Editor’s note: This article is part of a series from leading experts with practical solutions to democratic backsliding, polarization, and political violence.
As the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Day this January, Americans also confronted the reality of the recently failed attempt to pass voting rights legislation and the ongoing dysfunction of the national-level political system. With this defeat, many political analysts, academics, and organizers feel a growing sense of existential dread that the country is at a tipping point of democratic decline, including an alarming pushback against the struggle for racial justice. International IDEA’s recent report on the Global State of Democracy classified the United States as a backsliding democracy for the first time in its history. Yet, many other Americans feel the threat to democracy is being overblown, taking comfort that “our institutions will protect us,” as they did when President Joe Biden was sworn in a year ago despite a violent uprising to prevent the certification of the election results.
Institutions are made up of people, however, who are influenced and held accountable by citizens and peers. In fact, there was significant organizing and coordination between different groups during the presidency of Donald Trump and around the 2020 election, when it had become clear that he posed a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy and was actively seeking to stay in power by whatever means necessary. That mobilization generated the largest voter turnout in U.S. history and an organized, cross-partisan campaign to ensure that all votes were counted, that voters decided the outcome, and that there was a democratic transition.
Today, a similar organizing effort is needed to confront a threat that has mutated and is in many ways more challenging than what Americans faced in 2020.
Yet even with the many painful commemorations of January 6th, polls show that democracy is not top of mind for most Americans. When asked to rank their five biggest priorities for national leaders, only 6 percent of those polled mentioned democracy – instead voicing concerns for their health, finances, and overall sense of security. Those who are inspired to organize to protect democracy, have radically different views of the problem, with a large swath of the country still believing “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. The country has become dangerously numb to all types of violence, but especially political violence, as many Americans report that violence would be justified to protect against the “evils” of their political adversaries.
Time to Face the Authoritarian Threat, and Organize Accordingly
With all these competing priorities and different perspectives of the seriousness of the threat, what is most needed in this moment are the skills and infrastructure capable of organizing across these many schisms to find common cause. This is in a sense, a peacebuilding approach to combatting authoritarianism: deploying savvy facilitation to convene groups and sectors to identify and act on shared goals; and, using a systems lens to determine the most strategic interventions to break down the burgeoning authoritarian ecosystem and build up the democratic bulwark in response. What would this look like in practice?
First, leaders of the many networks, coalitions, and communities that are already organizing around various social and political issues across the ideological spectrum should be brought together in cross-partisan settings with democracy experts to reflect on the true nature of the threat.
While Trump gets most of the attention because of his continual drumbeat about the “stolen election,” the slide towards authoritarianism does not unfold because of just one individual. Authoritarianism is a system comprised of different pillars of support, including governmental institutions (legislatures, courts), media outlets, religious organizations, businesses, security and paramilitary groups, financial backers, and cultural associations, etc. that provide authoritarians (and other powerholders) with the social, political, economic, coercive, and other means to stay in power.
A key feature of post-Cold War authoritarianism, as described by Ziblatt and Levitsky in “How Democracies Die,” is that democratic erosion happens subtly, gradually, and often “legally,” as democratically elected officials use legal and institutional means to subvert the very processes and institutions that brought them to power. This is happening at the state level, where GOP-controlled states have become laboratories of democratic backsliding. In Georgia, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature has given itself more control over the State Election Board and the ability to suspend county election officials.
But the larger and more diverse the movement is that comes together to counteract these forces, the more likely it is to succeed. In fact, research shows that the most successful democracy movements that have been able to stem the tide of authoritarianism in their countries have always included a coalition of Left and Center Right actors and networks.
The cross-partisan nature of mobilizing against authoritarianism, therefore, is crucial and yet particularly fraught given the levels of chronic, toxic polarization the country faces. There is an urgent need to support movement-building techniques that bring together unlikely bedfellows and allow for a diversity of different approaches to achieve a shared goal of upholding democracy.
Breaking Down Siloes and Embracing Tensions
Authoritarianism, like any oppressive system, thrives on divisions and disorientation. It is fueled by a rhetoric of us versus them and fortified by the creation of walls between people who might otherwise align and organize. One response to this phenomena in the United States has been the explosion of depolarization initiatives, operating under a theory of change that citizens need to listen to each other more, communicate across difference, and “bring down the temperature” so people can have civil debate and come together “across the aisle.” These are important efforts; and yet are often in direct tension with social and racial justice groups that are focused on addressing past and present harms targeting minority and other vulnerable groups and shifting power dynamics. Still other coalitions have formed as bipartisan platforms for strengthening democratic institutions, tackling election reform, gerrymandering, and advocating for needed legislation. These many efforts in the United States are unfolding in their siloes, and are approaching polarization, justice, and democracy from their different vantage points.
Polarization, in fact, may be a good thing. Sociologist George Lakey likens polarization to a blacksmith’s forge that heats up society, making it malleable to change. In some highly polarized contexts, like Germany and Italy during the 1930s, extreme polarization led to Nazism and fascism, and allowed for violent dehumanization and toxic othering. There were pockets of resistance in both places, but no broad-based coalitions materialized that could have provided a bulwark to extremism. A contrast is the United States in the highly polarized contexts of the 1930s and the 1960s, when polarization paved the way to the New Deal and a massive expansion of civil rights. Of course, polarization also paved the way to the Civil War in the 1860s, but that only illustrates that polarization is neutral – what matters to the outcome is how people organize, and the strategies and tactics they use to wield power together to channel the forces driving change.
Likewise, the existence of tensions within and between groups is not necessarily a bad thing – healthy tensions can lead to innovation and expanded opportunities. They can help balance the need to project urgency with the imperative of building relationships. Bill Moyer and George Lakey describe four main types of movement actors – radicals, reformers, organizers, and service providers. It is common for there to be tensions between radicals and reformers, between those working on the inside and those on the outside, and between those who focus more on dialogue and more on direct action. The challenge is how to navigate these tensions.
Part of the answer is to identify and support systems-level organizers who have access to and credibility with both radicals and reformers, and who can help establish lines of communication, build relationships, and identify common cause. Building broad-based movements takes organizers and facilitators capable of convening network leaders, helping groups understand the complementarity of approaches, and supporting learning across spaces. Breaking down these siloes and building connective tissue is what it will take to puncture the “divide and conquer” strategy of the authoritarian playbook.
Sustained Cross-Cause, Multi-Sectoral Movement Building as Antidote
There was a recognized threat to democracy before, during, and after the 2020 election, and the recognition was shared by many diverse groups who came together to organize at that time. Now that the threat has morphed and dispersed, the ability to sustain a cross-cause, multi-sectoral movement is a little more difficult, but no less urgent. There are notably few spaces where conservatives are being brought into strategic conversation with progressive and left-leaning groups (and vice versa) about how to respond to current threats to democracy, and even fewer that bring grassroots and national groups into the same conversation. Key networks like the Partnership for American Democracy, the TRUST Network, and the Bridge Alliance could facilitate such strategic planning and coordination.
Convening leaders from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity with more progressive social justice networks and democracy groups, like Indivisible, could yield unexpected results. Base organizers like the Industrial Areas Foundation, People’s Action, and Faith in Action have the infrastructure and relationships to be able to reach core constituencies on democracy issues, particularly locally. The Race Class Narrative is an empirically-backed messaging and organizing framework for mobilizing the progressive base, persuading the conflicted, and challenging opponents’ worldview by fusing economic prosperity for all directly to racial justice.
Although building coalitions across groups is important, equally important is work within groups that can address toxic and anti-democratic behaviors, like acting on the belief that the 2020 election was stolen. After all, social psychology research highlights the fact that people are more likely to change their behaviors when they see other members of their in-groups change their behavior.
The private sector, religious communities and veterans’ organizations will all be key actors in this multi-sectoral democracy movement, requiring strategic outreach and relationship-building between actors who may not often collaborate on other issues. But reaching a shared understanding of the democratic threat as a higher-order shared goal will require concerted organizing. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, business coalitions such as the Civic Alliance came out strongly in support of voting rights and took actions to help their employees exercise the right to vote. Influential coalitions like the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers issued statements acknowledging the election results and calling for a peaceful transition of power. These same groups could use various levers to hold candidates, officials, and themselves accountable to basic democratic norms in the current context: all eligible voters should be able to vote, election administration and certification should be nonpartisan, and the outcome of elections should be determined by voters.
Religious groups are another key group that could be activated in defense of democracy, such as the important role played by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. Coordinated direct action between African American and white evangelicals would be a powerful driver of change in the future, and there is great potential in collaborations between groups like Faith for Black Lives, Interfaith Action, American Awakening, Matthew 5:9, Sojourners, and Catholic networks like the Ignatian Solidarity Network. Veterans groups are an especially important voice to speak out against the infiltration of extremists elements within the military and security sectors; several organizations such as the Black Veterans Project, the Black Veteran Empowerment Council, and the Veterans Organizing Institute provide needed vehicles for cross-ideological relationships and collaboration.
The key to successful movement building to protect American democracy in this moment will be to identify what leverage these different communities have to incentivize good behavior and disincentivize and (nonviolently) punish bad behavior. And success requires all these different groups – progressive and conservative alike – to be able to see themselves as a part of a larger ecosystem capable of collective action against authoritarianism. The power of civil resistance comes through organized non-cooperation – denying the authoritarian system the human and material resources it needs to wield power and undermine democracy. When a significant number of people within these key pillars coordinate and plan together to stop providing support – workers go on strike, consumers organize boycotts, students stage walkouts, businesses stop supporting political candidates and media outlets that spread dangerous conspiracies, bureaucrats ignore or disobey unconstitutional and unlawful orders, etc. – authoritarians lose their power.
Organized broad-based movements and non-cooperation were key to ending apartheid in South Africa, dismantling communist tyranny in Central and Eastern Europe, ending Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and dismantling Jim Crow. Americans can find inspiration in those moments in history and from other country contexts to remember that it is possible for citizens to organize for freedom, justice, equality, and democratic values – and to succeed.
There are challenges to achieving this kind of broad democracy movement in a country as large and diverse as the United States. The country is deeply divided. It has not adequately confronted the historical legacy of slavery and racial hierarchy. What is unhelpful is succumbing to a sense of fatalism, to believing that civil war or falling into the authoritarian abyss is inevitable — “the other big lie.” The most important peacebuilding approach and mindset required of all Americans right now is one of conviction, hope, and mutual respect, to know that change is possible when people find common purpose and take action together.