Purpose: The purpose of this document is to help US organizers, bridge-builders, and ordinary people understand the key attributes of authoritarian systems, how authoritarians wield power, and ways to counter it.
What is authoritarianism?
Authoritarianism is a constellation of traits in a political, economic, and/or social system, which often include:
- The concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people who act in ways that are not constitutionally accountable to the people they are meant to represent and serve.
- A concerted effort by a network of organizations and institutions (governmental, legal, educational, media, business, military police, religious and cultural institutions, etc.) to legitimize an oppressive system by providing it legal and political support, material resources (i.e. money, communication networks), and human resources (people, skills) to maintain control.
- A system that is willing to engage in a spectrum of undemocratic practice from corruption and sowing lies and conspiracy theories, to using fear and violence in order to manipulate, divide people, and maintain power.
- The misuse of the power of the state to advance the personal and/or partisan desires of the head of state or a ruling clique (e.g., persecuting political opponents, subverting honest elections).
- Often emerges “legally”, by democratically elected leaders who subvert democratic norms and institutions to stay in power.
- A slow and quiet advance over a period of years where small battles weaken the foundations of democracy, which can culminate in a period of rapid democratic losses and decline.
What is it not?
- A single individual or a few individuals, their character, or a presumed lack of morals.
- A partisan policy position that you may find disagreeable.
- A “red”, “blue”, “left”, or “right” phenomenon – any party or ideology is susceptible.
What are the core attributes of authoritarianism?
- Rejecting democratic rules of game.
- Denying the legitimacy of opponents.
- Tolerating or encouraging political violence.
- Curtailing the civil liberties of opponents.
- Breaking down social cohesion to divide and rule a society.
What are the top 10 elements of the authoritarian playbook?
- Divide and rule: Foment mistrust and fear in the population.
- Spread lies and conspiracies: Undermine the public’s belief in truth.
- Destroy checks and balances: Quietly use legal or pseudo-legal rationales to gut institutions, weaken opposition, and/or declare national emergencies to seize unconstitutional powers.
- Demonize opponents and independent media: Undermine the public’s trust in those actors and institutions that hold the state accountable.
- Undermine civil and political rights for the unaligned: Actively suppress free speech, the right to assembly and protest and the rights of women and minority groups.
- Blame minorities, immigrants, and “outsiders” for a country’s problems: Exploit national humiliation while promising to restore national glory.
- Reward loyalists and punish defectors: Make in-group members fearful to voice dissention.
- Encourage or condone violence to advance political goals: Dehumanize opposition and/or out-groups to justify violence against them.
- Organize mass rallies to keep supporters mobilized against made-up threats: Use fearmongering and hate speech to consolidate in-group identity and solidarity.
- Make people feel like they are powerless to change things: Solutions will only come from the top.
What can we do to push back against authoritarianism?
- Form large, diverse, cross-partisan and cross-ideological pro-democracy fronts or movements with a shared vision; strategy; and clear, concrete demands.
- Build the capacity of pro-democracy coalitions and movements to manage constructive tensions, center relationships, and prioritize larger collective goals.
- Train pro-democracy coalitions and movements in nonviolent discipline and violence de-escalation in the face of authoritarian violence.
- Invest in opportunities for inter- and intra-group dialogue connected to collective action to break down assumptions, develop empathy and understanding, and build trust at the grassroots by working together to combat authoritarian practices.
- Diversify the range of nonviolent tactics to include methods of concentration (protests, rallies, sit-ins), and methods of dispersion (walkouts, stay-aways, consumer boycott, labor strikes); not doing what authoritarians expect and want.
- Engage members of key organizational “pillars” like religious institutions, business groups, unions, professional associations, bureaucracies, media institutions, and security forces in pro-democracy mobilization.
- Provide pathways for individuals within key pillars that morally or materially support the authoritarian system to join the pro-democracy cause.
Practical Tips and Tools for Everyone:
- Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy
- Confronting Authoritarianism: A Community-Led Approach to Revitalizing Democracy
- Combatting Authoritarianism: The Skills and Infrastructure Needed to Organize Across Difference
- Democracy in a Box
Practical Tips and Tools for Media:
Practical Tips and Tools for Business:
Additional Key Resources:
- This is How Democracies Die
- Authoritarianism is Making a Comeback: Here’s a Time-Tested Way to Defeat It
- Renewing American Democracy: Navigating a Changing Nation
- Where Does American Democracy Go From Here?
- The Future of Nonviolent Resistance
- Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century
Sources: Hannah Arendt, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Erica Chenoweth, Larry Diamond, Rachel Kleinfield, Steven Levitsky, Ivan Marovic, Hardy Merriman, Kim Scheppelle, Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, Maria Stephan, and Daniel Ziblatt
For easy dissemination you can download this post as a .pdf here.