How Democracy Can Deliver the Most Effective Use of Power: Four Elements Democracy Support Must Address

02.12.2021 | CIPE Insight | Andrew Wilson

A wave of brazen actions by authoritarian regimes and others is causing increased alarm and leading to new thinking about the modern use and abuse of power. A military coup is playing out in Myanmar, cutting off its citizens from most of the world. Pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong are being attacked and silenced in numerous ways. In Washington, a former president is accused of inciting violence against Congress before he left office. These troubling events raise new questions about the nature of power and how we view such dynamics in relation to democracy support and development. What is democracy, after all, but the people’s use of power?

How We View Power

Many people seem to view “power” as a dirty word. We often act as if it represents abuse and corruption. Power is certainly something one does not wish to be seen aspiring to, lest one be viewed as crass or ambitious. But democracy, in all its aspects, is about power. It is about how we govern and how we understand the roles of politics, media, society, and opportunity in our lives.

The organization I lead, the Center for International Private Enterprise, works around the globe to strengthen democracy through market-oriented reform. Most of these projects are in emerging economies and newer democracies. To deny that the work we do ultimately is about institutions and use of power is to do a disservice to those who share our values and beliefs about the positive impact liberal democracy has on our lives.

“What is democracy, after all, but the people’s use of power?”

Part of effective democracy support must be helping our friends around the world understand the nature of power in a democracy, how it is acquired, and how it should be used.  Some of these things we do well. Others we fail to address, I would argue, ultimately to the disservice of democracy.  I would propose that we can break power down into four elements or areas of opportunity that democracy support should address: empowerment, winning power, consolidating power, and using power.


Empowerment is creating the opportunity for individuals and groups to compete for power, especially those who are marginalized. This is probably the most difficult element, as it deals with establishing the institutions, skills, and values that make democracy happen.  It is not just about elections. Empowerment concepts should also encompass building a society that understands, nurtures, and sustains the freedoms of thought, assembly, expression, faith and what we accept to be basic human rights.

Democracy support has built a solid track record in this regard. We understand how to hold an election, strengthen political parties, build effective business associations and unions, train journalists and judges, and help civil society play its role in improving people’s lives and safeguarding democratic institutions. Importantly, empowerment also is about the institutions for the peaceful transfer of power when one’s time to govern ends, or one’s influence loses legitimacy.

Winning Power

Winning power is the ability to convince others to agree with your viewpoint and being recognized as having a leadership role.  While we place emphasis on the political aspects of winning power, we also must appreciate the social applications more thoroughly. At CIPE we look at power as the ability of the small business sector to organize and win influence through constructive and effective collective action.

This can have policy ends, but it is increasingly tied to establishing industry standards for ethical business and corporate citizenship.  Here the challenge has grown as authoritarians recognize their own political and social vulnerability and seek to limit the influence of civil society and political opposition.  We need to better understand the tools they are using, and how to better work with our colleagues to counter them.

Consolidating Power

Once individuals or groups have acquired power through the strength of their ideas and their willingness to lead, either politically or socially, power must be consolidated in order to continue governing or influencing.  Famed author and business coach Dale Carnegie would have called this “Winning Friends and Influencing People”, and here we draw our sharpest distinction between authoritarian states and democracy.  In a democracy, the consolidation of power rests on the ability of those selected to hold power (via election or social consent in the case of civil society) to understand the nature and limitations of the local institutions which they aspire to influence, be they cultural, social, political, or governmental.

“Part of effective democracy support must be helping our friends around the world understand the nature of power in a democracy, how it is acquired, and how it should be used.”

Democrats often must build coalitions, temper aspirations, and counter opposition.  The ability to consolidate power is the acid test of democracy and requires resilient institutions, social cohesion, and traditions of political tolerance.  It is here where democracies often succeed or fail, and where our democracy support toolbox is weakest.  The rise of authoritarian leadership and illiberal democracy often begin when democrats fail to consolidate their power. The ability to consolidate power is the acid test of democracy and requires resilient institutions, social cohesion, and traditions of political tolerance.

Using Power

The use of power in a democracy is difficult. The checks and balances of a well-governed democracy prevent abuse and encourage debate, but also limit the ability to take far reaching decisions and reforms easily.  In many societies accession to power is based on one’s personal ability to inspire and lead, rather than to think, serve, and do.  Two critical factors of using power derive from a) understanding how power flows within institutions and using that knowledge to make change happen, and b) having a clear set of goals with a strategy to both advance and implement them.

These final factors are where democracy support needs to focus its efforts, and where it most often fails.  When democracy fails to deliver, long term damage to its reputation ensues, and rebuilding public faith in its processes and institutions becomes harder.  This is not just about good governance, but effective citizenry as civil society must also deliver on its promise.

Power Continuum

Those of us committed to democracy support would be well-served to recognize that power and its exercise are a continuum and our contributions to democratic advancement need to be more holistic. We must ensure that the institutions with access to power are functional and responsive. But for democracy to succeed and deliver, we must also do a better job of working with democrats to understand and exercise power, including that which comes from institutions and rule of law, carefully once it is bestowed.