This article was first published on Just Security.
As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it is crucial to recognize the gravity of the threats still facing U.S. democracy, even after Donald Trump left the presidential stage. And it is more vital – and possible — than ever to mobilize a powerful movement in response.
That means, first and foremost, to find ways of talking about the threat that transcend partisan narratives, which limit the national conversation and shrink the collective imagination about how to respond together. Second, we Americans have to intensify community and national dialogue efforts with the aim of dismantling walls that prevent people from humanizing each other and recognizing that the fight for democracy is a shared struggle – and that confronting the legacy of slavery and white supremacy is an integral part of that struggle. Third, grassroots pressure must be sustained – including, when necessary, through organized non-cooperation and civil disobedience — to defend against attacks on fundamental democratic practices like free and fair elections. Americans have done it before and can do it again.
Starting with the declaration of independence from British rule, to the struggles to abolish slavery and win universal suffrage, to the Civil Rights movement, the people have flexed the muscle of democracy to expand meaningful participation and inclusion. In 2016, with Trump’s election, the United States confronted the prospect of losing its democracy altogether. Now, six months after the Jan. 6 insurrectionary attack on the Capitol, more than 100 democracy scholars have warned that U.S. democracy remains in grave danger. Citing state-level restrictions on voting rights and efforts to politicize election administration, they argue the foundations of American democracy are cracking, risking future violence and chaos, and they propose steps to prevent a downward spiral.
While Americans like to think that their democracy is exceptional, bolstered by a powerful Constitution and a set of institutional checks and balances that can serve as bulwarks against democratic breakdowns, the past few years, punctuated by the Jan. 6 attack, revealed how fragile it really is. This is the story playing out around the world, in places like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Venezuela, or Brazil. Those dramatic cases of backsliding did not occur as a result of a revolution or a military coup. Rather, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of “How Democracies Die,” remind us, “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”
The electoral road to democratic breakdown, these authors note, is often dangerously deceptive and imperceptible to most people. It happens when democratically elected leaders, supported by politicians and others outside of government, subvert democratic norms and gradually eviscerate the substance of democracy. They use “legal” means that are approved by legislatures and accepted in the courts, and their efforts are often portrayed as being necessary to combat corruption, or to reform electoral processes. With the veneer of legality, elected autocrats and their backers have weaponized democratic institutions and changed the rules of the game to ensure they remain in power.
This is, essentially, how democracy died in the American South during the post-Reconstruction period in the 1870s, when “reform” measures (like poll taxes and literacy tests) were imposed by post-Confederate state governments to disenfranchise Black Americans. The result was nearly a century of institutionalized white supremacy and single-party (Democratic party) rule, and a lingering and pernicious ignorance of the role white people played in ending reconstruction.
As much as we like to focus on the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump, it is important to recognize that his actions were supported by enablers within his administration, within Congress, and within civil society. It is equally important to recognize that it took a broad-based coalition, including progressive organizers, civil servants, Republican and Democratic state and local election officials, military leaders, religious groups, and the business community, to forestall this subversion of democracy.
Devastatingly Effective Disinformation
Still, the United States came alarmingly close to the brink, as the violent Jan. 6 attempt to overturn the result of the election made clear. The #StopTheSteal campaign is, by one account, “the most audacious disinformation campaign ever attempted against Americans by any actor, foreign or domestic.” It has been devastatingly effective. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans continue to believe that the election was stolen, and almost half of independents think the election was rigged or are unsure. These dynamics help explain why the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index 2021 found that “the country which saw the largest year-on-year worsening in their total score [is] the United States.”
Yale historian Timothy D. Snyder recently laid out a chilling scenario: that key U.S. states adopt voter suppression laws now and the Republican Party recaptures control of the U.S. House and Senate in the 2022 midterms. Then in the 2024 presidential election, even if a Democratic Party candidate wins the popular vote and the electoral college with a few states, several key states challenge the count and overturn the results. Snyder continues: “The House and Senate accept that altered count. The losing candidate becomes the president. We no longer have `democratically elected government.’ And people are angry.”
So, with such a plausible scenario looming, how can Americans once again rise to the challenge of upholding the country’s democracy, especially coming out of a pandemic that has devastated so many, particularly the poor and communities of color?
First, we need to find ways to talk about the situation that break out of the traditional script of Republicans vs. Democrats. Stories and narratives need to make clear that this is not a struggle between red and blue America; this is a struggle between an anti-democratic faction in the country and a movement for an inclusive, multiethnic democracy.
We need to reflect together on what democracy means for us in today’s age, and the values that underpin our conviction to both a system of government and to each other as citizens. Our new democracy narratives need to convey urgency, transcend partisan formulations, and invite the maximum number of people to join the movement. This was critically important during the 1930s, when a national conversation about democracy played a significant role in challenging the rise of fascism in the United States and globally. Artists, entertainers, scholars, journalists, unions, and others spearheaded television series, town halls, lectures, and other fora to debate and discuss various topics on democracy.
Social science research shows that people tend to consume stories that affirm their social identities and disengage from stories that challenge them. Individuals and groups hold certain values and narratives to be sacred, or non-negotiable, and will perceive attacks on those values (both real and perceived) to be attacks on their identities. The choices we make in communicating about democracy therefore can either further entrench opposing identities and non-negotiable sacred values or can open up discussions for further understanding and a commitment to joint action.
Pro-democracy narratives need to embrace nuance and accept that human beings are complex and capable of change. This will take organizers, analysts, communications experts, peacebuilders, and creatives being willing to cross ideological, demographic, and political divides. As Levitsky and Ziblatt noted, “Coalitions of the likeminded are important, but they are not enough to defend democracy. The most effective coalitions are those that bring together groups with dissimilar — even opposing — views on many issues. They are built not among friends but among adversaries.”
Important, research-backed progressive efforts are underway to develop democracy narratives, including the Race Class Narrative Action project. These initiatives must be complemented and expanded by efforts that intentionally engage conservatives and others from across the political and ideological spectrum. Our Common Purpose, a report drafted last year by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, offered a blueprint for reimagining 21st century American democracy. The new, trans-partisan Partnership for American Democracy could be one such platform for developing and disseminating inclusive democracy narratives. Embedding narrative competency for restorative movements and creating spaces for shared democracy narratives is one of the main lines of work of the Horizons Project (on which I’m advising).
Second and relatedly, there should be an expansion of national and community-level dialogue efforts to challenge the social media-amped toxic polarization that is eroding U.S. democracy. While debate, argument, and fact-finding have their place, there is also a need for nonjudgmental spaces where people can come together and listen to each other with openness and curiosity. This work is not for everyone, and meeting with people does not mean endorsing their views. The purpose of this work is not to find the middle ground between opposing sides, but to find common ground anchored in shared values and shared humanity.
There are hundreds of dialogue and bridge-building efforts taking place across the country, including those led by networks including the Listen First Project, the Bridge Alliance, and the TRUST Network. Organizations like Search for Common Ground, Urban Rural Action, Braver Angels, and Hand Across the Hills are experimenting with different dialogue models designed to bring people together across difference. Organizations like Over Zero are working with local communities to recognize and prevent cycles of identity-related violence.
However, not all initiatives to bring people together across divisions have had a positive impact, and some have been harmful. A growing body of research on intergroup contact has found that in some cases, increased contact with members of the other side actually increased prejudice, anxiety, and avoidance. In still other cases, interaction with the other side undermined the willingness of historically marginalized groups to challenge social injustice. The evidence suggests that dialogue efforts should ensure participants have equal status and share a common goal, and that the contact is endorsed by communal authorities. Bringing people together in ways that do not emphasize their partisan identities holds particular promise at a time when people are exhausted with politics.
One particular dialogue tool used to advance social change, deep canvassing, could play a helpful role in bolstering popular support for basic democratic norms, like free and fair elections. Deep canvassing focuses on non-judgmentally asking people about their views on particular issues and includes follow-up questions that emphasize personal stories and experiences – of both the voter and the canvasser. A growing body of research has documented the effectiveness of deep canvassing in generating increased support for LGBTQ+ non-discriminatory laws and more humane immigration policies.
Developing a democracy-oriented deep canvassing script could involve the active participation of thoughtful Americans from across the ideological and political spectrum. It’s powerful to imagine a diverse, inter-generational group of organizers and volunteers going door to door together to talk with fellow Americans about what it would take to build a truly inclusive, multi-ethnic democracy that works for all Americans.
While dialogue is a critical element of social change, so too is mobilization and direct action. From the mass refusal by the colonists to pay taxes to British overlords, to the creation of the underground railroad for ushering enslaved Black people to freedom, to the bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins aimed at defunding Jim Crow, to worker strikes demanding fair pay and safe working conditions, to sit-ins and “die-ins” to demand urgent action on climate change, people power has motored American democracy. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police were the largest and most persistent demonstrations in U.S. history – and they were overwhelmingly nonviolent.
Nonviolent direct action of all sorts is necessary to push back against racist, anti-democratic behavior and to shift power in favor of organizations and institutions that defend democracy. The very purpose of nonviolent direct action, as Dr. Martin Luther King wrote so eloquently in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, is to raise the urgency of issues, shift power, and to make meaningful dialogue and negotiation possible.
During the 2020 election, Americans organized “joy to the polls” campaigns filled with music and dance to encourage people to vote in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They organized rallies and vigils to demand that everyone’s vote be counted and to recognize election officials for doing their part to defend democracy. At critical moments, leaders from entertainment and business issued statements affirming the results of the election and calling for a peaceful transfer of power. After the Jan. 6 attack, military leaders reminded those in uniform that their oath was foremost to the Constitution – not to any particular political leader. The success of this peaceful pro-democracy movement was probably one of the most consequential victories in U.S. history.
Today, direct action will likely be necessary to prevent state-level attempts to restrict voting and to politicize the election administration and certification process, particularly given Senate Republicans’ vote against federal voting rights protection. Progressive groups like Indivisible are organizing grassroots actions and campaigns to defend voting rights. Moral leaders and grassroots organizers from For All, Faith for Black Lives, Until Freedom, and others are pledging to join or help organize nonviolent direct action this summer across the country to suspend the congressional filibuster, which has historically been a tool to defend segregation and block civil rights legislation.
The challenge and opportunity now is to find common cause with key groups, including within the business community, veterans’ groups, and faith-based groups (including Catholic and Christian Evangelical groups), who are committed to multi-ethnic democracy and are willing to take action to defend it. Historically, large, diverse movements that innovate tactically, maintain organizational resilience and nonviolent discipline in the face of violence and disinformation, and that prompt defections from key pillars have been most effective at advancing change in the United States and around the world. Maximizing and diversifying participation in a new movement for democracy is key, since it expands pressure points that will be critical in the lead-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections.
This is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment for U.S. democracy – and that will go a long way to setting the pace for democracy around the world. Now is the time for progressives, conservatives, and everyone in between to come together to defend the very basic foundations of America’s republican, constitutional system of democratic governance. The United States needs a national democracy narrative that liberates the populace from the red vs. blue stranglehold that is blocking a positive vision of freedom and democracy. It needs a vision that invites the maximum number of people into a shared movement for democracy. Americans must invest in dialogue spaces that embrace shared humanity and encourage multi-racial democratic solidarity. Direct action at all levels can raise the urgency of this moment and generate moral, political, and economic pressure to preserve the great American democratic experiment.