THE PILLARS PROJECT: The Business Community

Why should business leaders care about authoritarianism?

There is a long-standing recognition among many American business leaders that fostering a democratic political environment is in the interest of American businesses. The research is clear: Democracy is good for business. Populism, polarization, and rising authoritarianism undermine a free market economy, punitively and inefficiently politicize tax and regulatory policyand create significant political risk. While supporting political leaders who undermine democracy may yield short-term benefits, it does not provide the foundation for stable business growth. Multi-national companies have well-developed responsible business principles and best practices for engaging foreign governments and civic groups in fragile democracies, but the sector is just recently turning needed attention to the alarming rate of democratic decline in the US.

Beyond the general advantages of fostering democracy, individual companies have much to gain from leading in pro-democracy work. In a survey of 3,000 Americans, 76% said they would prefer to work at companies that promote democracy, and 81% said they were more likely to recommend those companies’ products.

Thus far, much of the work to promote democracy by businesses has been limited to areas such as get-out-the-vote programs, civic engagement partnerships or depolarization initiatives, all important efforts, but with limited impact given the problem’s scale. As a resurgent debate about the role of business in society becomes increasingly politicized, especially around issues of ESG and DEI, there is a dedicated authoritarian faction deploying tried and true tactics to divide the country while undermining core democratic institutions. This dynamic has opened criticisms of the “politicization of business” and calls for corporate restraint in politics. There is an urgent need, however, for corporations and business leaders to distinguish between normal politics and attempts to roll back democracy. Partnering with others to take courageous stands in the face of these anti-democratic forces is critical, requiring better alignment and coordination with the diverse, trans-partisan pro-democracy civil society ecosystem in the US.

How can business leaders support the pro-democracy ecosystem?

  • Business leaders can be powerful persuaders for democracy through making public statements condemning anti-democratic practices and upholding the rule of law. Such statements are particularly powerful when made in concert with social movement leaders and other “unlikely allies.” For example, the US Chamber of Commerce joint statement with the AFL-CIO on the day of the 2020 election sent a powerful signal that American society was united in its demand for a free and fair election, and a statement by over 70 Black executives condemning a 2021 Georgia law restricting voting rights helped show corporate America’s support for democratic rights.
  • Statements can send powerful signals but are typically insufficient when not backed up by concrete action. Beyond statements, business leaders can refuse to cooperate with authoritarian practices, cutting off their normal patterns of interaction with political leaders and organizations that undermine democracy to continue. For instance, after the January 6th insurrection, nearly 150 companies ended their campaign contributions to the members of Congress who refused to certify the 2020 election.
  • Businesses can also provide material support for key activities by social movements and civil society organizations working directly to advance democracy. Charitable donations are just one piece in a much larger tactical repertoire, and often not the most effective piece. Businesses also have deep resources of technical expertiseinsider knowledge, and human capital that can be leveraged to support pro-democracy work. Several American companies have provided their employees with paid time off to vote, protest, or dedicate time and resources to pro-democracy actions.
  • Business leaders can play a key role in bridgebuilding and negotiation. Business leaders can leverage their relationships to political elites to advocate for democracy in private, and, when appropriate, act as trusted intermediaries between movements and government leaders. For instance, during the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter sit-ins in the civil rights movement executives from the Burlington Fabrics company organized a committee of civic leaders that, through their negotiations with lunch counter business owners, helped give greater legitimacy to the Black student-led sit-ins and facilitated Greensboro’s desegregation.

The Horizons Project’s Work

The Horizons Project recognizes the importance of the business community as a force for democracy and is engaging with many diverse business leaders and coalitions to help establish a common framework to understand and combat the authoritarian threat; and link the corporate sector more strategically with the pro-democracy civil society ecosystem. We are reaching out to or partnering with organizations such as the Civic AllianceLeadership Now, the Erb Institute at the University of Michiganthe Interfaith Center on Corporate ResponsibilityBusiness for Americathe American Sustainable Business Network’s Business for Democracy working groupthe Business Roundtable, and the Ethical Capitalism Group.

  • Research and Analysis: As part of its larger pillars of support project, Horizons is examining how businesses have helped protect democracy both in the US and in other countries during democratic backsliding, and the most effective ways for businesses to leverage their unique position to do so. We will be working with business leaders to share the results of this research, providing practical tools and ideas to help shift priorities and collective action to pro-actively protect democracy from the current authoritarian threat. Horizons will be producing short, action-focused publications and, together with partners, hold a series of salons on Business and Democracy in 2023.
  • Relationship-Building: Research shows that business efforts to promote social good are most effective when done in concert with social movements, and that protecting and restoring American democracy will require united effort across a wide range of sectors. Horizons is building connective tissue between business leaders and other key nodes in the pro-democracy ecosystem to strategize how efforts at protecting democracy can be most effectively coordinated both at the state level and nationally. We plan to organize both formal events and informal conversations between business leaders, grassroots organizers, and others in the pro-democracy space to help build the foundations for united action to protect democracy as we move towards the 2024 election and beyond.

*This article was written by former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.

Exploring Narrative Practices for Broad-based Movements in Contexts of Democratic Decline

This piece was originally published on March 1, 2023 on OpenGlobalRights by Chief Network Weaver Julia Roig and James Savage.

Versión en Español

The rise in authoritarianism and democratic decline around the world is well-documented, and yet the analysis of why this is happening and prioritizing what to do about it is not as clear cut. The ways that social movements incorporate diversity and create space for reflection together—including narrative practices—are therefore more important than ever, so that movement actors model the democratic values they are advocating and can find common cause with potential allies who may have different approaches or priorities.

Anti-democratic forces rely on fueling deeply divided societies with a diet of dangerous othering of whatever racial, ethnic, gendered, or religious “out-group” should be blamed for society’s ills. Operating within these divisive contexts, pro-democracy, rights-based actors often struggle with fragmentation among and between movements and potential allies.

The Narrative Engagement Across Difference Project (NEAD) was designed by a consortium of organizers, academics, and philanthropists to take a deep look at narrative practices from a multidisciplinary lens and to reflect on how we can better unlock more effective collective action within diverse, broad-based movements.

The NEAD team starts from a broad understanding of “narrative” as a process of making meaning, acknowledging that humans understand themselves and the world around them through stories (characters, plot lines, and values). There is a burgeoning interest in narrative studies and practice within the field of social change and movement-building. Many narrative practitioners and funders are using creative means to build narrative infrastructure and power, especially for those whose voices have been traditionally marginalized or “othered,” and yet we continue to experience fragmentation and toxic othering within many of our movement ecologies where civic space is closing.

To ground NEAD’s future exploration in existing research, the team recently released the findings of a broad literature review. The report categorizes three areas of narrative practice that support collaboration between groups coming together with the aim of reducing systems of authoritarianism and strengthening democratic values:

1. Legitimacy—how narratives regulate and determine the nature of interactions between people (i.e., how we position ourselves and others as legitimate, worthy, good, or bad);

2. Power—the dynamics of relations and decision-making in the narrative landscape (i.e., how and where control is exerted or privilege experienced to deem what is acceptable, normal, or transgressive); and

3. Complexity—the capacity of any narrative to evolve and change (i.e., when and how the elaboration of nuanced, multifaceted descriptions of people, events, and values produce multiple, complex, and evolving stories and meaning-making).

The research offers several provocations—or cautionary tales—with implications for common narrative practices within social movements that are worth highlighting and wrestling with.

First, should we seek a “shared narrative”?In coalitional work, we often assume that if we share a narrative of the social change we seek, then we will have shared attitudes and we can share work and collective action (e.g., “Immigrants are welcome here”). But endeavoring to negotiate a shared narrative, while common practice for strategic communications goals to reach a broader audience with consistent framing and messaging choices, could impede our ability to bring different perspectives into pro-democracy movements.

Seeking a shared narrative as a starting point for convening allies that then drives collective action also runs the risk of developing overly simplified narratives among those who already think alike and who can become “stuck in their story” without the benefit of being pushed to see beyond their own blind spots. Instead, complexifying narratives can be a movement-building tool, allowing both people and stories of lived experience to have layers, nuance, with multiple identities and contexts that can be woven together.

Second, delegitimizing “others” often backfires and gives fuel to harmful narratives. When people feel heard, they open themselves to reflection, consider alternatives to their own perspectives, and better engage in ways that build trust and deepen relationships. Narratives that delegitimize and promote othering intentionally or not shut down this aperture: for example, “Beware of letting the Trump-a-saurus Rex animals out of the zoo, or they will wreak havoc on our democracy.” Determining when our narrative strategies are undermining our overall movement goals of a pluralistic society in the long term is a crucial reflective practice.

When movements feed into an “us-versus-them” zeitgeist, we give fuel to the authoritarian playbook that thrives on the tactics of divide and rule. This lesson applies to legitimizing across all types of difference (ideological, generational, racial, religious; both within our groups and between groups) not as a call for everyone to just “get along” but to commit to a reflective practice of engaging diverse actors and their lived experience to broaden movement participation, while unmasking the systems of discrimination and oppression that sow division and harm.

Third, there are consequences of activating negative emotions as motivators. In the short term, negative emotions like anger and outrage are proven motivators for movement participation, especially within repressive environments and in the context of online engagement. The trade-offs demonstrated by the NEAD report indicate that using anger to mobilize can often result in a simplified narrative landscape of bad actors and/or righteous anger that sets up a contestation of dominant narratives lacking in complexity. Simple narratives that emphasize the need for security are a common tactic used by authoritarian regimes. While there are situations when moral clarity in a simplified message is needed—for instance, “Police brutality and murder of civilians is wrong and must stop”—the call for movement participation that recognizes justified anger and grieving, while also complexifying the nature of systemic injustices can help to diversify movement participation. In the long term, the report findings posit that simple narratives that rely on activating negative emotions can forestall needed conversations and broader support for critical reflections among potential allies.

This is just a taste of the rich findings within the literature review. The initial multi-disciplinary scoping effort was intended to offer practitioners and funders fodder for reflection on the narrative practices within movements to build stronger collective power to tackle authoritarianism and nurture democratic and civic space. The NEAD team is committed to joining efforts with learning partners within the pro-democracy, pro-rights ecosystem to continue reflecting on and experimenting with these narrative practices in different contexts.

Julia Roig is the Chief Network Weaver at The Horizons Project, which bridges peacebuilding, democracy, and social justice communities in the US and globally. Twitter @jroig_horizons

James Savage is the Program Director for the Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights. His work focuses on civic space issues, including narrative-building. Twitter: @jamesmsavage

THE VISTA: February 2023

The Horizons Project is celebrating Black History and Black Excellence this month and every month. This is especially important as this history is currently being contested and censored in some US states. To learn more, check out Gen Z for Change’s TikTok on the AP African Studies debates in Florida. One of their Black History Month videos also highlights the need to recognize both historic figures, but also current (youth!) leaders deserving of celebration. You can also watch an informative series of Black History Month videos from TheNorthSide_Historian’s TikTok channel.

As February comes to a close, you won’t want to miss this conversation about the on-going impact of the 1619 Project and its documentary series on Hulu. We also strongly recommend this inspiring Momentum podcast episode with the leadership team at Race Forward: The Beat of The Racial Justice Movement. This is a beautiful Twitter thread on the long life of Rosa Parks that goes beyond the iconic moment when she sat in the front of the bus. Why is it so important to keep talking about the reality of slavery and racial injustice within the context of the movement for truth, racial healing, and transformation? American Promise shared a powerful graphic to put the temporal aspect of our history in context. And while many organizations are still struggling with the best way to implement their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) commitments, Pedro de Silva II wrote a thought-provoking piece, Diversity and the Rightness of Being Wrong, on the challenges of fitting relational work into transactional environments.

We hope you enjoy some of the other materials we have been reading, watching, and listening to this month. This rich diversity of approaches and voices truly helps in Forging a People Powered Democracy, which happens to be the theme of an upcoming conference hosted by the 22nd Century Initiative this July in Minneapolis. Horizons looks forward to seeing you there! Find out more about pre-registration here.

READING

A Ban Isn’t a Plan

by Anand Giridharadas, The.Ink

If you haven’t read The Persuaders, we highly recommend it! In this short piece, Anand extols the need to Focus on building a movement that can beat American fascism: “We need to build a movement like we never have before: attractive, fun, substantive, visionary, tomorrow-oriented, rooted in people’s lives, open-armed, fiery, merciful… A movement that listens. And has the fortitude to listen to people who think despicable things and keep listening not out of masochism but because of an abiding, strategic impulse to win.”

Blurring the Boundaries

by Brett Davidson, International Resource for Impact and Storytelling

Brett describes the way narrative-change work can be negatively affected by the way organizing is often siloed along lines of issues and identities. He recommends developing new conceptual containers for our work based on the visions we want for the world, rather than the injustices we are trying to eradicate. The article lays out the importance of partnering with creatives to craft and advance new interconnected narratives and describes four potential new “containers” for this cross-siloed work: inspiring metaphors of rope or braid, breath, family, and home.

If Americans Hate Government, Why Would They Value Democracy?

by Stephen Hill, Democracy SOS

If Americans want democracy to flourish, and we want Americans to mobilize to implement badly needed reforms, then Hill highlights the need to reawaken our collective imaginations to the positive role that government has played, and could play, in our lives. He notes that we exist simultaneously as individuals and as participants in an ongoing social experiment in self-governance and explores the need to wage better public relations on government’s positive role to counteract an anti-government bias as a precursor to pro-democracy organizing.

WATCHING

Conversation with Julia Roig

Beyond Intractability

Heidi and Guy Burgess lead the Beyond Intractability website, which includes an important compilation of conversations and musings on the intersection between conflict transformation and social justice. On February 17, Heidi and Guy interviewed Horizons’ Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig, on her work as a systems-level organizer and how Horizons is focusing their weaving efforts on the rise of authoritarianism in the US. You can read more about some of the tensions and issues we discussed in their newsletter here, and also some of Julia’s previous comments on their “massively parallel approaches” to social change.

Dr. Gabor Maté on “The Myth of Normal”

Democracy Now! Productions

In this extended interview, Canadian physician and author Dr. Gabor Maté discusses his new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. He describes the ways healing requires a reconnection between the mind and the body and the importance of cultivating a sense of community, meaning, belonging, and purpose.

Why is Everyone So Angry?

Liv Boeree, YouTube Channel

Liv Boeree’s YouTube channel explores the fringes of science, game theory, and philosophy. In this short film, she describes the dynamics of toxic polarization; how online outrage is spilling over into real world interactions; the economic forces of media industry; and how to game the attention economy to turn it into something that works better for society.

LISTENING TO

The Murder of Tyre Nichols, the Authoritarian Takeover of Florida Education, and the Case for Teaching CRT

Is This Democracy Podcast

Lilliana Mason, Thomas Zimmer, and Perry Bacon Jr. share their thoughts on the murder of Tyre Nichols and why the lack of accountability for police departments is a democratic crisis. They also discuss why the rejection of the AP African American Studies course is emblematic of an escalating assault on public education and how the recurring “history wars” are really conflicts over who gets to define American national identity. They emphasize how this is not just a Florida story, as the authoritarian faction within the Republican party is trying to mandate a white nationalist understanding of the past and the present, and censor any critical dissent, wherever they are in charge.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Authoritarianism Around the Globe

Burn the Boats with Ken Harbaugh Podcast

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes the similarities between current authoritarian movements and those of the past. Her most recent book, Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, examines how authoritarians use propaganda, virility, corruption, and violence to stay in power, and how they can be opposed. If you’d like to hear more from Ruth, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter Lucid for free.

Orange Alternative

99% Invisible Podcast

This episode discusses creative nonviolent civil resistance tactics utilized in Poland before the end of the Cold War, tied into what Russians are doing to voice their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. Today, a protest movement happening in Russia, which some people have compared to the Polish Orange Alternative is called The Little Picketers. “The little picketers are small, clay figurines, about the size of the palm of your hand that are placed throughout Russian cities. Some of them hold peace signs, or Ukrainian flags, or anti-war messages. It’s easy for anyone to get some clay and make a Little Picketer, and then discreetly drop it off in a public space without anyone else noticing. They usually get thrown away by Russian authorities — but before that happens, a photo is taken and submitted to an Instagram account, where they persist.”

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

Think Yourself Better: 10 Rules of Philosophy to Live By

by Julian Baggini, The Guardian

This article lays out advice from philosophers about how to think – and live – well. One of our favorites is number eight from Ludwig Wittgenstein: to seek clarity not certainty. “One of the few certainties we have is that certainty of any interesting kind is rarely possible. If you seek greater clarity, on the other hand, new vistas open up… Another reason to be suspicious of certainty is that it is seductive. Certainty [can be] the friend of dogmatism, arrogance, and fundamentalism.”

How Can Funders Support Pro-democracy Movements?

As the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on 16 January, it is a moment to look back on the ways a broad-based, pro-democracy movement came together to push for civil rights and racial justice. Looking ahead to 2023, the need to galvanize such a large-scale, diverse movement is as crucial as ever.

This article was written by Chief Network Weaver Julia Roig and was first published on Alliance Magazine.

The alarming rates of democratic decline and rising authoritarianism around the world are well documented. Philanthropists can find inspiration from the diversity of entry points for the many actors involved in the US civil rights movement and play their part to help break down the often siloed and fragmented pro-democracy efforts of today.

‘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,’ 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Stride Towards Freedom

This quote from Dr King, taken from his book about the Montgomery bus boycott, extols the need for multiple entry points for movement participation with various, complementary approaches and roles. Such systems approach to countering authoritarianism and fighting for democracy requires a systemic view of where funding can have the most leverage within the very complex pro-democracy movement ecologies that continue to evolve around the world. Studies show that movements are most successful when there is a wide diversity of societal participation. While different country contexts vary, funders have several ways they can support the process of broadening and coalescing pro-democracy movements:

  • Fund mapping efforts to help different actors see themselves as a part of the larger movement. Many funders engage in mapping efforts, along geographic or technical lines – but these are often intended for internal use and/or to illuminate who is doing what to ‘pick winners’ for grant-making. Ecosystem mapping is critical, however, for the broader purpose of helping the multitude of activists and organizations to engage in joint planning and to determine complementary efforts, a process of continual updating and reflection. Funders can support gathering different mappers together to avoid redundancies, aggregate complex information, make sense of different analyses and theories of change and ensure this information is open and accessible to all actors as a convening, sense-making, and relationship-building tool.
  • Strengthen collective action muscles. Funders are used to supporting coalitions or networks that come together for specific policy goals, electoral gains, or identity-based human (civil) rights campaigns. This is important work, but these siloed efforts do not necessarily add up to the level of mobilization needed to respond to . Whether it’s across issues, identities, ideologies, or expertise, many groups are not used to working together proactively towards higher-level shared goals because of competition for resources, a lack of a shared analysis, a myopic focus on their ‘lane’ or simply because of lack of awareness of others’ work. Funders can make a big difference in supporting the connective tissue between organizations, coalitions, and networks, bridging those working at multiple levels, with different constituencies and perspectives as a part of a united front to protect democracy. Strengthening the collective action muscles to respond with urgency also includes the slow work of relationship-building, creating spaces to plan together, sharing resources, and collaborating on targeted activities across these lines of difference.
  • Support training, coaching, and facilitation infrastructure. At the time of the civil rights movement, great effort was placed on building up the skills for nonviolent action, civil resistance, and strategic partnering. Recent research shows that of all the kinds of external support for movements, sustainable access to training and learning opportunities is the most impactful. There is an urgent need to scale up training, coaching and facilitation capabilities and offerings within and amongst movement actors. Especially those skills that will support diversifying and broadening participation in democracy movements: conflict resolution skills, working with complexity and systems thinking, nonviolent discipline, and the multitude of civil resistance tactics that will allow movements to go on offence and respond creatively to the ever-evolving authoritarian playbook. Supporting better networking of seasoned trainers and coaches to share and update their resources and frameworks; aggregating and disseminating available training programs throughout the ecosystem, cross-fertilizing participation amongst different network nodes to build relationships with training programs and offering peer mentoring opportunities across regions globally will all make a huge difference.
  • Provide both general operating funds and quick response funds to spur collaboration. One common obstacle to collaboration across different network nodes within the pro-democracy ecosystem is a scarcity mindset, and the fact that participating in these movement spaces is time-consuming and often seen as taking away needed human resources and focus from an organization’s primary mission. General operating support allows groups and movements to have the breathing space to go on the offence together and not always be in reactive mode. Funders can also offer quick access to funding for diverse actors to travel to attend coalition events, to support convenings amongst groups, to bring together researchers with practitioners to share analysis and to fund key devised narrative campaigns and other experiments amongst different network nodes.

In 2023, let us celebrate Dr King and one of the greatest pro-democracy movements in history by having a bold vision for democratic renewal that incorporates the numerous ‘roads’ to justice. The pro-democracy ecosystem needs philanthropy to use its influence and strategic investments to bring together the many actors working on separate but interrelated efforts (such as violence prevention, strategic litigation and legislation, electoral politics, grassroots mobilization of different constituencies, research and analysis, campaigning, and cultural change efforts, etc.) These critical connections will be key to realizing the next greatest pro-democracy movements to come.

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.

THE VISTA: December 2022

December is a month to both reflect on the past year and look ahead. As we surveyed 2022, we compiled these top insights to share with you from our organizing efforts over the last 12 months. And to help us all look ahead, check out this recent report by the Democracy Funders NetworkImagining Better Futures for American DemocracyYou can read more about why this future-orientation is so needed for broad-based movement-building in this article: Pro-Democracy Forces Need to Go on the Offense.

Looking into the future doesn’t mean we don’t also have to continue to grapple with our nation’s history; in fact, one of our most-used phrases this past year has been “it’s both/and!” More in Common released an interesting report in December Diffusing the History Wars: Finding Common Ground in Teaching America’s StoryAnd, Trevor Smith and Aria Florant describe this polarity between past and present beautifully in their recent piece, On the Other Side of Reparations, A New World Awaits. “If we want to achieve a reparations process for Black Americans and create a new reparative world, perhaps we need to imagine what lies on the other side of reparations…our storytelling… must be expansive in ways that allow people to see themselves in a new world that awaits them.”

Happy Holidays from the Horizons Team! Enjoy some other resources we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to in December:

READING

Is America Still on the Path to Authoritarianism?

by Brian Klaas

While many celebrated the results of the November mid-terms elections in the US as a “win for democracy,” this article explains in detail why “the specter of authoritarianism will continue to loom large for many years to come.” Using the analogy of democracy as a sandcastle: “in the past, democracies were destroyed in a single big wave. It could be a coup, a civil war, a revolution, or an elected dictator seizing power. But those ways of destroying the sandcastle are rarer these days. Instead, the tide comes in very slowly, and each wave laps away at the sandcastle, taking a few grains of sand with it each time. It’s so much slower than the forces that people picture when they think of democracy being destroyed that most people in the country don’t even notice the damage that’s been done. But sure enough, America’s democratic sandcastle has eroded, slowly and steadily.”

Why Bother Bridging Differences in College, Anyway?

by Manu Meel in Greater Good Magazine

The CEO of BridgeUSA tells the story of his journey to bridgebuilding, and the importance of this work on college campuses. “There are few institutions in American society as well-positioned as higher education to build bridges across lines of difference and create spaces for empathy, dialogue, and intellectual curiosity. College campuses and universities are some of the few remaining physical places where Americans of different income, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds have the opportunity to interact and engage. More importantly, the leaders of tomorrow are on today’s college campuses; we have a unique opportunity to invest in the future of our democracy by having universities prioritize deliberation, freedom of thought, and reasoned conversation at a moment of deep division and uncertainty.”

Covering The Right Wrong

by A.J. Bauer in Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2023

“We should and must expect more thoughtful analysis and news judgement from a mainstream political press that claims to lament the ongoing erosion of democratic norms and institutions…Journalists can’t be so cavalier as to assume that ‘shedding light’ on antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism is always either harmless or beneficial.” This article also includes a link to the 2021 Field Guide to White Supremacy which includes revisions to the AP Stylebook to help reporters adequately and accurately report on right-wing extremism without advancing its aims.

What Too Little Forgiveness Does to Us

by Timothy Keller in the Opinion Section of the New York Times

In this essay, Dr. Keller describes the way that a culture of forgiveness serves the same goals as justice-seeking. “Many people committed to justice value forgiveness, but others worry that it lets oppressors off the hook. Technology also makes a contribution. Social media is a realm in which missteps and wrongful, impulsive posts are never forgiven. Screenshots of every foolish word you have ever said online can be circulated in perpetuity. And our politics is filled with vitriol. In our cultural moment a conciliatory, forgiving voice is nowhere to be heard. Calls for forgiveness and reconciliation sound like both-sidesism, a mealy-mouthed lack of principle and courage.”

WATCHING

We are including only one resource to watch this month because Horizons wants to stress how powerful this short video is and how much we recommend watching it and reading the accompanying article:

Building Resilient Organizations

by Maurice Mitchell

Any and all organizers, movement leaders and funders working for social change should not miss this short video and read the powerful insights within Maurice’s article Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis (co-published in Nonprofit Quarterly, The Forge and Convergence.) “There are things we can and must do to shift movements for justice toward a powerful posture of joy and victory. Such a metamorphosis is not inevitable, but it is essential. This essay describes the problems our movements face, identifies underlying causes, analyzes symptoms of the core problems, and proposes some concrete solutions to reset our course.”

LISTENING TO

Reassessing Radicalization

Think Peace Podcast

“When it comes to violent aggression, you may wonder what it is that can cause someone to commit horrific acts of violence? Is it just plain evil? Genetics? Adverse life experiences? Is it faulty brain chemistry? In this episode of the Think Peace Podcast, host Colette Rausch sits down with Dr. Sumaiya Sheikh to discuss the neuroscience of violent aggression, what can trigger people to become radicalized and then commit violent acts, and what possibilities there may be to prevent violent acts before they happen.”

How Can Business Help Solve America’s Democracy Crisis?

Politics In Question Podcast

Leadership Now CEO Daniella Ballou-Aares discusses the state of US democracy and how businesses can and should be involved. She mentioned the importance of “pre-defining what the factors are where businesses are willing to step out on an issue because political leaders are crossing well-defined lines of what is appropriate in a democracy. These triggers could be: refusal to accept legitimate election results; responding to political violence; political retribution for free speech, etc.” She also highlights the importance of “stepping out in a coalition, which is usually done at the state level, but in some cases can be done nationally (for example, the business coalition re: legitimacy of the 2020 election).”

An Ecology of Intelligence

OnBeing Podcast Playlist

If you have time over the holidays, please take time to enjoy this playlist of podcasts that was compiled by On Being during the autumn of 2022 and includes several episodes from their archives that highlight “the pleasure of thinking deeply together.” The collection was curated as a part of their series following the practice of contemplative reading through James Bridle’s Ways of Being.

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

Greater Good Magazine Editors Favorite Books of 2022

“As we enter our third year of a pandemic, many of us are discouraged by the state of the world. Polarization is high, people feel lonely and disconnected, and many have burned out at work or been traumatized by overwhelming loss. This year’s favorite books offer a mixture of advice on how to address these issues through shifting our worldview, improving our social interactions and institutions, and doing what we can to increase our personal well-being.”

THE HORIZONS PROJECT’S TOP INSIGHTS & LEARNINGS FROM 2022

Since our official launch in January of 2022, the Horizons’ team has spent the bulk of our time building relationships with the many inspiring organizers, network leaders, researchers, and funders who together are weaving an impressive tapestry of social change efforts in the United States. It has been our honor to learn, strategize, and walk together on this path with so many of you! As our first year closes, we’ve compiled several insights and lessons learned that will inform our organizing work in 2023:

“It’s Both-And!” We have found ourselves saying this phrase repeatedly this year as we engage with different communities and theories of change in the social change ecosystem. For example, we need to raise the heat to bring more urgency to democratic decline in the US; and we need to decrease dehumanization and toxic othering of our fellow citizens. Fighting for racial justice is fundamental to moving forward together as a country; and that involves organizing within white communities to listen with empathy to real grievances and fears for our communities to heal. The Horizons team recognizes the need to embrace this complexity and work on being comfortable with all the dualities and nuances of ecosystem-level organizing. If you want to read more this is a great article on complexity.

Sensemaking together is some of the most important work we do as organizers. When we launched our website, we laid out the many ways that different sectors are diagnosing the most pressing problem(s) in the United States and the tensions those differences can raise. Throughout the year, we’ve made a point of leaning into those tensions by convening small-group salons and (many!) individual conversations to reflect together on our different analyses, perspectives, and priority actions. For example, discussing “what authoritarianism looks like” with a group of bridgebuilders highlighted the importance of intra-group dialogues (notably amongst conservatives) to changing behaviors. This article beautifully describes the importance of sensemaking; and we have learned what an important step it is to build relationships, establish trust, and widen our circle of potential allies. Horizons loved exploring sensemaking practices with a group of impressive women leaders, captured in this article.

Toxic polarization is indeed a problem, but it is more a symptom of systemic challenges we must confront. There are many important conversations unfolding about the nature of polarization in the United States and globally, and hundreds of efforts to address the challenges of polarization within a vibrant bridgebuilding community throughout the United States. Horizons believes in making a distinction between good polarization versus toxic polarization. This is because we view polarization as a symptom of living under the conditions of democratic decline, where political, economic, and social actors are actively working to keep us divided to stay in power and/or to maintain the status quo. Coming together across ideological divides is crucial. And yet, as we seek to humanize one another we must also mobilize more effectively against the forces keeping us divided and stand up as partisans for democracy. That will require a strategy of engagement and pressure to block harmful, anti-democratic practices and build new ways of living together in a pluralistic society.

How we engage with narratives is as important as ever, beyond messaging efforts that only seek to persuade or raise awareness. Building on an explosion of interest and investment in narrative expertise in the social change field, Horizons spent the past year exploring narrative competencies that support more effective organizing “across difference”. One of the most important insights we have gleaned is the need to “embody the narratives we seek to promote” so that we are not pushing out messages as much as living our values and the future we want. Narrative change starts within, and if we are using dehumanizing language in our own messages, we are contributing to a larger narrative where there are some people who don’t belong. We loved this article on the uses of storytelling that highlights how narrative competencies can foster not only power-building, but also connection and healing.

Training, mentoring, and coaching to support intra-movement dialogue, organizing, and conflict resolution deserve much greater investment. Some of the most urgent work needed is not only to bridge across ideological differences, but to address conflict and undermine extremism within groups. Within left and progressive circles, there is growing awareness that toxic movement spaces, weak conflict resolution practices, and unhealthy orientations toward power and authority are diminishing their effectiveness, as this brilliant Maurice Mitchell piece points out. Meanwhile, given the concentration of political extremism on the right, and the many cases of “courageous conservatives” facing harassment or social ostracism, this highlights the need for much greater investment in intra-conservative dialogue and conflict resolution. We need to bring together and build connections with conflict resolution trainers and coaches to embed those skills and provide coaching throughout movement networks to support this transformation (and not focus so much on cross-ideological empathy and understanding). Investing in sustained support for training and coaching is one of the most important investments funders can make to pro-democracy movements. And encouraging learning across different disciplines (organizing, nonviolence, civil resistance, conflict resolution, narrative competency, etc.) is an important way funders can strengthen movement capacities.

Greater connectivity and strategic complementarity between different parts of the anti-authoritarian ecosystem allow us to go on offense. Horizons began the year by reflecting on the historical and contemporary reality of authoritarianism in the US, while making the case that the strongest bulwark against democratic backsliding is broad-based fronts or movements. We ended the year by helping to convene a core group of local, state, and national organizers, activists, scholars and bridgebuilders to discuss how to strengthen our collective efforts to counter authoritarianism in the US. That discussion was informed by this paper highlighting seven key capacities (intelligence, community power-building and resilience, non-cooperation, conflict resolution, etc.) that, if strengthened and better connected, could allow us to proactively target the promoters and enablers of hate, political violence, and authoritarianism at the local, state, and federal levels. We need to build up our collaboration and solidarity muscles within the ecosystem to come together as a “united front” to better connect these capacities and to anticipate and outmaneuver authoritarians while tapping into our collective imagination about what a reimagined democracy of the future could look like. Learning strategies and tactics from organizers and movement leaders from other backsliding democracies around the world is key to that effort.

Strengthening democracy must be pursued in tandem with eradicating racism and white nationalism. Since our founding, the most formidable obstacle to realizing the democratic ideals animating the American experiment has been the creation of a racial hierarchy that has placed white people at the top, while discouraging poor and working-class Americans from finding common cause across racial lines. Authoritarianism and structural racism are inextricably linked. The ideology of white supremacy has historically been propagated by many institutional pillars of support, including corporations and Christian churches. One of the most pressing needs for the pro-democracy movement therefore is to strengthen religious outreach focused on combatting notions of white Christian dominance, while also bolstering more linkages between “bipartisan” institutional reform efforts and the community-level and national movements to advance racial justice such as the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement. Building a race-class-democracy narrative and organizing strategy is key to achieving democratic transformation.

We need more political education about what authoritarianism is and looks like within communities, especially to galvanize intragroup organizing. There are plenty of reasons why people go along with harmful behaviors committed by their ingroups, especially when they feel under threat. We hear a lot of “both-sides-ism” when it comes to the problem of authoritarianism in the United States, which indicates the need for more awareness-raising and public education about what authoritarianism is, what is enabling it, and how to stop it. Greater investment and infrastructure is needed to support “courageous conversations” especially among conservatives working against the authoritarian faction within their ranks, as described in this article. Developing solidarity networks (legal, spiritual, financial, public relations support) could make a significant difference in growing the size and influence of people who refuse to aid and abet authoritarianism in their churches, radio programs, small businesses, and professional groups. Meanwhile, strengthening analysis and relationships between racial justice and democracy groups and initiatives would bolster the effectiveness of both.

There is much to celebrate, but we are not “out of the woods” after the 2022 midterm elections. The fact that election denying candidates running for offices that would oversee the 2024 presidential election were defeated in battleground states, and that the midterms were relatively free of election-related violence, was significant and a tribute to months and years of organizing at the local, state, and federal levels, as this report highlights. At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to think that the threats of authoritarianism and political violence have been eliminated. The dominance of the authoritarian faction within the GOP (and Donald Trump’s return to the national spotlight), the persistence of authoritarian enablers in key societal pillars (religious institutions, media, corporations, veterans’ groups), easy access to assault weapons, and the mainstreaming of political violence on the right (and to a lesser extent on the left), including the chilling effects of police violence, continue to pose significant threats to peace and security. Organizing within and across these key pillars of support will be needed in the coming years to counter authoritarianism and political violence and build a pluralistic democracy.

Caring for one another and finding joy together as we organize is also “doing the work.” When we launched Horizons initially, we interviewed Kazu Haga about his book Healing Resistance and we continue to be inspired by his message of centering joy and caring for one another as we organize. Incorporating the arts and beauty into our work, and building our imagination muscles to operate from a place of possibility and hope will carry us through 2023 and beyond. That was the resounding theme of the Mitchell article as well. We take inspiration from our ancestors who led powerful movements for rights, freedoms, and justice in this country – and stand in solidarity with those around the world who are engaged in similar struggles – as we tap into the deep reservoirs of hope and healing in our collective work. As bell hooks reminded us, “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.”

Happy Holidays from the Horizons Team!

THE VISTA: November 2022

At the time of writing our November newsletter, the results of all the US mid-term elections are still unknown. One clear win for democracy was that most of the local Secretary of State and Gubernatorial candidates who were “2020 election deniers” were unsuccessful in their bids for office. As we celebrate the wins of the many pro-democracy candidates and the tireless community organizers around the country, Horizons has been reflecting on Daniel Stid’s recent blog “…the conflation of democracy with politics is one of the biggest challenges to sustaining it. Democracy is so much larger than politics… we have to do a better job demarcating when we’re talking about what, otherwise we can create an idea or expectation that democracy is only working when we get the political wins we want, or that everything we don’t agree with is inherently anti-democratic”.

We still have a lot of work to do on the democracy agenda in the US and globally, and there are many resources and thought leaders offering a path forward. The Brennan Center for Justice provided a thoughtful analysis of How Voter Suppression Legislation is Tied to Race.

Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks from the Harvard Kennedy School recently released a seminal report (commissioned by Social and Economic Justice Leaders Project) Pro-Democracy Organizing against Autocracy in the United States: A Strategic Assessment & Recommendations, that proposes nonviolent resistance strategies, support systems to protect communities at-risk, and infrastructure needed for effective pro-democracy organizing. Others are asking In a Fast-Changing Political Landscape, How is The Democracy Alliance Evolving? And, also offering observations that Philanthropy Needs New Strategies to Save American Democracy.

Jill Vialet from the Center for Social Sector Leadership describes a new form of Democracy Entrepreneurship and highlights the importance of bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to the work of democratic reform. Part of this new mindset is how we talk about democracy, and in his recent opinion piece, How to Strangle Democracy While Pretending to Engage in It, Carlos Lozada reflects on how the rhetoric we use can “move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process our debates will become more ‘democracy friendly’”.

At Horizons, we are committed to helping build a renewed global democracy movement, and the recent article by Rachel Kleinfeld, A Helsinki Moment for a New Democracy Strategy discusses lessons from the democracy community’s last paradigm shift to provide a lens for seeing what we need next; and, how countries need to work together on shared challenges. Finally, we hope you’ll tune in to the recent podcast interview with Horizons’ Co-Lead and Chief Organizer, Maria Stephan on the Difficult Conversations Podcast where she discusses the US’s long history of authoritarian tendencies, exactly how those tendencies are manifesting today, and how the tools and strategies of nonviolent action can be used to effectively counter them.

As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holidays in the US, we are grateful for all the inspiring work and important ideas reflected in what we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

READING

The Pillars of Support Project

By The Horizons Project

Horizons recently launched a new initiative to compile research and make recommendations for engaging different pillars within society that are positioned to incentivize pro-democracy behavior or continue to prop up an authoritarian system. There are many excellent organizations working within these pillars, such as faith communities, the private sector, organized labor, and veterans’ groups to name just a few.

The Role of In-Group Moderates in Faith Communities

by The One America Movement (OAM)

When OAM describes the role of in-group moderates, they “aren’t talking about being politically or socially moderate, compromising your values, or changing who you are. Being an in-group moderate means that you are willing to speak out when members of your community (your friends, your family, your coworkers, your congregation, your political party) behave in a way that contradicts your values. This act of speaking up can look like pulling someone you love aside to explain to them how concerned you are about their words or actions”.

The Importance of Corporate Political Responsibility

by Andrew Winston, Elizabeth Doty, and Thomas Lyon, MIT Sloan Management Review

Corporate Political Responsibility (CPR) is a broader take on old-school corporate social responsibility, or CSR. CPR focuses on how business influences four key systems: the rules of the game (markets, laws, and regulations), civic institutions and representation (for instance, protecting democracy), civil society and public discourse, and natural systems and societal shared resources. The article includes a helpful table on “Putting Corporate Political Responsibility Into Action”.

Could Veterans Put Us on a Path Toward Bringing Respect and Civility Back to Politics?

by Dan Vallone, Stars and Stripes

As we celebrated Veterans Day November 11th, this special edition of Stars and Stripes highlighted the research of More In Common that found that 86% of Americans say they trust veterans to do what is right for America and 76% say veterans are role models for good citizenship. “This trust and respect holds true for Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, and speaks to the distinct potential veterans have to bring Americans together across our political divide”.

WATCHING

Perspectives from Neuroscience: Visualizing the Wonders of the Brain

by Dr. Richard J. Davidson; The Wellbeing Summit for Social Change

The Wellbeing Project held a Summit for Social Change in June 2022 that brought together global social, governmental, arts, and business leaders to advance individual and collective wellbeing for those working on the front lines of social change. You can watch all the videos of the presentations and check out the practical tools and arts installations presented at the Summit here. This session on the neuroscience of wellbeing was one of our favorites.

Signals in the Noise

by Reframe

Check out this great Tik Tok explanatory video on how wellness and fitness influencers create pathways to misinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories. (And while you’re there, check out their other super videos on misinformation and other narrative change topics)!

Building and Sustaining Resilience Amid Rising Political Violence

by Western States Center (WSC)

WSC hosted a series of conversations, Looking Forward by Looking Back, to learn from those who have waged a long-term struggle against authoritarianism to reflect on the choices we will make to protect inclusive democracy in the US. If you missed this inspiring webinar sharing important lessons from the experience in South Africa, we highly recommend taking time to watch the recording; you can download the presentation slides here.

LISTENING TO

These Political Scientists Surveyed 500,000 Voters. Here Are Their Unnerving Conclusions

The Ezra Klein Show podcast

John Sides and Lynn Vavreck — political scientists at Vanderbilt and U.C.L.A., respectively — discuss the findings of their new book, The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy. In this podcast, they make an interesting argument that our politics aren’t just polarized, but calcified, describing the process and implications of this calcification.

Complexity & Genius

The Deep Dive podcast with Philip McKenzie

Systems-level change is hard. In this podcast, Jennifer Garvey Berger discusses her new book Unlock Your Complexity Genius which explores how we think about and process complexity and how we leverage that thinking to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Ripples of Hate

StoryCorps podcast

In 2012, StoryCorps broadcast a conversation with a young woman involved in the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, a Black man in Portland, Oregon. A decade later, they revisited it to look at the ripples of racist violence, and a few people who fought to stop it.

How to Depolarize Deeply Divided Societies

The Conversation Weekly podcast

Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, is studying cases of depolarization from around the world over the past century. Her research is identifying a couple of fundamental conditions of countries which have successfully depolarized (and sustained it.) Robert Talisse, a political philosopher at Vanderbilt University, describes a different phenomenon that he calls belief polarization. Talisse doesn’t believe polarization can ever be eliminated – only managed. And he has a couple of suggestions for how.

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

Fine Acts teamed up with the Democracy & Belonging Forum, an initiative of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley – to produce a collection of powerful visual artworks on the topic of Bridging & Belonging. They “commissioned 40 amazing artists to work on the topic, through the prism of solutions and hope. All works are now published under an open license on thegreats.co, their platform for free social impact art, so that anyone – including educators, activists and nonprofits globally – can use them in their work”.

The Pillars of Support Project

Click here for the Pillars of Support Project Page
While many have recognized the rising crisis of American authoritarianism, making sense of the complexity of the authoritarian system is a challenge. Is the true problem misinformation fueled by social media? Or the inflexibility of our political institutions to respond to changes in demographics and technology? Is it about the normalization of political violence? The return to prominence and troubling mainstreaming of racist white nationalist ideologies? Or perhaps a lack of institutions of deliberative democracy? Maybe the real problem is the longstanding trend of rising economic inequality? Or is it all of the above?

The complexity of the problem has hampered efforts to coordinate action against authoritarianism. Yet such coordination is crucial. Research shows that the most effective social movements involve broad, diverse coalitions that are united around a shared strategy of success. And a central element of any strategy is a clear understanding of the system that the strategy seeks to address.

One powerful approach that can help make sense of this complexity is the “pillars of support” framework. The pillars framework can be summarized in a simple image: a roof held up by several pillars. The roof represents a political system’s leaders, while the pillars represent the key organizations or institutions that give those leaders the resources and legitimacy they need to exercise power. The model rests on two insights: power in any social or political system is something that flows up from below, and this flow almost always takes place through specific institutions. If we can identify those institutions and the resources they provide to the authoritarian system, then we can understand how power operates in that system and be better equipped to change it.

Horizons is currently conducting a set of research projects to explore and better understand the pillars of support for authoritarianism in the US, and what insights historical cases in the US and around the world can give us on how to change the incentives of key pillars to disrupt authoritarianism and incentivize pro-democracy behavior. Based on conversations with partners, we are focusing on four pillars: business, faith communities, civic/professional groups (including organized labor), and veterans’ groups. Key research questions include:

  • What are specific examples of how these key pillars have employed moral, cultural, social, economic/financial, and political levers to push back against democratic backsliding in semi-autocratic contexts in the US and globally?
  • Which groups and organizations constitute the key network nodes within each pillar in the US today?
  • What lessons from domestic and international cases could inform current pro-democracy organizing in the US?
  • How might these lessons inform best practices and specific tools that cross-partisan organizers can use in their work to push back against the authoritarian playbook across the US at the national level? At the state level? At the community level?
  • What are the barriers to operationalizing these best practices and tools and which groups, networks, individuals, etc. are best placed to overcome them?

To answer these questions, we are currently conducting two large-scale research projects. The first is collecting data on recent periods of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism. While scholars of nonviolent action have categorized hundreds of tactics for activists to employ, there is a lack of mapping the tactics that are uniquely applicable to engage specific societal pillars. So, for each period we examine two sets of questions: first, if a movement to protect democracy existed during this time, how did the movement seek to incentivize pillars to push back against authoritarianism, and how successful were such efforts? Second, we examine and systematically categorize any actions by pillars to push back against democratic backsliding and their outcomes. This enables us to identify the most effective levers that pillars have available to them to reverse authoritarianism and restore democracy.

When completed, this research project will provide systematic evidence of global trends both in what has been most effective in swaying pillars away from authoritarianism, and the most effective ways in which pro-democracy allies within these pillars have used their unique position of leverage to disrupt democratic backsliding. We will also harvest a wide range of vignettes that can provide inspiration for organizers and actors within the relevant pillars in the US.

Our second research project is developing a process to conduct comprehensive mapping of the pillars of support for authoritarianism in the US, focused on our four pillars of particular interest (business, faith, civic/professional, and veterans’ groups). The most acute democratic backsliding is taking place within certain states, and levels of authoritarianism vary widely from state to state. Recognizing this fact, we are piloting a process of mapping pillars of support for authoritarian systems at the state level, conducting an initial mapping in the state of Georgia over the course of 2023. Our goal is to offer both the results of the Georgia pillars analysis and the mapping process itself as a resource for pro-democracy organizers to replicate in other states. Ultimately these efforts would be linked in a larger national-level map.

No single framework can fully capture the complexity of the authoritarian system, but through carefully analyzing the key resources that sustain authoritarianism and the pillars of support through which those resources flow pro-democracy organizers can more strategically go on the offense to build key relationships and counter authoritarianism to advance a more just, inclusive democracy.

Click here to learn more about the project and our findings!

How to rise above partisan politics to uphold our democracy

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.