overly powerful executive.Such cities and regions also act as models of how the opposition can govern and training grounds for future leaders. In countries suffering democratic deterioration, support for free media, which is critical to exposing malfeasance, especially corruption, is also essential, even from abroad.