Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Multiple Lanes to Multiracial Democracy

King understood that no single approach would be sufficient to combat the interconnected evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.

This article was written by Chief Organizer Maria J. Stephan and was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

On the heels of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on U.S. democracy and an eerily similar attack in Brazil, we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who helped lead the greatest pro-democracy movement in U.S. history, otherwise known as the civil rights movement. He understood that no single approach would be sufficient to combat the interconnected evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.

“Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer,” he wrote in “Stride Towards Freedom,” his book about the Montgomery bus boycott, one of the best organized and most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement.

King believed in the power of listening and dialogue to humanize, educate, persuade and build alliances across differences. At the same time, he understood that only by shifting power dynamics and raising the costs of violent extremism and institutional racism — through petitions, boycotts, walk-outs, sit-ins, strikes and countless other forms of protest and noncooperation — would harmful practices come to an end. Working for change within institutions like courts and legislatures required mobilizing pressure and changing incentives from outside those institutions.

Multiple approaches were necessary to educate people about the injustices of Jim Crow segregation, to raise the social, political and economic costs of maintaining the status quo, and to build the broad-based coalitions needed to change laws and policies. At the time, King’s embrace of boycotts, strikes and other forms of nonviolent direct action to challenge segregation policies in the South was criticized by white clergy and others, who insisted that he reject confrontational tactics in favor of dialogue. For King, both approaches were necessary. As he wrote in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

King’s strategic insights remain relevant today. Whereas Jim Crow was a single-party authoritarian system anchored in the Democratic Party and bolstered by churches, courts, media, the Ku Klux Klan and other institutions, today’s authoritarian ecosystem has evolved. Now the Republican Party has been captured by an extremist faction that embraces lies, conspiracies and violence — culminating in a violent attempt to overthrow the government. That party now holds the reins of power in 27 states (covering 53 percent of the population) and one body of Congress.

Meanwhile, Evangelical and Catholic churches and leaders have provided moral and material scaffolding for MAGA extremism; corporations and financiers have funded it; media outlets have amplified lies and conspiracies; and veterans’ groups infiltrated by white nationalists have filled the ranks of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and QAnon. Dismantling this interconnected web of support for authoritarianism in the U.S., in turn, requires a systemic response involving many diverse actors employing different strategies and approaches.

There is no time for despair. Today, like earlier, multiple approaches are needed to combat racism and white nationalism and to build a multiracial democracy grounded in love and justice. Those approaches include dialogue and direct action, inside and outside strategies, working within and across groups and movements to build alignment around the rejection of conspiracies, political violence and election subversion — and around a reimagining of U.S. democracy grounded in abundance, courage and universal flourishing.

Many organizations across the country are experimenting with different approaches to bringing various constituencies into a pro-democracy movement — not based on party identity but grounded in a shared willingness to build stronger communities free from violence and extremism. There are plenty of onramps to pro-democracy work if we are open enough to welcome in a broad cross-section of actors.

People’s Action, Showing Up for Racial Justice, United Vision for Idaho, the Rural Digital Youth Resiliency Project, and RuralOrganizing.org are pioneering ways to organize across race and class, particularly in rural areas. The One America MovementSojournersNETWORK, and the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and Faith for Black Lives are leading engagement strategies with Christian communities. The Secure Families Initiative and the Mission Continues are doing important work with veterans, while the Western States Center is conducting critical analysis and organizing to counter white supremacist violence. Leadership Now, Civic Alliance and local organizations like the Wisconsin Business Leaders for Democracy are galvanizing the business community around democratic norms and practices.

Alongside this important engagement work, other groups are turning to the courts and other forms of pressure to raise the costs of anti-democratic behaviors. Groups like Protect Democracy and the Brennan Center, for example, have helped prepare hundreds of legal cases to hold individuals responsible for spreading dangerous conspiracies and violence accountable in the courts.

Making political violence and anti-democratic behaviors backfire requires building the capacities to go on the offense with our movements, something this paper helpfully describes. Finding the levers of influence to make it more costly for politicians and other actors to engage in anti-democratic behaviors takes solid analyses of where their social, political, spiritual and financial support comes from. And, in turn, linking that analysis to campaigns that target those sources of power with tactics of pressure and engagement.

During the civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott and the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins were excellent examples of campaigns that linked economic analysis (of revenue streams for white-owned businesses upholding segregation) to campaigns that relied on tactics of non-cooperation. Both campaigns involved significant training and preparation, including (how to respond to anticipated violence and harassment) and building parallel institutions like Black-run car pools. (The Nashville segment of the documentary film “A Force More Powerful” highlights some of this preparation.) During the campaigns, intense negotiations were happening between civil rights leaders, politicians and business owners until shifting power dynamics made negotiated agreements possible.

During King’s time there was an acknowledgement of how difficult this work is and how much investment in relationships, skills-building and planning was required to dismantle a Jim Crow authoritarian system built on racism and violence. Important victories like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were the result of multi-faceted strategies that involved diverse actors doing many different things. The significance of intra-movement trainings to building the size and effectiveness of the civil rights movement, which were led by Rev. James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette and others, cannot be overstated.

Today, the challenges are no less significant or complex. While the Jan. 6 insurrection may have failed in the short term, and some election deniers may have been defeated during the midterms, U.S. democracy continues to face deep existential threats. Everyone has a role to play in stopping the slide into political violence and extremism, and in strengthening democratic culture and institutions.

There is a lane for everyone: Those skilled in educating the public about the risks we face (such as the creators of this new graphic novel about Jan. 6); those who are engaging courageous conservatives (like Country First and Millions of Conversations); those conducting important analyses (like the Bridging Divides Initiative and Political Research Associates); those experimenting with different forms of dialogue (like Urban Rural Action and the Village Square); those who are organizing within and between communities and movements (like the Poor People’s Campaign, the Women’s March, the Social & Economic Justice Leaders Project and the 22nd Century Initiative); those who are leading trainings in organizing, nonviolence and conflict resolution (like Training for Change350.orgBeautiful Trouble, the International Center on Nonviolent ConflictPace e BeneEast Point Peace Academy and Nonviolent Peaceforce); and groups that are leading local and national experiments in racial justice and healing as part of the national Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement.

Strengthening our collective muscle to both resist the interconnected injustices that King described and to build a democracy grounded in love and justice requires being able to “see” one another, with our different skills, relationships and levers, as core elements of a shared pro-democracy ecosystem — in the U.S. and globally. That takes recognizing that resurgent authoritarianism, misogyny and white nationalism have deep transnational roots and can only be transformed through global solidarity. May we continue to embrace King’s powerful advice that we pursue multiple, connected lanes in order to achieve racial justice and multiracial democracy.

Combatting Authoritarianism: The Skills and Infrastructure Needed to Organize Across Difference

As the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Day this January, Americans also confronted the reality of the recently failed attempt to pass voting rights legislation and the ongoing dysfunction of the national-level political system. With this defeat, many political analysts, academics, and organizers feel a growing sense of existential dread that the country is at a tipping point of democratic decline, including an alarming pushback against the struggle for racial justice. International IDEA’s recent report on the Global State of Democracy classified the United States as a backsliding democracy for the first time in its history. Yet, many other Americans feel the threat to democracy is being overblown, taking comfort that “our institutions will protect us,” as they did when President Joe Biden was sworn in a year ago despite a violent uprising to prevent the certification of the election results.

Institutions are made up of people, however, who are influenced and held accountable by citizens and peers. In fact, there was significant organizing and coordination between different groups during the presidency of Donald Trump and around the 2020 election, when it had become clear that he posed a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy and was actively seeking to stay in power by whatever means necessary. That mobilization generated the largest voter turnout in U.S. history and an organized, cross-partisan campaign to ensure that all votes were counted, that voters decided the outcome, and that there was a democratic transition.

Today, a similar organizing effort is needed to confront a threat that has mutated and is in many ways more challenging than what Americans faced in 2020.

Yet even with the many painful commemorations of January 6thpolls show that democracy is not top of mind for most Americans. When asked to rank their five biggest priorities for national leaders, only 6 percent of those polled mentioned democracy – instead voicing concerns for their health, finances, and overall sense of security. Those who are inspired to organize to protect democracy, have radically different views of the problem, with a large swath of the country still believing “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. The country has become dangerously numb to all types of violence, but especially political violence, as many Americans report that violence would be justified to protect against the “evils” of their political adversaries.

Time to Face the Authoritarian Threat, and Organize Accordingly 

With all these competing priorities and different perspectives of the seriousness of the threat, what is most needed in this moment are the skills and infrastructure capable of organizing across these many schisms to find common cause. This is in a sense, a peacebuilding approach to combatting authoritarianism: deploying savvy facilitation to convene groups and sectors to identify and act on shared goals; and, using a systems lens to determine the most strategic interventions to break down the burgeoning authoritarian ecosystem and build up the democratic bulwark in response. What would this look like in practice?

First, leaders of the many networks, coalitions, and communities that are already organizing around various social and political issues across the ideological spectrum should be brought together in cross-partisan settings with democracy experts to reflect on the true nature of the threat.

While Trump gets most of the attention because of his continual drumbeat about the “stolen election,” the slide towards authoritarianism does not unfold because of just one individual. Authoritarianism is a system comprised of different pillars of support, including governmental institutions (legislatures, courts), media outlets, religious organizations, businesses, security and paramilitary groups, financial backers, and cultural associations, etc. that provide authoritarians (and other powerholders) with the social, political, economic, coercive, and other means to stay in power.

A key feature of post-Cold War authoritarianism, as described by Ziblatt and Levitsky in “How Democracies Die,” is that democratic erosion happens subtly, gradually, and often “legally,” as democratically elected officials use legal and institutional means to subvert the very processes and institutions that brought them to power. This is happening at the state level, where GOP-controlled states have become laboratories of democratic backsliding. In Georgia, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature has given itself more control over the State Election Board and the ability to suspend county election officials.

But the larger and more diverse the movement is that comes together to counteract these forces, the more likely it is to succeed. In fact, research shows that the most successful democracy movements that have been able to stem the tide of authoritarianism in their countries have always included a coalition of Left and Center Right actors and networks.

The cross-partisan nature of mobilizing against authoritarianism, therefore, is crucial and yet particularly fraught given the levels of chronic, toxic polarization the country faces. There is an urgent need to support movement-building techniques that bring together unlikely bedfellows and allow for a diversity of different approaches to achieve a shared goal of upholding democracy.

Breaking Down Siloes and Embracing Tensions

Authoritarianism, like any oppressive system, thrives on divisions and disorientation. It is fueled by a rhetoric of us versus them and fortified by the creation of walls between people who might otherwise align and organize. One response to this phenomena in the United States has been the explosion of depolarization initiatives, operating under a theory of change that citizens need to listen to each other more, communicate across difference, and “bring down the temperature” so people can have civil debate and come together “across the aisle.” These are important efforts; and yet are often in direct tension with social and racial justice groups that are focused on addressing past and present harms targeting minority and other vulnerable groups and shifting power dynamics. Still other coalitions have formed as bipartisan platforms for strengthening democratic institutions, tackling election reform, gerrymandering, and advocating for needed legislation. These many efforts in the United States are unfolding in their siloes, and are approaching polarization, justice, and democracy from their different vantage points.

Polarization, in fact, may be a good thing. Sociologist George Lakey likens polarization to a blacksmith’s forge that heats up society, making it malleable to change. In some highly polarized contexts, like Germany and Italy during the 1930s, extreme polarization led to Nazism and fascism, and allowed for violent dehumanization and toxic othering. There were pockets of resistance in both places, but no broad-based coalitions materialized that could have provided a bulwark to extremism. A contrast is the United States in the highly polarized contexts of the 1930s and the 1960s, when polarization paved the way to the New Deal and a massive expansion of civil rights. Of course, polarization also paved the way to the Civil War in the 1860s, but that only illustrates that polarization is neutral – what matters to the outcome is how people organize, and the strategies and tactics they use to wield power together to channel the forces driving change.

Likewise, the existence of tensions within and between groups is not necessarily a bad thing – healthy tensions can lead to innovation and expanded opportunities. They can help balance the need to project urgency with the imperative of building relationships. Bill Moyer and George Lakey describe four main types of movement actors – radicals, reformers, organizers, and service providers. It is common for there to be tensions between radicals and reformers, between those working on the inside and those on the outside, and between those who focus more on dialogue and more on direct action. The challenge is how to navigate these tensions.

Part of the answer is to identify and support systems-level organizers who have access to and credibility with both radicals and reformers, and who can help establish lines of communication, build relationships, and identify common cause.  Building broad-based movements takes organizers and facilitators capable of convening network leaders, helping groups understand the complementarity of approaches, and supporting learning across spaces. Breaking down these siloes and building connective tissue is what it will take to puncture the “divide and conquer” strategy of the authoritarian playbook. 

Sustained Cross-Cause, Multi-Sectoral Movement Building as Antidote

There was a recognized threat to democracy before, during, and after the 2020 election, and the recognition was shared by many diverse groups who came together to organize at that time. Now that the threat has morphed and dispersed, the ability to sustain a cross-cause, multi-sectoral movement is a little more difficult, but no less urgent. There are notably few spaces where conservatives are being brought into strategic conversation with progressive and left-leaning groups (and vice versa) about how to respond to current threats to democracy, and even fewer that bring grassroots and national groups into the same conversation. Key networks like the Partnership for American Democracy, the TRUST Network, and the Bridge Alliance could facilitate such strategic planning and coordination.

Convening leaders from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity with more progressive social justice networks and democracy groups, like Indivisible, could yield unexpected results. Base organizers like the Industrial Areas FoundationPeople’s Action, and Faith in Action have the infrastructure and relationships to be able to reach core constituencies on democracy issues, particularly locally. The Race-Class Narrative is an empirically-backed messaging and organizing framework for mobilizing the progressive base, persuading the conflicted, and challenging opponents’ worldview by fusing economic prosperity for all directly to racial justice.

Although building coalitions across groups is important, equally important is work within groups that can address toxic and anti-democratic behaviors, like acting on the belief that the 2020 election was stolen. After all, social psychology research highlights the fact that people are more likely to change their behaviors when they see other members of their in-groups change their behavior.

The private sector, religious communities and veterans’ organizations will all be key actors in this multi-sectoral democracy movement, requiring strategic outreach and relationship-building between actors who may not often collaborate on other issues. But reaching a shared understanding of the democratic threat as a higher-order shared goal will require concerted organizing. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, business coalitions such as the Civic Alliance came out strongly in support of voting rights and took actions to help their employees exercise the right to vote. Influential coalitions like the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers issued statements acknowledging the election results and calling for a peaceful transition of power. These same groups could use various levers to hold candidates, officials, and themselves accountable to basic democratic norms in the current context: all eligible voters should be able to vote, election administration and certification should be nonpartisan, and the outcome of elections should be determined by voters.

Religious groups are another key group that could be activated in defense of democracy, such as the important role played by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. Coordinated direct action between African American and white evangelicals would be a powerful driver of change in the future, and there is great potential in collaborations between groups like Faith for Black LivesInterfaith ActionAmerican AwakeningMatthew 5:9Sojourners, and Catholic networks like the Ignatian Solidarity Network.  Veterans groups are an especially important voice to speak out against the infiltration of extremists elements within the military and security sectors; several organizations such as the Black Veterans Project, the Black Veteran Empowerment Council, and the Veterans Organizing Institute provide needed vehicles for cross-ideological relationships and collaboration.

The key to successful movement building to protect American democracy in this moment will be to identify what leverage these different communities have to incentivize good behavior and disincentivize and (nonviolently) punish bad behavior. And success requires all these different groups – progressive and conservative alike – to be able to see themselves as a part of a larger ecosystem capable of collective action against authoritarianism. The power of civil resistance comes through organized non-cooperation – denying the authoritarian system the human and material resources it needs to wield power and undermine democracy. When a significant number of people within these key pillars coordinate and plan together to stop providing support – workers go on strike, consumers organize boycotts, students stage walkouts, businesses stop supporting political candidates and media outlets that spread dangerous conspiracies, bureaucrats ignore or disobey unconstitutional and unlawful orders, etc. – authoritarians lose their power.

Organized broad-based movements and non-cooperation were key to ending apartheid in South Africadismantling communist tyranny in Central and Eastern Europeending Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and dismantling Jim Crow. Americans can find inspiration in those moments in history and from other country contexts to remember that it is possible for citizens to organize for freedom, justice, equality, and democratic values – and to succeed.

There are challenges to achieving this kind of broad democracy movement in a country as large and diverse as the United States. The country is deeply divided. It has not adequately confronted the historical legacy of slavery and racial hierarchy. What is unhelpful is succumbing to a sense of fatalism, to believing that civil war or falling into the authoritarian abyss is inevitable — “the other big lie.” The most important peacebuilding approach and mindset required of all Americans right now is one of conviction, hope, and mutual respect, to know that change is possible when people find common purpose and take action together.

The Freedom Struggle in Florida

The situation in Florida clearly represents a threat to American democracy

This article by Chief Organizer Maria J. Stephan was first published May 14 on Salon.

Florida has become the epicenter of a struggle between authoritarianism and those committed to freedom and justice for all. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, actively campaigned for election deniers, embraced divide-and-rule politics, and enacted extreme policies that gut fundamental freedoms enshrined in Florida’s and the US Constitution. These policies, grounded in racial resentment, misogyny, homophobia, and the punishment of opponents using state power, come straight from the global authoritarian playbook and are already spreading from Florida to other state legislatures across the country. Attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms are only likely to accelerate should DeSantis’ clear 2024 presidential ambitions be realized. 

But Floridians are not sitting idly by. 

Daily walkoutssit-ins, marches and teach-ins led by students, teachers, parents, and other civic groups are happening across the state. People are sounding the alarm about the existential threat to US democracy DeSantis represents, while mobilizing around an alternative vision of a Florida for all. Stopping DeSantis’ march to the White House will take a united democratic front of movements, labor organizers, business and faith leaders, veterans’ groups, and exile communities both inside Florida and across state borders. Beyond that, addressing the deeper roots of authoritarianism in America will require an even bigger and bolder movement that makes the triumph of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy a generational achievement.

Part I: The Authoritarian Playbook

Twenty-first-century authoritarian leaders follow a similar playbook: build power by demonizing the “other,” then use that power to punish any opposition and cut off any ways of threatening their power, typically by undermining elections, capturing democratic institutions, and neutralizing dissent. 

Demonizing and dehumanizing the other is the first step. Would-be autocrats tap into people’s fears related to safety, status, and well-being, and create scapegoats among marginalized communities. They establish these “others” as irredeemable enemies and argue that state power is necessary to suppress their threat. This strategy both mobilizes autocrats’ supporters and suppresses their potential opponents.

After attaining and consolidating power through this divide-and-rule strategy of “othering,” autocrats seek to then ensure that no challenge to them can stand by using state power to punish opponents, undermine civil and political rights, and hollow out accountability institutions like independent courts or free and fair elections. This is often done subtly and legally, using democratic means to gut the very essence of democracy.

Attacking fundamental civil and political rights, such as the freedoms of assembly and speech, is a key part of this strategy. Often justified on grounds of “protecting law and order” and “preserving the peace”, anti-protest laws have been expanding rapidly around the world. Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega has passed “anti-terrorism” laws to target those who protest his regime, while Cuba’s newest criminal code expands the criteria for prosecution and increases the penalties for violations. Other autocrats have attacked free speech in higher education, a historic bastion of dissent. In Hungary, Victor Orban pushed out Central European University based on anti-Semitic far-right tropes. Similar attacks are occurring in MexicoTurkey, and Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, restricting women’s reproductive rights is commonplace among authoritarian governments. In recent years a number of democratic backsliding countries have reduced or limited access to abortion, including Poland, Hungary, and Brazil.

Often, autocratic leaders will embrace or turn a blind eye to political violence. They will refuse to denounce conspiracy theories (such as the “great replacement theory” that leftists and minorities are out to strip whites of power, that the LGBTQ+ community is responsible for “grooming” or harming children, or that free and fair elections have been rigged) until those theories become mainstream and pave the way to political violence 

Ron DeSantis has embraced all these elements of the authoritarian playbook. The eerie similarity to global autocrats is no coincidence. Like authoritarians around the world, DeSantis and the GOP leadership have been directly inspired by global autocrats, and have developed a particularly special relationship with Hungary’s far-right leader, Viktor Orban.

The impact of this relationship is clear in DeSantis’ particular politics of divide and rule. Nine months after Hungary’s government passed a law cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights, DeSantis followed suit. Orban described his country’s anti-LGBTQ+ law as an effort to prevent gay people from preying on children. Similarly, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw described Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law (the “Don’t Say Gay” law), as an “anti-grooming bill,” referring to a common slur directed at LGBTQ+ people.

In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, DeSantis went on an “anti-woke” crusade, focusing on schools and higher education, which included passing the Stop W.O.K.E act to eliminate content related to structural racism, homophobia, misogyny, and classism, from classrooms; eliminating AP African American Studies classes from Florida high schools; and passing new education bills that would grant power to remove majors associated with critical race theory, prohibit public colleges and universities from spending money on programs focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and make it easier to push out tenured faculty.

DeSantis has also expanded state power to target immigrants and undocumented people. Last September, he denounced liberal policies around immigration and the creation of “sanctuary cities” and arranged flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard for migrants. New legislation makes it a felony to “knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor illegal aliens”, affecting hundreds of thousands or even millions of Floridians.

Following other autocrats, DeSantis recently signed legislation that would ban most abortions after six weeks. This is despite the two-thirds of Floridians who support the right to abortion, as well as the numerous legal and voter initiatives to reaffirm these rights. 

DeSantis has also embraced the second half of the authoritarian playbook. While keeping Floridians distracted by his actions towards demonizing “others,” he has sought to undermine the rights, protections, and institutions that could be used to challenge him. He has cast doubt on free and fair elections, for instance by elevating election deniers and not taking a clear public stand about Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. And he actively seeks to limit the franchise of potential opponents – most prominently through a law that bars returning citizens from voting unless they pay felony conviction fines. The law runs directly counter to a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most Floridians with past felony convictions, and disproportionately disenfranchises Black Floridians.

He has also aggressively sought to undermine the right to protest. In 2021 he signed into law a bill that enlarges the definition of “riot” and makes committing the crime a felony, which even the United Nations criticized for violating the fundamental human right of peaceful assembly.

DeSantis has aggressively used state power to punish opponents and critics, most prominently through his revocation of the Disney Corporation’s special tax status in Florida, and through signing a bill that punishes tech companies for moderating extremist right-wing rhetoric. The eerie autocratic parallel here is Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, who recently canceled the legal status of 18 private sector organizations.

DeSantis has singled out government officials with opposing viewpoints with punishment. Last year, DeSantis suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom DeSantis accused of prosecuting cases under “woke ideology”. Similarly, prosecutor Monique Worrell is currently under investigation by the DeSantis administration. Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a state Senate Democratic leader were controversially arrested during a peaceful protest of the state’s abortion bill. Meanwhile, DeSantis has targeted local school boards, elevating groups like Moms for Liberty to go after opponents and boost pro-DeSantis candidates in school board elections. During the pandemic, he stripped local government agencies, including the state medical board, of the ability to make public health decisions. This bureaucratic capture has allowed DeSantis to further consolidate power.

Part II: The Authoritarian System

DeSantis’ authoritarianism in Florida, and its expansion nationally, is enabled by organizations and institutions that provide him with the resources to sustain his power. Organizational pillars including political parties, state governments, religious institutions, media outlets, corporations, and private donors. If support from these key pillars is withdrawn, or simply diminished, autocrats’ are weakened. This highlights why going on offense and engaging these pillars in pro-democracy movements is so critically important. 

One of DeSantis’ strongest power sources is a GOP state and national party dominated by an authoritarian faction that thrives on conspiracy theories and election denialism, and cozies up to far right and white supremacist groups. Florida contains over twenty anti-government militias, including the heavy presence of Proud Boys, who have mobilized to support “anti woke” school board candidates. In contact with local Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracist and white nationalist General Michael Flynn has made Sarasota his homebase for militia action in support of DeSantis’ attacks on education and LGBTQ+ communities. Most moderate GOP politicians in Florida have either left office, lost primaries, or capitulated to DeSantis’ agenda.

DeSantis’ extremism is enabled by media outlets including Fox News, which provides free media amplification of MAGA authoritarianism, and bilingual outlets like Americano Media, described by its owner as “Fox News in Spanish.” Radio and TV outlets have been bought out by far-right groups that have turned them into vehicles for election and COVID disinformation, authoritarianism, anti-immigrant and anti-Black propaganda. 

Business has also been a key pillar of support for DeSantis. He has received millions of dollars in campaign donations from conservative business leaders Ken GriffinRobert BigelowJeffrey Yass, Bernie Marcus, and Jude and Christopher Reyes. Large corporations, such as Amazon, Walmart, AT&T, and Comcast are directly or indirectly tied to funding DeSantis’ campaign. Smaller businesses fund DeSantis’ campaigns and receive a multifold increase in government contracts from the DeSantis administration. Major think tanks such as the Club for Growththe Manhattan Institutethe Claremont Institute, and Heritage Foundation provide the policy framework for DeSantis’ politics. In sum, these pillars of support supply the financial and intellectual scaffolding for DeSantis to consolidate and expand his power.

Together, these pillars of support have enabled DeSantis to out-organize the Democratic party in recent years, particularly with Latinos. DeSantis won reelection in 2022 by a 19-point margin and was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate in 20 years to win predominantly Hispanic Miami-Dade County. He received 58% of the Latino vote, including 68% of Cuban Americans and 56% of Puerto Ricans. Republican victories across the state gave the GOP a super-majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

Yet these widely touted electoral results mask a deeper weakness in DeSantis’ far-right agenda. Many of DeSantis’ actual policies are deeply unpopular. While DeSantis may currently have high approval ratings, a robust and well-resourced pro-democracy movement to expose his extremism and anti-democratic proclivities and weaken his pillars of support could rapidly turn the tide in Florida against him. 

Part III: The pro-democracy movement 

There is significant pro-democracy organizing across Florida to build upon. Florida students led statewide protests against the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in 2020. They have joined forces with parents, educators, and civic groups like Equality Florida and the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the state’s Board of Education. Groups formed after DeSantis’ hostile take-over of New College of Florida, including the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, Families for Strong Public Schools, and the Novo Collegian Alliance, have also been organizing students, teachers and alumni across the state, while organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice have been organizing white Floridians to push back against DeSantis’ policies.

Several multi-racial organizations, including Florida Rising, have organized “Wake-Up Wednesdays“during the 2023 legislative session to mobilize people in Tallahassee to protest harmful bills and advocate for an alternative vision of Florida for all Floridians. Earlier this month, at the conclusion of the legislative session, members of the Dream Defenders, an activist group set up following Trayvon Martin’s killing in Sanford, FL in 2012, staged a singing-filled sit-in in DeSantis’ Capitol office, with 14 accepting arrest.

In addition to grassroots organizing, engaging key institutional pillars is critical to successful pro-democracy movements. Historically, labor unions and professional associations have been one of the most important of these pillars. They possess robust networks and powerful organizing tactics which can pressure governments, as seen recently in IndiaSouth KoreaIsrael, and France

The success of the Fight for $15 campaign in Florida is a great example of how effective labor organizing, backed by other key pillars, can outmaneuver a heavily resourced opponent. The campaign used a combination of media interviews, digital organizing, phone banking, and direct action, including strikes, to connect with Floridians across the political spectrum, including many small business owners. The campaign appealed to fiscal conservatives by arguing that low wages forced people to rely on food stamps and mobilized many Republicans among the working poor as well.

More recently, teachers’ unions have been at the forefront of resisting DeSantis. Teacher unions have spoken out against DeSantis’ policies and are currently leading a lawsuit against the state education department.

Businesses are a key pillar of support for authoritarian regimes, providing them with important financial, economic, and ideological resources. When businesses withhold that support from autocrats, as we’ve seen in South Africa, the Philippines, and most recently in Israel, this significantly diminishes their power. Key groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers pushed back against Donald Trump and his GOP enablers’ attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election. 

DeSantis has attacked Disney and other large corporations that he accuses of “woke capitalism.” In response several corporations have signed a petition opposing anti LGBTQ+ legislation, while Disney announced that it will host a LGBTQ workplace summit in Florida with several other Fortune 500 companies. Since DeSantis thrives on the perception that he is an underdog taking the fight to big corporations, targeting Florida businesses that are providing economic and ideological support to DeSantis, and drying up financial support from national-level figures like Ken Griffin and Bernie Marcus, could be particularly effective.

The business community has also pushed back against DeSantis’ anti-immigrant policies. After the governor announced his legislative plan to counter illegal immigration, business leaders issued a joint statement opposing it. The statement highlighted both the human and economic cost of these policies for ordinary Floridians, and condemned DeSantis for sacrificing Florida’s interests for the sake of his presidential ambitions.

A strengthened pro-democracy alliance between business and faith communities in Florida could be particularly potent. Faith communities have been bedrock actors in movements for rights and freedoms in the United States and worldwide. Black churches’ role during the civil rights movement, and more recent pro-democratic organizing by chaplains and religious leaders are cases in point.

DeSantis is a practicing Catholic who has portrayed himself as a faith and family warrior battling the evils of abortion and LGBTQ+ culture. While DeSantis’ anti-abortion and anti-woke policies have been popular with many Catholics and Evangelicals in Florida and around the country, there is evidence that he has gone too far, even with these communities. 

In February 2022, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski harshly criticized DeSantis for comments he made regarding the influx of unaccompanied children at the US-Mexico border. More recently, DeSantis attracted the ire of Florida’s Catholic Church, including the influential Conference of Catholic Bishops, when he voiced support for expanding the death penalty in the state. Other denominations, including Evangelicos for Justice, have joined Catholic leaders in denouncing DeSantis’ embrace of the death penalty.

The small but influential Latino evangelical community has found itself at odds with DeSantis’ anti-immigrant policies. Last February, after DeSantis took punitive action against those sheltering unaccompanied migrant children, more than 200 faith leaders and pastors of Spanish-speaking churches traveled to Tallahassee to protest the governor. Some leaders said they would be willing to engage in civil disobedience against the law if it’s enacted. One of those leaders, Carlos Carbajal, who leads an immigrant evangelical congregation in Miami, said that “allowing politics to interfere in the decision-making of congregations would be a betrayal of the gospel.”

The recent statement by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, together with business and faith leaders condemning DeSantis’ “draconian” immigration measures is a key building block for future organizing. DeSantis’ refusal to denounce neo-Nazis in Florida, prompting outrage from Jewish and Muslim communities, highlights another crack in his edifice of support. The effort by a group of clerics to sue DeSantis over his abortion law, on grounds that it violates religious freedom, highlights the power and potential of cross-faith, cross-denominational organizing in defense of democracy. 

Veterans and military families, which have guarded against autocratic encroachment in numerous countries, are another key pillar for the Florida pro-democracy movement. Military members take a vow to defend against enemies foreign and domestic, and the respect society gives them provides a unique opportunity to speak out against anti-democratic practices. There are nearly 1.5 million veterans in Florida.

DeSantis has used his own military service to propel his political career, and references to that service are core to his political narrative. For this reason, voices of dissent from veterans’ groups and military families are particularly important to challenging his narrative. A well-coordinated campaign by veterans to challenge his authenticity and reveal the ways in which authoritarian creep is antithetical to the values of military service would hold much promise. 

Veterans made some of the earliest criticisms of DeSantis during his first gubernatorial run against Democrat Andrew Gillum. After DeSantis made comments about Gillum that were widely interpreted as racist dog whistles. Members of VoteVets (alongside other organizations) rallied in downtown Tampa. At the rally, Jerry Green, the Florida Outreach Director of VoteVets said: “…this kind of vile racism makes all of us veterans look bad. And Ron DeSantis, when he uses these dehumanizing racial terms to describe a Black man betrays us and what we fought for.” 

DeSantis also passed legislation to reinforce false claims around voting security, especially vote-by-mail ballots. These measures hurt U.S. service members who frequently vote by mail. Several organizations attempted to challenge voter restrictions following the 2018 election. Veterans like Justin Straughan have joined others in criticizing the legislation, noting how important it is for service members to have robust mail-in ballot infrastructure. 

Finally, given the strength of Latino exile communities in Florida, including many that have fled authoritarian regimes, the creative use of Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese-language media to draw attention to DeSantis’ authoritarian policies could significantly advance the pro-democracy movement. Creative and culturally-informed language is critical. For instance, the term “progresista” has a negative connotation for many Hispanic exile communities, who associate the term, along with symbols like clenched fists with socialist dictators like Castro and Chavez. DeSantis and his backers use this to paint the opposition as far-left extremists, furthering their politics of divide and rule.

Gun violence prevention is important to the many Floridians who have escaped violence in their country of origin, as well as non-Hispanic Black and Brown communities who experience the worst forms of gun violence in the US. The fact that 61% Floridians and 71% Hispanic voters oppose permitless carry, which Governor DeSantis recently passed into law, highlights another issue that could galvanize pro-democratic organizing.

There are many existing nodes of pro-freedom, pro-democracy organizing in Florida, as well as support from within key pillars – the key is strengthening coordination between them.

 Part IV: The Way Ahead

The situation in Florida clearly represents a threat to American democracy. The way DeSantis and the Florida legislature are operating is comparable to autocrats worldwide. While the situation is urgent, much can be done to mitigate the effects of DeSantis’ harmful policies in Florida and across the country, while preventing his authoritarian march to the White House.

First, there is a deep need for greater support to frontline organizing, both in terms of funding and technical support, to allow organizers to compete against heavily resourced far-right groups. While most funders have shifted attention to other, more “winnable” battleground states, this is shortsighted. Funding shortfalls should be rectified, particularly as DeSantis prepares to announce his presidential run.

Second, it is critical to build connective tissue between grassroots groups and other key pillars including business, faith organizations, labor unions, professional associations, veterans’ groups, and military families. Forging strategic alliances around a shared interest in defending fundamental freedoms and preventing further democratic backsliding would bolster the collective effort against DeSantis and his enablers. The growing number of dissenting voices amongst members of the business, faith, and veterans’ communities in Florida, combined with highly energetic youth mobilizing and strengthening efforts to prevent gun violence, hold great promise. Given the history of successful ballot initiatives in the state, a referendum focused on protecting abortion access, which proved successful in conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky, could be an effective mobilizing tool in Florida.

Third, the pro-democracy movement must expand beyond progressive communities by demonstrating the attractiveness of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy and offering a message of a positive future of belonging for all Floridians. Organizing within conservative communities is particularly important to encourage principled and self-interested stands against DeSantis’ authoritarian policies. With conservative funders, including the influential Koch network, vowing to support anti-Trump GOP candidates, they will need to decide whether they find DeSantis’ authoritarian posturing equally disqualifying.

Fourth, significant support should be dedicated to developing and executing creative and compelling narrative strategies that expose DeSantis’ extremism, demonstrate how out of touch he is with Floridians and the American people on issues that matter most, and offer a positive and hopeful alternative vision for the state and the country. Multilingual (English, Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese) radio, TV, billboard, and social media strategies that make the stakes clear to Floridians and the American public, and that center joy and humor, which have historically been particularly effective against autocratic leaders, are key to countering DeSantis’ fear-based divide and rule strategy.

Finally, there is a need for national coordination and cross-state democratic solidarity to direct resources and technical support to those on the front lines. Such efforts should prioritize service to local and state-led organizers who know how to navigate the complex communities in Florida and other states facing the most severe forms of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, given the extent of transnational authoritarian learning, with Florida being a hotbed of far-right collaboration (including related to the January 9th insurrection in Brazil led by disgruntled Bolsonaro supporters, many of whom were camped out in FL), supporting cross-border learning, skills-sharing, and solidarity between pro-democracy actors in Florida and other countries would be a worthwhile investment.