The scope of the challenges of democracy in the United States are vast. For a movement to protect and expand American democracy to succeed, it is crucial that that movement be broad and united, including people from across America’s diverse identities and from all points along the political spectrum. Participation and diversity are key advantages for movement success. Yet building such a united front comes with numerous challenges. Scholars of social movements have long recognized that coalition-building, particularly across major ideological or identity differences, can be near-impossible to achieve without favorable conditions and significant work. In particular, when groups come from different identities, or have different understandings of the core issues at stake, building a sustainable coalition is difficult.
So how can a broad-based pro-democracy movement be forged in this moment of democratic crisis? When have coalitions in the past and in other countries facing moments of democratic crisis been able to unite across differences? While many factors vary across cases, research points to two particularly key factors.
People Unite When They Share an Understanding of the Problem
One of the central challenges of forging a pro-democracy coalition comes with the gradual, step-by-step process of 21st century democratic backsliding. While democracy in the 20th century tended to collapse all at once with tanks in the streets, democracy in the 21st century tends to fall apart piecemeal, as opponents of democracy slowly whittle away at its foundations. This is a particular problem for forging a united pro-democracy front because research shows that groups and organizations are motivated to collaborate across partisan or ideological boundaries when they feel a shared sense of threat. The first crucial step in building a united front is thus to bring people into a shared understanding that the situation presents a crisis that can only be met through combining efforts.
Some researchers have found that to build this shared understanding frequently requires lengthy processes of what sociologists call “frame alignment,” where different interpretations of the situation are gradually, frequently through lengthy discussion, brought into congruence. For example, pro-democracy movements in Africa have focused on how protecting democracy also has implications for fighting corruption, an issue that appeals to many different social groups.
One of the most effective ways to promote this shared sense of urgency and threat is by focusing on an upcoming event that captures the processes of democratic backsliding and around which different groups can build a shared understanding. One of the most common of these events are elections. Their regularity and importance for shaping the political future both make them ideal factors around which to frame mobilization, particularly if a major change in democracy is on the ballot. For instance, across Africa, elections where an incumbent president was seeking to change constitutional rules and run for a third term have been the spark for major alliances uniting previously competing civil society and political opposition groups.
People Unite When They Share Social Ties
Even when many kinds of people and organizations feel a sense of threat, a united front is not inevitable. The people and organizations feeling that sense of threat also need to have social ties through which trusting relationships of cooperation can emerge. The denser and more sustained the connections between key nodes in the movement network are, the likelier the formation of a broad united front.
Because of this, bridge-builders play a critical role in building united fronts. While a situation of crisis can motivate previously competing organizations to work together, pre-existing social ties make that collaboration much more likely. Bridge-building activities build relationships of trust that can help overcome challenges to effective coalition formation, such as differing ideologies or backgrounds, or competition over resources and media attention.
United Fronts Face Challenges Later On
But creating a united front is only an initial step. Maintaining that united front requires significant organizational, rhetorical, and relational work. Without this work, these coalitions frequently fall apart, with disastrous consequences for long-term democracy. For instance, political and civic organizations in Ukraine were able to unite to fight election fraud in the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” but competition over political power and the personality of leadership figures led to this coalition collapsing and significant democratic backsliding.
Power imbalances between members of a united front are one particular challenge. Given that the process of uniting will require groups to compromise and come to agreement on their shared goals, groups that feel at a power disadvantage relative to others are likely to feel particularly vulnerable and be hesitant to give up their preferred policies and processes for the sake of the larger front. More powerful groups are in danger of dominating the agenda and driving others out.
Alliances between activists on the streets and more established social or political institutions come with particular difficulties. Activists invested in sparking change may have little patience for quiet, behind-the-scenes processes of dispute resolution. Political, business, or religious leaders may see protest or other confrontational tactics favored by activists as disruptive or harmful to resolving political challenges.
Bringing It All Together
So, how can the pro-democracy movement unite across difference, and stay united over the long-term? The research shows, first and foremost, that this will not be easy. But leaders in the movement can help forge a united front first through building a shared understanding and feeling of threat that requires collaboration across difference, and through building dense networks of social ties that can build trust and foster communication.
To stay united will require maintaining those relationships of trust through regular communication, recognition of power imbalances and differing perspectives, and willingness to compromise and adapt for the sake of maintaining the coalition.
*This article was written by former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.