Challenges for our democracy - The Purpose of this guide

No state, particularly no democratic one, can exist without its citizens, who are connected to the state and to each other by a series of bonds. This relationship has been discussed by socio-political thinkers from Plato through Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke or Ferdinand Tonnies (see: Durkheim 1977).

They pointed out that the functioning of both the institutions of the state and citizenship is based on the existence of a network of rules, contracts, rights and obligations that are concluded between individuals. In modern democratic societies, in order to build and maintain respect for these rules, there is a need for an embedded conviction in individuals that such a relationship with the group based on its institutions is necessary. Such a conviction must not only be formed in the process of socialisation and the education that is a part of it, but it must also be maintained afterwards. The process of its building is very delicate and especially exposed to external turbulences of social, political or economic nature. The sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf believed that liberal democracy would only survive in the long term if it rested on two things: the rule of law and a well-functioning civil society with its associated attitudes, virtues, and institutions. He also observed that creating social conditions that will allow democracy to function in a way that is not subject to external or internal turmoil in the post-communist societies in Central-Eastern Europe may take up to 60 years (see:. Dahrendorf 2004a; idem 2004b). The events of recent years have shown that the fragility of the democratic system also affects societies where it may have seemed more established.

Since the beginning of the millennium, democracy has been confronted with extraordinary challenges. The number of democratic states has been declining since 2005, and even within established democracies, their quality is declining (Freedom House 2019). Many countries face anti-democratic, authoritarian tendencies (e.g. see: International IDEA 2010; V-Dem Institute 2021). The threat comes both from ruling parties that suspend basic democratic principles in order to stay in power and from extremist groups that agitate against state institutions. Rising socio-economic inequality and acute crises like the pandemic are also fuelling polarisation, which is being pushed by authoritarian populists and extremists. Polarisation is already considered to be a defining feature of the early 21st century by some researchers (Merkel 2021). All of these trends undermine the functioning of democratic societies, eroding individuals' faith in the functioning of shared principles and values and diverting individuals' interest towards undemocratic ideas and opinion leaders who point to simple solutions to complex problems.

In this handbook, we focus on competences for democracy and thus on how to prevent and avoid anti-democratic phenomena like authoritarianism, violent radicalisation, extremism, hate speech or conspiracy theories. Without going into the details of the very differentiated academic debates about these phenomena, it is necessary to briefly define them.

Authoritarianism is based on the principle of “blind submission to authority and opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people [...] It stands in fundamental contrast to democracy” (Britannica 2017, “Authoritarianism”).  

Radicalisation is a very complex phenomenon and not every form of it is dangerous or anti-democratic. For many centuries, democratic movements were classified as radical by authoritarians. Today, radical democratic thought is not a danger but an opportunity for improving the quality of democracy. As dangerous, we consider violent radicalisation as “a process of social, psychological, and ideological changes leading to extremism and potentially violent extremism.” (EUCPN 2019, 1) 

Extremism is defined as “an ideological position characterised by a polarised world-view, a distrust in state institutions and democratic decision-making processes, and the legitimation of the use of violence.” (EUCPN 2019, 1). Added to this is the refusal of dialogue, the desire to dominate and erase other opinions. Political opponents are seen as adversaries and antagonists. The last stage would then be violent extremism, which is “the position of an individual who actually has committed one or more acts of violence out of extremist considerations. It is used here as an equivalent to terrorism.” (EUCPN 2019, 1)

Hate speech is defined as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.” (UN 2020) 

Finally, conspiracy theories are attempts to explain events or developments as “the result of actions of a small powerful group” (Reid 2021). Very often these explanations are linked to anti-semitism. 

In view of these phenomena, the resilience of democracies and, especially, of their citizens is crucial. But for democracy to sustain itself, we must start by understanding what it really is. Without going deeper into the theoretical debates, it should be pointed out that we mean, on the one hand, the institutional structures and decision-making processes of representative democracies, which include free and equal elections, separation of powers, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, etc. In our view, however, democracy is more than that. We understand it as a political order in which the freedom of the individual, the right to co-determination and solidarity between equals are central values, not only on the political level in the narrow sense, but in all areas of life. This also centrally includes the right to dissent and rebellion against authoritarianism (Pausch 2019), be it towards state authoritarianism or authoritarianism in everyday life, workplaces, schools or wherever. After John Dewey, then, we understand democracy as a way of life that must be experienced and learned in everyday life (Dewey 2008). 

In order to make citizens in democracies resilient to authoritarian tendencies, several things are important. On the one hand, they must have equal opportunities for a good future and the experience of democracy in everyday life. This is a major political task that goes far beyond this project and handbook. Democracy is not about bringing in compliant subordinates, but critical, mature citizens. Being able to resist conformity pressures is one of the central prerequisites for combating authoritarianism. Thus, such citizens must be strengthened in their democratic competences. 

This handbook was written in the context of the project “Resilience Through Education for Democratic Citizenship” (REDE; hereinafter referred to as "the project") funded by the Council of Europe and the European Commission under the DISCO Call (Democratic and Inclusive School Culture in Operation). The groundwork for this activity has already been laid by the institutions of the Council of Europe and the EU that are aware of the dangers and, therefore, promote projects to strengthen democracy. The idea of the REDE project  stems from the considerations outlined above and the conviction that citizenship education is an important building block for resilient democracies against phenomena like authoritarianism, extremism, hate speech, etc. However, since there are already many diverse initiatives and activities in the school sector, we focus here on education for democratic culture in youth work outside the formal education system. This handbook, thus, aims to support youth and social workers in strengthening their own democratic competences as well as those of the young people they work with. It is, therefore, primarily relevant for the target group of social and youth workers, but is also intended to inspire and support other professional groups such as teachers, policy makers or researchers in the field. 

In the course of the REDE project, methods for strengthening skills for democratic culture were collected, discussed and further developed over a period of one and a half years. In addition to general citizenship and human rights education, the focus lies on strengthening resilience against violent radicalisation and extremism. It is important to underline here that the methods presented aim at early prevention and are not directed at those who are already in an advanced radicalisation process. They are, therefore, relevant for all social groups, although primarily for young people. 

The methods were analysed for their compliance with the different dimensions and indicators of the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC) that will be described in more detail here. Since the traditions and problems of the participating project countries (Austria, France and Poland) – despite all similarities – also show differences in detail, the first part describes the situation of social work and youth work as well as the RFCDC in Europe in somewhat more general terms before concrete educational methods are presented in chapter 2. In the following table, you will find a list of methods described later in detail.

List of methods presented in this handbook



Objectives; target groups

Methods to enhance general political awareness for an open society

Political awareness raising / understanding of the political self

raising awareness among different target groups, mainly those who are less familiar with politics

Reflecting on the rebellious moment of democracy

raising awareness about their own political socialisation and democracy experiences among professional groups and youth

Pillars of identity

reflection on one’s own identity; esp. youth

As many as possible

raising awareness on political decision making, participation; esp. youth

What is or isn’t political

raising awareness about politics and its impact; all target groups

Opinion barometer

reflection on opinions, awareness of polarisation, conflicts; all target groups

Arbitrary vote

reflection on voting procedures; esp. youth

Methods for reflecting on democratic competencies with educators

Ranking competences of RFCDC

working with competences of the RFCDC; esp. social/youth workers

Reflecting on competences of educators or social/youth workers

reflection on competences and their importance; social/youth workers

Reflecting on the role of human rights in the framework of university classes on social work

reflection on human rights in social work; social/youth workers

Methods for strengthening resilience against anti-democratic phenomena

Working with stories 1: The Lonely Duckling

resilience against exclusion and discrimination based on identity; young children

Working with stories 2: Punch or Political Puppet Theatre

resilience against populism, authoritarianism; young children

Free associations and prejudice barometer

reflection on prejudice; youth workers and youth

Deconstruction of hate speech

reflection and deconstruction of hate speech, encouraging resilience among youth and all groups

Extremism barometer (What is extreme?)

critical understanding of extremism, encouraging resilience; youth workers, youth and all groups

The District of Legends

deconstruction of conspiracy theories; esp, youth workers, all groups

Conspiracy video with youth “Le complot nouillles” (The Noodle conspiracy)

deconstruction of conspiracy theories; esp, youth workers, all groups

Text message to victims of hate speech

resilience against hate speech and encouraging solidarity; esp, youth workers, all groups

Argumentation training and countering hate speech – role play

resilience against hate speech and training of counterspeech; esp, youth workers, all groups