Democratic Sustainability: Learning and Unlearning

Larbi Sadiki

The dual processes of democratic learning and unlearning capture the quality of democratic sustainability in new democracies. 

March 21, 2023

In Tunisia, the Arab region, and beyond, the moment is ripe for investing capacities, resources, efforts, intellects, and cooperative energies into the study and promotion of democratic sustainability. Democratic sustainability relates to the ongoing adaptation of values, practices, ideas, and institutions amenable to the perpetuation of democratization. In other words, democratic sustainability is a window into the understanding and seeking to enhance the quality of open-ended processes of democratization. In this blog, I highlight two interrelated processes often overlooked in research and policy relating to democratizing settings: democratic learning and unlearning. Democratic knowledge, I argue, is a cornerstone of democratic sustainability and the pursuit of sustainable democracy.

A Region and World in Crisis

Democratic setbacks are not unique to Tunisia or any other Arab country. The entire globe is mired in a widespread ‘crisis of democracy.’ More specifically, the region is in the throes of a crisis of democratization. The popular uprisings of 2010-11 jump-started democratization processes: hallmark elections, new or reformed constitutions, and local governance experiments. Over a decade into revolution and counter-revolution, various degrees of regression for nascent democratizers dominate the political scene. Even where considerable institution-building gains took root as in Tunisia, long-neglected socio-economic marginalization, intense political polarization, and weak parties created a gulf between political classes and citizens. Reactionary populism easily found its footing in such turbulent settings.

Given this backdrop, the Tunisian and regional democratization crisis prompts serious conceptual, normative, and practical consideration. Demos’ mission to research and promote democratic sustainability is an urgent one. We aim to rejuvenate analysis of democratization’s many shortcomings in the region. At the same time, we wish to capitalize on the promise of burgeoning civic identities that have the benefit of a decade or more of experiences in public engagement, demanding rights, and building institutions.

Local Democratic Knowledge

It is true that fledgling democratic institutions appear to be crumbling in Tunisia and elsewhere. Still, civil society, media, political party, and unaffiliated activists continue to vouch for the promise and demands of democracy. Democratization cannot be said to be at a complete standstill. Hencee ,focal point of our approach at Demos is democratic learning. The skills, values, mind-sets, attitudes, and practices rooted in local Arab (postcolonial) political experiences are essential to examine when considering democratization and democratic sustainability. Cross-pollinated by encounters with Western force, ideas, and global structures, the repository and socio-cultural imaginary of Arab democratic knowledge is forged in struggles against (authoritarian) domination. Relatedly, democratic unlearning refers to thinking and practice that casts off predominant dispositions, attitudes, values, orientations, and behaviors inherent to authoritarianism.

These processes work in tandem with one another. Values of solidarity, inclusiveness, compromise, toleration, social justice, are learned. Local repositories of tradition and experience (makhzun) inflame and inform socio-cultural imaginaries (mikhyal) to comprise dynamic democratic knowledge. On the other hand, when not un-learned, values, practices, and affects relating to bias, hatred, mutual exclusion, may help set democratic reversals in motion. Political and civil society discourse in Tunisia, especially since July 25, 2021, indicates that such democratic unlearning is a striking problem. More unlearning is one key to renewal of democratization and hence its sustainability.

This people-centered, pedagogical take on democratic learning/un-learning is the missing link to understanding the non-linear pathways of Arab democratization. It also offers a lens for examining regressions. The knowledge frame also implies a level of optimism. While grim, given setbacks everywhere, the prospects for democracy in the region are not impossible. Individually and collectively , people can always learn and un-learn: from fellow citizens, regional neighbors, and cross-regional democratization veterans.  Thus, democratic learning and un-learning relate to ‘nurture,’ not ‘nature.’ No society is predestined for automatic civic-ness. Nor is any potential demos doomed to authoritarian acquiescence.

Going Local

At Demos, we stress the specificity of the Arab socio-economic, political, and cultural context.  Postcolonial, Arabo-Islamic, non-capitalist, underdeveloped countries like Tunisia are to be studied on their own terms. Policy design should follow suit. At the same time, we avoid any sort of Arab exceptionalism in considering democratic sustainability. The point is that Arab democratization, or its ‘backsliding,’ cannot be expected to follow a pre-cut mold. It was popular revolutions and uprisings, bottom-up demands for dignity, freedom, and social justice, that spurred democratization processes. Subsequent setbacks emanate to a great extent from counterrevolutionary forces and policies. Socio-economic marginalization, unequal regional development, (global) dependency, and chronic unemployment threaten sustainability in addition to the political exclusion and repression of authoritarianism.  

Democratic learning/un-learning is integral to understanding and promoting democratic sustainability. The knowledge lens adds an important dimension to both research and policy by shedding light on pedagogical processes bolstering or hindering democratic advancements. At Demos, we aim to build on the existing field of knowledge on democratization and the lived experiences of people in democratizing countries. Through our workshops, ‘salon’ deliberations, and publications, we will opening up a ‘workshop’ to explore the fruits and deficiencies of newfound ‘democratic knowledge.’ We hope to contribute scholarly and practical insights that feed into Tunisia’s and the Arab region’s ongoing quest for democratic sustainability.