ACTIVATING KEY PILLARS: Combatting Authoritarianism to Uphold Democracy in the United States

The Horizons Project has been convening various conversations with network leaders to reflect together on how key institutional pillars, notably business, faith, and media, can incentivize pro-democratic behavior and discourage authoritarian behavior at the state and federal levels in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections.


Multiple nonpartisan democracy watchdog organizations and experts have raised the alarm about the crisis of democracy in the US. Freedom House issued an unprecedented special report focused on the US last year, while the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified US democracy as “backsliding” for the first time. With the landmark Supreme Court Shelby v. Holder ruling, which overturned key components of the Voting Rights Act, the US began to see a marked decline in democracy as several state and local jurisdictions began to roll back voter protections. The anti-democratic tactics pursued during the Trump presidency, punctuated by the Jan 6th insurrection and attempted coup, rapidly accelerated democratic deterioration.

Authoritarianism has a long streak in US history. Whereas the anti-democratic faction once resided in the Democratic party, which consolidated single-party authoritarian rule after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the creation of Jim Crow, today, the locus of authoritarian power has shifted. To cite Sarah Longwell, the CEO of the Republican Accountability Project, it resides squarely within the GOP. The unwillingness of most prominent moderate conservative leaders to distance themselves from this faction and its figurehead, Donald Trump, and their use of various media channels to spread the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, is setting the stage for a constitutional crisis and has heightened the risk of political violence in the years ahead.

The well-documented attempts by state legislatures to restrict voting rights and strip powers away from independent election administrators, combined with a grassroots effort to replace nonpartisan election officials with Big Lie proponents, is paving the way to potential election subversion in 2024. Christian Evangelical leader Reverend Jim Wallis has called voting rights “the moral cause of the American present.” Beyond elections, the erosion of democratic norms and attacks on fundamental democratic institutions and those who have pledged to uphold them and our Constitution, combined with the tolerance of political violence and racially-motivated violence, pose significant threats to the future of US democracy.

While the Left is certainly not blameless (and there are robust discussions happening in progressive circles about the limits of call-out culture and rigid “othering”), an emphasis on “both sides” and “whataboutism” is deflecting attention away from the urgent task at hand: the need to put country over party and work together to counter this authoritarian threat to our democracy.

We are hardly helpless in the face of these challenges. As we’ve been discussing with Horizons’ Project partners, building a broad-based democracy coalition or movement is necessary to stem the tide of rising authoritarianism in the US. Robert Kagan has called for a “national unity coalition”; Christine Todd Whitman is advocating for a “common sense coalition”; Representative Adam Kinzinger is building a “country first” movement; Sarah Longwell has called for a pro-democracy coalition.

Whatever it is called, this unified front must cut across partisan, ideological, race, class, geographic, and other divisions, while incentivizing the active participation from key sectors of society. Just as authoritarianism is a system comprised of different pillars (governmental, media, cultural and educational institutions, private sector, etc.) that enable leaders to wield power and consolidate control, movements are also systems comprised of different pillars.

Scholars of nonviolent action define pillars of support as the “organizations and institutions that provide the moral, political, economic, social, and other forms of power needed by any government or other powerholder to effectively rule.” When those sources of power are restricted or withheld (businesses deny investments, media outlets refuse to run certain content, consumers boycott companies that back authoritarian leaders, professional groups stage walkouts, religious and cultural figures speak out against violence and anti-democratic practices, etc.) this makes it difficult for authoritarians to wield power.

The history of successful pro-democracy movements reveals that opening channels of communication and coordination between key pillars of society is a critical ingredient of their success. It is when unusual suspects and unlikely bedfellows start engaging in extra-institutional forms of nonviolent direct action that change happens. Similarly, expanding the repertoire of nonviolent actions (to include symbolic actions, petitions, marches, sit-ins, stay-aways, walk-outs, boycotts, strikes, and other acts of organized non-cooperation) are needed to expand participation and activate leverage within such a movement.

We look forward to continuing to expand these conversations with influential members of these pillars to engage with each other and activate within their own sectors to use the various levers at their disposal to counter authoritarian trends and build a democracy that works for all Americans.

Other Resources to Consult Include: