Recent polls have revealed that “threats to democracy” are a top priority for many of us living in the United States. On the one hand, this is good news. Acknowledging the dangerous path we are on will hopefully galvanize more people to get involved in our shared civic life. The bad news is that Americans have wildly divergent understandings of where the threats to democracy are coming from, who is responsible and the solutions needed.
Democracy has become a partisan issue, more and more politicized in today’s toxically polarized environment. While it is a foundational ideal and the system of government on which our country was supposedly based, the loud cries to “protect democracy” are increasingly divisive and seen as weaponized for political gain.
For example, Biden gave a prime-time “democracy in crisis” speech that has received critiques for being overly divisive. By squarely naming the “MAGA faction” as the biggest threat to democracy, the argument is that the president missed the opportunity to separate the specific anti-democratic behaviors of political leaders (and the systemic actors that support them) from the broad mix of everyday citizens who may have voted for former President Donald Trump. They may be left wondering where they fit in the democratic future Biden says he wants to build.
MAGA Republican politicians on the other hand have made very clear who does not belong in their vision of America by enflaming racial grievances and stoking fear of LGBTQ populations to dangerous effect.
As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15, how can we better establish a shared national project to uphold and reshape our democracy that rises above any one political party? How do we mobilize citizens as partisans for democracy? Inviting our fellow Americans to sit on the same side of the table — confronting together this shared problem of democratic decline — will require all of us to re-evaluate the ways we define our most pressing priorities; who and how we engage across differences; and, what we demand from our elected leaders and institutions. Below are seven considerations for how we may come together as partisans for democracy.
1. Look beyond electoral politics. As the mid-term elections are fast approaching, many Democrats are gripped with mobilizing and expanding their base, and some Republicans are organizing to ensure that “anti-democratic” candidates within their party are not voted into office. This is crucial work because elections do indeed have consequences; however, partisanship for democracy cannot mean that only liberals or progressives will win elections.
As scholars of democracy from around the world have long shown, a pluralistic, inclusive democracy requires more than one functioning political party. We need leaders on both sides of the aisle who are committed to accountability and decision-making processes that are fair and transparent, allowing for ideological diversity and debate. Democracy entails much more than elections or voting, even as those essential institutions are currently being attacked and dismantled in many states.
How we engage in our electoral politics right now with a long-term vision of a healthy democracy that allows for ideological diversity is just as important as the outcome of any one election. The Republican party must be reformed from the inside. So, the way that current MAGA supporters are called into that work is key. We need all Americans to see themselves in a shared future where our system of government works for all, and everyone is free to advocate for the issues and policies they care about most.
2. Define “anti-democratic” behavior beyond partisan identities. “Democracy” is seen as an amorphous concept for many Americans distinct from their daily realities — and yet, “saving democracy” is also being deployed as a rallying cry by each political party and their donors and media ecosystems. Our partisan identities increasingly supersede other identities, hardened by those actively stoking division and fear of our fellow Americans. If we feel truly threatened (both in perception or reality) by our political opponents, how can we co-create a pluralistic and inclusive future where all people thrive?
Partisans for democracy therefore must take extra care not to further entrench political identities, instead naming the specific anti-democratic behaviors and systems that have dangerous consequences for our nation. We can do this without blanket statements and toxic othering of whole groups of people.
For example, all the Republican lawyers, judges, staffers and long-time partisan operatives who decided to testify publicly before the House Jan. 6 committee, spoke to their personal experiences of when they felt democratic norms and laws were being crossed. In addition, many Democrats in Congress vehemently opposed the campaign arm of the DNCC for financing ads in support of more extremist Republicans in recent state primaries in order to run against less favorable opponents in the upcoming mid-terms.
3. Bridge the understanding of “anti-democratic” behavior to mobilize against it. The majority of Americans think of themselves as good people, or are dealing with trauma and the impact of isolation and lack of belonging. Bridging work is necessary to find that sense of belonging to each other again, with the goal of mobilizing to co-create the country we want for our future. There is an urgent need, therefore, to jointly define what we all consider anti-democratic behavior that we must then agree to apply across the board to all our leaders no matter their political affiliation, distinguishing democratic norm-breaking from policy solutions.
The words we use matter and can trigger political identities and backlash, and we often get stuck in a loop of what-aboutism and both-sideism in our quest to find “common ground.” However, partisanship for democracy calls us to find ways to have hard conversations that address real threats we jointly face: Political violence and intimidation have no place in a democracy and those spurring violence with their rhetoric should not hold political office. No one is above the rule of law, and we must hold our leaders accountable if laws are broken or changed to rig the system.
All citizens should have easy access to voting and have their votes counted. Citizens have a right to organize, to freedom of speech and to all other internationally recognized human rights. All of us should expect our government leaders to focus on solving real problems that respond to our urgent needs as a society, instead of distracting us with cultural wedge issues and stoking fear and grievance.
Amplification of the “big lie” narrative that the 2020 election was stolen and that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was necessary to defend democracy are a clear and present danger to the country. Being a partisan for democracy calls all of us to find ways to speak truth, to jointly take courageous stands; and yet, do so in ways that calls in the biggest number of our fellow Americans to join in this urgent endeavor.
4. Calling out toxic othering. Partisanship for democracy will require all of us to refrain from dehumanizing language, and we must actively call out our colleagues and political leaders who fuel toxic “othering” if we are going to rebuild our democracy. The MAGA faction within the Republican party has been successful in stoking fears with great message discipline, using labels for their political opponents like “communists,” “groomers,” “terrorists” or “Antifa.” The constant reinforcement within MAGA echo-chambers of the great replacement conspiracy theory furthers racial resentment. Democratic leaders have also engaged in toxic othering language and tactics, such as equating a vote for Trump with being a racist or homophobe.
5. Now is not the time for neutrality. There are too many overlapping existential crises facing humanity for our democratic system of government to fail us; and in fact, these crises should and could be a force for bringing us together. The United States has a long history of movements coming together to face hard challenges and we can do it again. To find common cause with our fellow Americans, however, does not require being “neutral” as we bridge across divides, when core values and injustices are at stake. Rather, we must stand united against those specific anti-democratic behaviors and unjust systems.
Calls for “bringing down the heat” in society does a disservice to the seriousness of the threats we face. It also misses an opportunity to use this moment of high societal conflict to propel us forward, which George Lakey describes as “good polarization.” Yet, our mobilizing tactics and organizing strategies must always center the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings if we want to achieve long-term societal healing.
6. Partisanship for democracy versus bipartisanship. Many pro-democracy efforts prioritize bringing representatives of the two political parties together to form bipartisan alliances to address specific reforms. The Our Common Purpose Report released by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences for example includes 31 recommendations that were carefully crafted with bipartisan input, many of which take a long-term view towards renewing a culture of citizenship and institutional responsiveness and accountability. All of this work is necessary and worthy of attention.
And yet, to maintain their bipartisan inclusivity, many of these coalitions often shy away from some of the most divisive and difficult issues, such as confronting the “big lie,” the outrageous independent state legislature theory, or engaging with racial truth, healing and transformation processes. In particular, we cannot achieve democratic renewal in the United States without addressing the historic and current nature of systemic racial injustice. Just because this has become such an effective wedge issue for many within the MAGA faction doesn’t mean that partisans for democracy shouldn’t be courageous and insist that we attach our national conversation about race to the conversation about democracy. This is an opportunity, as Heather McGhee has so eloquently written in “The Sum of Us,” to address the ways that systemic racism hurts everyone in the country.
7. A cross-ideological democracy movement is both necessary and possible. Many on the progressive left have treated “saving democracy” as a solely left-wing issue. Yet, there are many conservatives organizing pro-democracy efforts that need to be better linked to progressive democracy movements. Robert Kagan has called for a “national unity coalition,” Christine Todd Whitman is advocating for a “common sense coalition,” and Rep. Adam Kinzinger is building a “country first” movement. Multi-sector platforms are establishing concrete targets to measure progress, such as the Partnership for American Democracy. Additionally, there are many issue-area coalitions like Issue One, focused on protecting poll workers, and grassroots organizing platforms such as People’s Action (and many, many others.)
Whatever this broad democracy movement is called, a unified front must come together that cuts across partisan, ideological, race, class, geographic and other divisions. Many segments of society are feeling the immediate threats of our democratic decline in different ways; and, pro-democracy initiatives are coming to this work from various vantage points, focusing on either short-term or long-term priorities to bring about societal change.
All of the work is essential and potentially reinforcing, and yet coming (and staying) together as a front won’t be easy. Building the connective tissue between and amongst these different democracy efforts, centering the problem not so much on our polarization but our fragmentation will help in achieving a renewed and mobilized group of partisans for democracy.
This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.