Authoritarianism: How You Know It When You See It

What is democracy?

Forms of rights-based representative government in which:

  • elected government leadership is constrained by constitutionalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the free expression of the people, and the legal protection and moral affirmation of the rights of individuals; and,
  • groups and parties that are not part of electoral majorities cannot easily be disenfranchised or suffer loss of rights of association, voice, and legal protection by the electorally determined leadership.

Source: Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century

What is authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism is a constellation of traits in a political, economic, and/or social system, which often include:

  • The concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people who act in ways that are not constitutionally accountable to the people they are meant to represent and serve.
  • A concerted effort by a network of organizations and institutions (governmental, legal, educational, media, business, military police, religious and cultural institutions, etc.) to legitimize an oppressive system by providing it legal and political support, material resources (i.e. money, communication networks), and human resources (people, skills) to maintain control.
  • A system that is willing to engage in a spectrum of undemocratic practice from corruption and sowing lies and conspiracy theories, to using fear and violence in order to manipulate, divide people, and maintain power.
  • The misuse of the power of the state to advance the personal and/or partisan desires of the head of state or a ruling clique (e.g., persecuting political opponents, subverting honest elections).
  • Often emerges “legally”, by democratically elected leaders who subvert democratic norms and institutions to stay in power.
  • A slow and quiet advance over a period of years where small battles weaken the foundations of democracy, which can culminate in a period of rapid democratic losses and decline.

What is it not?

  • A single individual or a few individuals, their character, or a presumed lack of morals.
  • A partisan policy position that you may find disagreeable.
  • A “red”, “blue”, “left”, or “right” phenomenon – any party or ideology is susceptible.

What are the core attributes of authoritarianism?

  • Rejecting democratic rules of game.
  • Denying the legitimacy of opponents.
  • Tolerating or encouraging political violence.
  • Curtailing the civil liberties of opponents.
  • Breaking down social cohesion to divide and rule a society.

What are the top elements of the authoritarian playbook?

  1. Divide and rule: Foment mistrust and fear; actively scapegoat and pit groups against each other.
  2. Spread lies and conspiracies: Actively promote mis/disinfo; undermine the public’s belief in truth.
  3. Destroy checks and balances and undermine institutions: Quietly use legal or pseudo-legal rationales to gut institutions (bureaucracies, courts, electoral institutions), undermine their independence, and weaken opposition.
  4. Demonize opponents and independent media: Undermine the public’s trust in those actors and institutions that hold the state accountable.
  5. Undermine civil and political rights and criminalize dissent: Actively suppress free speech, the right to assembly and protest and the rights of women and minority groups; restrict NGO activities.
  6. Blame minorities, immigrants, and “outsiders” for a country’s problems: Exploit national humiliation while promising to restore national glory.
  7. Deploy military forces to address public security problems and/or declare national emergencies to seize unconstitutional powers.
  8. Reward loyalists and punish defectors: Make in-group members fearful to voice dissention.
  9. Encourage or condone violence to advance political goals: Dehumanize opposition and/or out-groups to justify violence against them.
  10. Organize mass rallies to keep supporters mobilized against made-up threats: Use fearmongering and hate speech to consolidate in-group identity and solidarity.
  11. Make people feel like they are powerless to change things: Solutions will only come from the top.

What can we do to push back against authoritarianism?

  • Educate publics about how authoritarianism works; demystify its allure; and shine a spotlight on tried-and-true methods of countering hate, violence, and authoritarianism.  
  • Form large, diverse, cross-partisan and cross-ideological pro-democracy fronts or movements with a shared vision; strategy; and clear, concrete demands.
  • Build the capacity of pro-democracy coalitions and movements to manage constructive tensions, center relationships, and prioritize larger collective goals.
  • Train pro-democracy coalitions and movements in nonviolent discipline and violence de-escalation in the face of authoritarian violence.
  • Invest in opportunities for inter- and intra-group dialogue connected to collective action to break down assumptions, develop empathy and understanding, and build trust at the grassroots by working together to combat authoritarian practices.
  • Diversify the range of nonviolent tactics to include methods of concentration (protests, rallies, sit-ins), and methods of dispersion (walkouts, stay-aways, consumer boycott, labor strikes); not doing what authoritarians expect and want.
  • Engage members of key organizational “pillars” like religious institutions, business groups, unions, professional associations, bureaucracies, media institutions, and security forces in pro-democracy mobilization.
  • Provide pathways for individuals within key pillars that morally or materially support the authoritarian system to join the pro-democracy cause.
Maria Stephan explains the authoritarian playbook and V Fixmer-Oraiz describes how the playbook impacts local elected officials.

Practical Tips and Tools for Everyone:

Practical Tips and Tools for Media:

Practical Tips and Tools for Business:

Additional Key Resources: 

Sources: Hannah Arendt, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Erica Chenoweth, Larry Diamond, Rachel Kleinfield, Steven Levitsky, Juan José Linz, Ivan Marovic, Hardy Merriman, Kim Scheppelle, Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, Maria Stephan, and Daniel Ziblatt
For easy dissemination you can download this post as a pdf here.

Forgiveness, Accountability, and Societal Healing

The Horizons Project is partnering with Rotary International to explore how to embed concepts and practices of forgiveness, accountability, and societal healing within Rotary clubs and their partners around the world.Forgiveness is often described as a very courageous act that allows the forgiver to take control and make the difficult choice to let go of animosity and ill-will towards a perpetrator without condoning the act of injustice itself. It can be a powerful tool for the individual journey towards transformation and self-healing. Yet, when an injustice or violent act affects more than one person and/or is part of an ongoing system that is perpetrating harm, forgiveness alone can be inadequate to meet the larger need for group, community, and/or societal healing.Some social changemakers take issue with the term and practice of forgiveness due to the lack of accountability needed for the individual forgiveness process to occur. Without accountability, how can the wrongdoer learn from their mistakes so that they don’t cause further pain and suffering? If a larger group of people or system is responsible, how will an individual act of forgiveness serve others in a community or society who may encounter the same injustice? While forgiveness alone can be a powerful, spiritual act, it can sometimes overlook larger, systemic issues and injustices at play that perpetuate ongoing harm or trauma, even after the individual act of forgiveness takes place.

Trauma or harm can take many forms in society—it can come directly from a distressing event, be experienced over time from adversity (including chronic scarcity of essential resources) and/or be passed down through generations within communities where deep empathy and the recounting of direct traumatic experiences is common. Untreated trauma can lead to biological, cognitive and behavioral adaptations that affect social norms and group dynamics. In organizations and community groups, untreated trauma can influence the group’s norms, guiding principles, culture, and ability to make change together. However, when trauma is adequately addressed and treated, it can allow individuals and a larger society to take steps towards healing—to center love, find compassion and restore broken relationships.

The ways of addressing forgiveness, accountability, and trauma are often siloed in practice, with each field developing its own approaches and tools that can make it difficult to integrate for practical application. As a community-rooted organization, whose members “see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change” and seek to “provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace,” Rotarians are well-situated to help make these connections with the appropriate tools and resources.

RESOURCES

Videos

Why It Is So Hard to Forgive, Dr. Jim Dincalci, The Forgiveness Foundation

In this short video, Dr. Dincalci provides an overview of forgiveness, myths about forgiveness, and why it can be beneficial for individual processes for transformation and self-healing. More resources from Dr. Dincalci can be found here.

Kazu Haga on Beloved Community, Kazu Haga, The Horizons Project

Haga discusses the challenge of building the beloved community, especially when it comes to including people who are not easy to love. Listening to their story may allow us to replace harbored resentment and anger—not to condone the action—but to find compassion through understanding.

International Forgiveness Institute Training Videos

The International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) has compiled a library of training videos and podcasts that discuss strategies and approaches individuals may explore on forgiveness. The videos and curriculum are targeted towards education professionals, counselors, psychotherapists, families, and other peacebuilding practitioners.

Loretta J. Ross: “Don’t call people out – call them in”, TED Talk

‘We live in a call-out culture, says activist and scholar Loretta J. Ross. You’re probably familiar with it: the public shaming and blaming, on social media and in real life, of people who may have done wrong and are being held accountable. In this bold, actionable talk, Ross gives us a toolkit for starting productive conversations instead of fights — what she calls a “call-in culture” — and shares strategies that help challenge wrongdoing while still creating space for growth, forgiveness and maybe even an unexpected friend. “Fighting hate should be fun,” Ross says. “It’s being a hater that sucks.”’

Articles

What Other Cultures Can Teach Us About Forgiveness, William Park, BBC Future

“Forgiving someone else can have a positive effect on your life, but exactly how you forgive someone depends on where in the world you are from.”

Reflections on Accountability and Forgiveness: Part 1, Stefanie Krasnow and Rami Nijjar

“This blog [explores] the perspective of those who have been hurt and ways that different perspectives of forgiveness and accountability can help or hinder their healing process.”

Reflections on Accountability and Forgiveness: Part 2, Stefanie Krasnow and Rami Nijjar

“This blog [explores] the role [that] accountability and forgiveness have in creating healing and repair when we are in the role of having done harm.”

The Necessity of Forgiveness – and Accountability: Matthew 18:21-35, Leah D. Schade, EcoPreacher, Patheos

“The parable about the Unforgiving Servant shows us that forgiveness is essential – but so is accountability…And I’d like to imagine that our church can think deeply about what it means to be in relationship with each other, with those who exercise power, and with those who have had their power stripped from them. Because theology does matter.  How we read the Bible does matter. It is literally a matter of life and death. And the church needs to proclaim God’s radical forgiveness and divine mercy, as well as the surety of God’s accountability and justice.”

When Forgiveness Isn’t Enough, Andrea Jongbloed, Relevant Magazine

“Forgiveness involves ceasing to feel resentment towards someone. Reconciliation involves the restoring of a relationship, something that can be difficult to do (and something that can’t or shouldn’t happen in some situations).” In this article, Jongbloed discusses the benefits and hard work of going beyond forgiveness—to reconciliation. She quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu in describing why reconciliation is worthwhile, despite the pain: ‘”Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are,” he says. “It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”’

We need to build a movement that heals our nation’s traumas, Kazu Haga, Waging Nonviolence

“As a nation, we have never talked about the traumatic years of our collective childhood. Sure, in some small, hidden ways there were whispers of it. We would talk about it in activist spaces. Radicals would read books about it and have healing rituals. There would be murmurs and rumors spoken in progressive circles. But as a nation, we have never dove into it. And so the trauma that we all experienced got frozen and stuck.”

Issue #50: Belonging and Transformative Resilience, Future of Belonging

Explore this conversation “with Ama Marston to discuss her book, Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World, and work focused on transformative resilience. [The] conversation focused on the mindset, solutions, and approaches for moving through crisis and trauma that transformative resilience offers, many of which align with fulfilling the need for belonging.”

Podcasts

Shame, Safety and Moving Beyond Cancel Culture, The Ezra Klein Show

“When is cancellation merited or useful? When is it insufficient or harmful? And what other tools are available in those cases?”

The Limits of Forgiveness, In this Vox Conversations podcast, philosopher Lucy Allais reflects on human nature, concepts of power, and the limits of forgiveness. From her perspective as a South African living in the US, she discusses the contours of forgiveness as a political tool to move forward as a polarized democracy.

Tools

Resources from The Forgiveness Foundation, The Forgiveness Foundation

Check out these books, trainings, group discussion guides and therapy resources on forgiveness from The Forgiveness Foundation based on Dr. Jim Dincalci’s work. They “utilize a comprehensive approach – incorporating psychological, sociological, educational and other aspects” to help individuals through the forgiveness process.

The Art of Forgiveness, Frederic Luskin, Ph.D.

“One of the most challenging tasks we face in life is how to remain peaceful when something frustrates us. Not getting what we want is one of the main challenges to dealing with illness, abandonment, dishonesty, or any other difficulties that humans experience. Most of us never fully accept that life often does not give us what we want. We often react with outrage or offense when a normal, but difficult, life experience emerges. Most of us will make the situation worse by insisting and complaining that the specific difficulty is wrong instead of focusing our energy on how to best deal with the situation.” This article discusses several stages/approaches for granting forgiveness.

From Trauma to Transformative Futures: Four Dimensions, Interaction Institute for Social Change

This framework from the Interaction Institute for Social Change helps organizations, groups, and individuals consider how they might transition from trauma to reckoning to healing to transformative futures.

Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience: A Framework for Addressing and Preventing Community Trauma, Rachel David, Howard Pinderhughes and Myesha Wiliams, Prevention Institute

“This report offers a groundbreaking framework for understanding the relationship between community trauma and violence. Until now, there has been no basis for understanding how community trauma undermines both individual and community resilience, especially in communities highly impacted by violence, and what can be done about it. Funded by Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit in Northern California and based on interviews with practitioners in communities with high rates of violence, the report outlines specific strategies to address and prevent community trauma—and foster resilience—using techniques from those living in affected areas.”

#ListenFirst Conversations Complete Guide, #Listen First

“A #ListenFirst conversation is any conversation that helps us see each other across differences and discover human connection. It might be between two friends or among many strangers. It might be on a park bench, in a classroom, in the workplace, at home, or online. Regardless of where you are or who you’re with, here are our favorite principles and tips!”

Calling In and Calling Out Guide, Harvard University’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging

“In fostering spaces of inclusion and belonging, it is important to recognize, name, and address when individuals or groups with marginalized identities are experiencing harm, such as bias or discrimination. The concepts of “calling out” or “calling in” have become popular ways of thinking about how to bring attention to this type of harm. Knowing the difference between these concepts can help us reflect, then act, in the ways we feel will best promote constructive change. This guide is a continuously evolving document that we plan to improve over time.”

THE VISTA: May 2022

As we grapple with the horrific mass violence that occurred this past month – and that continues daily in the United States – one piece that gave us solace and inspiration came from Valarie Kaur, the founder of The Revolutionary Love Project, who offered up this Love Letter to You After Uvalde. At the Horizons Project, we believe in the power of staying connected; in joining together across difference to combat hate and violence; and, to organize for meaningful change. In that spirit, we’re sharing some of the great work and thought-provoking ideas that brought together peacebuilding, democracy, and social justice from recent weeks.

READING

Why Addressing the Historical Legacy of Racial Injustice is Essential for a Healthy Democracy.” Treston Codrington and Matt Leighninger reflect on different processes globally that support civic engagement in addressing historic injustices, and the interplay between truth-seeking and reconciliation.

Women’s Rights and Democracy Are Inextricably Linked.” Jennifer Weiss-Wolf writes about decreases in women’s rights, “not merely the byproducts of a demo­cracy on the decline. Rather they also drive a down­ward spiral [that] can inev­it­ably lead to deeper inequal­ity and wider gaps in parti­cip­a­tion, a truly vicious cycle.”

Culture, Deep Narratives and…. Whac-A-Mole?” by Ruth Taylor. “As campaigners and organizers, communicators, lobbyists and funders, much of our attention is placed on the immediate outcomes which we set out to achieve.” Taylor asks for deeper reflection, ‘what values does my work promote and foreground?’ and ‘what deep narratives about the world, and our role as human beings, does it reinforce or amplify?’

Reducing Pernicious Polarization: A Comparative Historical Analysis of Depolarization.” This working paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace examines the conditions under which perniciously polarized countries have successfully depolarized for a sustainable period of time.

The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization.” Yascha Mounk offers another take on the Carnegie report mentioned above; he reflects on how the experience of polarization in the US is comparable (or not) to other countries.

WATCHING

Democracy Set Aflame: Is Polarization Really the Problem?” You won’t want to miss this recording of a recent discussion by two giants in their fields, john a powell and Marshall Ganz, musing on the many intersections of bridging and social movements.

America’s Empathy Deficit: Our Bloody Heirloom and the Invisible Backpack.” It’s graduation season! Enjoy this provocative and inspiring commencement speech by Dr. Jae Williams, an award-winning storyteller and social justice advocate, as he received Northeastern University’s Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work.

An Anti-Immigration Media Machine: Study Tracks White Supremacist Talking Points Online.” Watch this short news clip with Shauna Siggelkow, Hassan Ahmad, and Alicia Menendez discussing a new report by Define American that tracked the impact, tactics, and reach of anti-immigration narratives on YouTube — and tools to fight back.

Exploring Hate: Antisemitism, Racism, and Extremism.” In Part 2 of a 5-part series, be/longing: Asian Americans NowDr. Richard Park discusses his mission to serve poor and elderly Asian immigrants, which has become more urgent as hate crimes have surged against the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community.

LISTENING TO

How To Free Our Minds — with Cult Deprogramming Expert Dr. Steven Hassan.” This episode of the podcast Your Undivided Attention offers an interesting discussion on the degree to which we are all under some form of undue influence, especially because of technology and social media, and the extent we are aware of this influence.

The Good Fight Podcast: Daniel Ziblatt.” Yascha Mounk and Daniel Ziblatt have a conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on populism and democracy.

The Limits of Forgiveness.” In this Vox Conversations podcast, philosopher Lucy Allais reflects on human nature, concepts of power, and the limits of forgiveness. From her perspective as a South African living in the US, she discusses the contours of forgiveness as a political tool to move forward as a polarized democracy.

Anne Applebaum on What Liberals Misunderstand About Authoritarianism.” This podcast discussion with Ezra Klein reflects on how “radical loneliness” can lay the groundwork for authoritarianism, the seductive allure of conspiracy theories, and how modern propaganda feeds off a combination of gullibility and cynicism.

INTERESTING TWEETS

Ruth Taylor compiled a meaty Twitter thread of resources and experts for those interested in learning more about narrative change. Trevor Smith then complemented this compilation with additional resources, expertise, and perspectives from people of color.

Debra Caplan breaks down Alfred Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic about the 1918 Flu; and she applies those lessons to our current lack of memorializing the societal impact of COVID-19.

Ros Atkins recently gave a speech at the Society of Editors in the UK on the future of journalism and posted it as a Twitter thread.

Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan tweeted a summary of the Migration Policy Institute’s new study on public opinions and narratives on refugees around the globe, and what does and does not work.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

The Othering & Belonging Institute curated a playlist by those who attended their recent Culture of Care event.

THE VISTA: April 2022

WHAT WE’RE READING, WATCHING, AND LISTENING TO AT HORIZONS

In April, we joined many friends and colleagues in mourning the sudden loss of Peter Ackerman, a visionary and treasured leader in the field of civil resistance. One concrete way to honor Peter’s memory is to read and help spread his most recent publication the Checklist To End Tyranny, an important resource for anyone who cares about organizing to expand freedom over oppression. Mixed in with this sense of loss is also the great joy we experienced this month, as the Horizons team convened our first in-person gathering of an amazing group of women network leaders. During this time, we shared deeply our individual practices of “sensemaking,” a topic near and dear to us as one of our three lines of work at Horizons. You can read more about these practices in our most recent blog. We are also excited to welcome a new teammate, Nilanka Seneviratne, who joined us April 1 as Director of Operations and Systems!

Horizons continues to curate resources each month that bring together different ideas and perspectives linking issues of democracy, peacebuilding, and social justice. We hope you enjoy the many thought-provoking materials in this month’s VISTA:

READING

Dissent and Dialogue: The Role of Mediation in Nonviolent Uprisings

By Isak Svensson and Daan van de Rizen, U.S. Institute of Peace

While both mediation and nonviolent resistance have been the subject of significant scholarly work, the connection of the two fields has received less attention. Using newly collected data on nonviolent uprisings over several years in Africa, this report explores four distinct challenges: how to determine when the situation is ripe for resolution, how to identify valid spokespersons when movements consist of diverse coalitions, how to identify well-positioned insider mediators, and how to avoid the risk of mediation leading to pacification without transformative social change.

Red/Blue Workshops Try to Bridge The Political Divide. Do They Really Work?

John Burnett, NPR

Using an example of a Braver Angels dialogue in La Grange Texas, this article explores the work of bridgebuilders in the US including some limitations and criticisms of these approaches.

The Racial Politics of Solidarity With Ukraine,

Kitana Ananda, Nonprofit Quarterly

This article delves into the nuances of the racialized response to the war in Ukraine both within the United States and abroad, highlighting existing tensions and different perspectives about the need for an anti-war movement to be aligned with racial justice.

How Companies Can Address Their Historical Transgressions

Sarah Federman, Harvard Business Review

Some multigenerational companies or their predecessors have committed acts in the past that would be anathema today—they invested in or owned slaves, for example, or they were complicit in crimes against humanity. How should today’s executives respond to such historical transgressions? Drawing on her recent book about the effort by the French National Railways to make amends for its role in the Holocaust, the author argues that rather than become defensive, executives should accept that appropriately responding to crimes in the past is their fiduciary and moral duty. They can begin by commissioning independent historians, publicly apologizing in a meaningful manner, and offering compensation on the advice of victims’-rights groups. The alternative is often expensive lawsuits and bruising negotiations with victims or their descendants.

How to Avoid (Unintentional) Online Racism and Shut Down Overt Racism When You See It

Mark Holden, Website Planet

Special thanks to Ritta Blens for sharing this piece for us and our readers! While lengthy, this great article provides a comprehensive breakdown of how racism is showing up online in the US and abroad, as well as statistics for how Americans and others are choosing to respond. The article ends with some helpful recommendations for how organizations, journalists, and individuals can avoid unintentionally racist language, as well as address racism when you see it in your online communities.

WATCHING

A Community-Led Approach to Revitalizing American Democracy

The Horizons Project

During the 2022 National Week of Conversation, The Horizons Project, Beyond Conflict, and Urban Rural Action led a conversation on how communities can lead the way to revitalizing democracy in the US and beyond. You can check out the first part of the event in the link above.

America Needs To Admit How Racist It is

The Problem with Jon Stewart (Video) Podcast

This is a heart-felt discussion on race relations with Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of Equal Justice Initiative about how racism has poisoned America from the very start. The interview also offers ideas on how the country can reckon with our past and repair the damage it continues to do.

The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change

Great Reads Book Club (Video) Podcast by Mediate.com

Bernie Mayer and Jacqueline Font-Guzman discuss their wonderful new book, with important reflections from the perspective of conflict resolution professionals about how the social issues that face us today need conflict, engagement, and disruption. Avoiding conflict would be a mistake for us to make progress as a country.

Frontiers of Democratic Reform

The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Democracy in the Balance Series

This recording is the third in a series of discussions on democratic vulnerability and resilience in the United States. The final webinar focused on the practical steps that can be taken to guard against democratic backsliding in the United States and how to bolster the integrity of our democratic institutions. Panelists included Judd Choate (Colorado Division of Elections), Lee Drutman (New America), Hahrie Han (Johns Hopkins University), and Larry Jacobs (University of Minnesota). You can download all the journal articles that served as a basis for this series here.

LISTENING

Desacralizing The Culture War

Podcast: The Whole Person Revolution

David French is a columnist for the Atlantic and the author of Divided We Fall, and Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. In this podcast they discuss why the current culture wars have been intensifying and potential ways forward.

The Future of Hope

Podcast: On Being

Ai-jen Poo and Tarana Burke join each other in conversation for this episode in a series from On Being on the future of hope. They discuss their beautiful friendship that has powered and sustained them as they are leading defining movements of this generation. It’s an intimate conversation rooted in trust and care, and an invitation to all of us to imagine and build a more graceful way to remake the world.

Deva Woodly on Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and The Democratic Necessity of Social Movements

Podcast: Conversations in Atlantic Theory

Deva Woodly from the New School for Social Research has published widely on democratic theory and practice, focusing on the function of public meaning formation and its effect on self and collective understanding of the polity. This podcast explores the role of social movements in democratic life and how we come to produce knowledge from those public conversations.

How Many Americans Actually Support Political Violence?

Podcast: People Who Read People

A talk with political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff, discussing survey results that seem to show an increase in Americans willingness to think political violence is justified, and how that relates to our fears about future violent conflicts and “civil war scenarios” in the United States. The podcast also covers the psychology of polarization, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and the effects of social media on society in general.

INTERESTING TWEETS

A twitter thread breaking down the recent Jon Haidt article in the Atlantic, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.

Check out this overview of new research from Ike Silver and Alex Shaw published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology on how the common tactics people use to avoid taking a stand on hot-button issues can backfire, and the costs of moral neutrality.

Luke Craven reflects on the need for “values alignment” for effective coalition-building versus creating the conditions for “values pluralism.”

Using the Climate Crisis as an example, Prof. Katherine Hayhoe highlights the limitations of fear-based messaging, emphasizing the need to not only describe the problems we are facing as a society, but to also offer actions people can take and hope that change is possible.

An interesting discussion on the implication for journalists and media outlets on the ways their reporting is skewed by the highly polarized, politically informed populace versus most Americans who are not politically engaged and tuning out.

Gabriel Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University and describes why the new label of “groomer” being thrown at political adversaries is so dangerous.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

With all the heaviness of the world we want to leave you with something a little different. Music is such a powerful force, it has the power to inspire, celebrate, and even galvanize action. This section won’t always be a song but hopefully it’ll strike a chord with you as you go about your day.

Since Mother’s Day is quickly approaching, we wanted to include a musical tribute to all the mothers out there. And someone who’s music inspired has several of us over the years is Brandi Carlile. Her album By the Way, I Forgive You remains in heavy rotation. So, we present for your enjoyment, The Mother.

THE VISTA: March 2022

WHAT WE’RE READING, WATCHING & LISTENING TO AT HORIZONS

In March, as the war in Ukraine took up so much of our news feeds, we have been inspired by the renewed attention to the need for a global democracy movement and the recognition of our interconnection in a shared fight against authoritarianism. The Horizons team remains committed to elevating the many voices of different disciplines and different perspectives who are committed to finding a way forward together towards a pluralistic, inclusive democracy in the United States and around the world. We have so much to learn from each other. So, in the words of the late and great Secretary Madeleine Albright, “let us buckle our boots, grab a cane if we need one, and march.”

Here are some of the recommendations the Horizons team is inspired to share for this month’s VISTA:

READING

Where Does American Democracy Go From Here?, New York Times Magazine

If we are going to come together to form a larger movement to work for democracy in the United States, we first need to find a common of understanding of the problems we are facing. In this article, six experts across the ideological spectrum discuss how worried we should be out democracy’s future in the US.

How to Resist Manipulation by Embracing All Your IdentitiesLearning to celebrate complex identities in ourselves and others could help make the world a better place, Greater Good Science Center

“We all contain multiple identities, with those identities vying for primacy in our heads…there is quite a bit of evidence that the world would be a better, more peaceful place if we could hold space for different identities in ourselves and in other people. How can we do that, while resisting efforts to elevate one over all the others in situations of conflict? This article provides some research-based tips.”

Civic Virus: Why Polarization is a Misdiagnosis, The Harwood Institute

Interesting take on the polarization debate. This report posits that Americans don’t really feel polarized or antagonistic toward one another. Rather, that we feel isolated and disoriented, like we are “trapped in a house of mirrors with no way out; in the grips of a perilous fight or flight response.” The authors offer recommendations for “a society that is breaking apart, to give people safe passage to hope” with concrete steps to help us move forward.

Transformative Organizing, Martha Mackenzie, Executive Director of the Civic Power Fund

Coinciding with the recent launch of European Community Organizing Network’s new report on ‘The Power of Organizing’ this article discusses a form of Transformative Organizing that enables the needed transformation of both the individual and society necessary for large scale systemic change.

A Future for All of Us; Butterfly Lab for Immigrant Narrative Strategy, Race Forward

“Whether you are an advocate or artist or thinking about how to apply narrative or cultural strategy for the first time, this new report on Immigrant Narrative Strategies is designed to help you think and act at multiple levels —locally, regionally, and nationally.”

Releasing New Data on Civic Language Perceptions, Kristen Cambell, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

PACE partnered with Citizen Data to conduct a survey of 5,000 registered voters to understand people’s perceptions of the language associated with “civic engagement and democracy work.” They recently released their data on 21 commonly used terms, and are offering mini grants to support others to dig into the data to surface new findings, and create “bite-sized” content.

A Call to Connection, The Einhorn Collaborative, The Sacred Design Lab, and The Greater Good Science Center

The Einhorn Collaborative commissioned A Call to Connection to help leaders in multiple sectors better understand how vital human connection is to effectively address the challenges of our time. “Weaving together extensive scientific findings, insights from ancient wisdom traditions, beautiful stories, and concrete practices, this primer captures why and how human connection is a necessary and often missing ingredient in many of our efforts to ignite positive social change.”

The Pause, Newsletter of Pádraig Ó Tuama with On Being

Great newsletter to check out! This edition focuses on how even in times of conflict and upheaval, we can train our energy and attention on wonder not wounding; on awe, not war. Links to the recent re-airing of an interview with the esteemed astrophysicist Mario Livio, who spent 24 years working at the Space Telescope Science Institute of the Hubble Telescope. Shares his views of how the languages of art, science, and wonder can open up the human condition to the magnitude of the fact that we are here at all.

WATCHING

The Neuroscience of Trauma and Chronic Stress, Beyond Conflict

As a part of the March Brain Awareness Week of the Dana Foundation, you can re-watch this great panel discussion on how trauma and chronic stress impact the brain, including Vivian Khedari DePierroMike Niconchuk and moderated by Sloka Iyengar.

Shifting Mindsets to Shift Development Systems, Laurel Patterson, Head SDG Integration, UNDP

The UNDP describes a new approach to systems change with a focus on inner transformation, highlighting the fact that the ways social divisions, short-termism and siloed ways of responding to interconnected issues are no longer working. They are partnering with the Presencing Institute to help open new spaces to connect and make sense of what we’re all seeing and experiencing. Embedded in the article is a link to a series of videos on “awareness-based collective action

Reframing History: A Conversation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

You can re-watch the launch of the report on Reframing History, including a panel of historians and museum curators, including Clint Smith author of How the Word is Passed  and the head of the Hard Histories program at Johns Hopkins who shared the inspiring tagline: “History tells us how we got here. Hard Histories show us a way forward.”

LISTENING

How to Change the World, Podcast: Hidden Brain

Great interview highlighting the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan on why nonviolent civil resistance works. “Pop culture and conventional history often teach us that violence is the most effective way to produce change. But is that common assumption actually true?”

Probing the Past: How Companies can Address Historical Transgressions, Podcast: The Crux

In this episode Dr. Sarah Federman discusses why she feels every Fortune 500 company should hire a historian an how understanding the past contributes to today’s DEI efforts and the need to accept responsibility, understand the past and respond meaningfully.

Cynefin, Sense Making & Complexity, Podcast: The Deep Dive

Conversation with Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin Framework about a range of social change issues, ways of solving complex problems and sensemaking.

INTERESTING TWEETS

The recent Arnold Schwarzenegger video appealing to Russians was given a lot of attention on social media. This is an overview of a social science study on the real persuasive impact of his messages given our polarized context.

Overview of new academic paper on how that parties to a conflict systematically mis-predict our counterparts emotions, specifically feelings of self-threat.

Reflections on Pastor Andy Stanley’s recent remarks to the Georgia House of Representatives. “Do you love the state of Georgia more than you love your party? If not, maybe you should do something else. Disagreement is always going to be there. Disunity is a choice.”

Great narrative advice on why it’s important to NOT amplify the messages you want people to forget.

Western States Center breaks down the recently released Southern Poverty Law Center’s Annual Year in Hate and Extremism Report.

THE VISTA: February 2022

WHAT WE’RE READING, WATCHING & LISTENING TO AT HORIZONS

The Horizons Project continues to reflect deeply as a team and with our partners on the wonderful resources produced by so many inspiring actors within the ecosystem of social change in the US. For example, during the month of February, we had the opportunity to connect with several key partners on developing future narratives within movement campaigns. This spurred us to compile our favorite resources on Narratives, Imagination Skills and Futures Literacy.

Also in February, Chief Organizer Maria Stephan participated in a discussion on the launch of the new book Checklist To End Tyranny with author Peter Ackerman and other colleagues; and Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig celebrated her chapter on Adaptive Leadership for Peacebuilders at the virtual launch of the new e-book on 21st Century Mediation by the Center for Peace & Conflict Studies in Cambodia.

Here are some other recommendations the Horizons Team would like to share for this month’s VISTA:

READING

Radicalism or pragmatism? A look at another divide in racial justice advocacy

By: Stephen Menendian

This blog discusses the recently released Structural Racism Remedies Project from The Othering & Belonging Institute and describes the tensions between urgency and gradualism. Learn more about this tension and others the Horizons team have also identified in the overall social change ecosystem here.

“One form or mode might be more accurately described as a ‘technocratic’ position…based on a close and careful assessment of the available empirical evidence, and pushes toward a set of policy prescriptions or recommendations that emphasize pragmatism and feasibility. The other approach might be described as a ‘radical’ position. This approach is informed by lived experience, emphasizing ground-truth and community power rather than technocratic expertise, but it is also more explicitly and clearly tied to an expression of values and ideals. One difference between these two modes is the relevant time horizon. The more radical policy stance on each of these issues is defined, in part, by the immediacy of its demands, for example, by ending use of fossil fuels immediately. In contrast, the more pragmatic position tends towards gradualism, for example, transitioning to renewable energy sources within a realistic timeframe.”

Black History Month is about Seeing America Clearly

By: Esau McCaulley, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.

“Black history offers America a chance to see itself both as what we have failed to become and as we wish ourselves to be. It is not to inspire hate for one race or to foment division. America seeing itself clearly is the first step toward owning and then learning from its mistakes. The second step is the long journey to become that which we hope to be: a more perfect — and just — union.”

The Reframing History Report and Toolkit

This resource was recently released as a collaboration between the FrameWorks Institute, National Council on Public History, and Organization of American Historians

“Amid ongoing national controversy, it is more important than ever to be able to clearly explain what history is, how we come to understand the past, and why it matters to society. This report provides historians and others with a new set of evidence-backed recommendations for communicating about history.”

The Corporate Civic Playbook 

By: The Civic Alliance

This playbook provides companies with guidance on helping to strengthen democracy in the U.S. It provides the business case for companies engaging in democracy and provides interesting resources, including scaled levels of engagement and corporate activism.

Reset Narratives Community: The story so far…

This is a beautiful reflection of the learning journey of Ella Saltmarshe and Paddy Loughman as they created the Reset Narratives Community in the UK over the last 18 months and are investing in narrative infrastructure, with a lot of insights on the intersectionality of movement narratives.

Running Headlong Into the Limits of Love

By: Pastor Greg Arthur from the Ideos Institute

This blog discussing issues of empathy and love within the evangelical community in the US:

“Much of the turmoil within the American church, especially in evangelical circles, has come around these issues… Politics, immigration, the realities of a racialized society, the LGBTQ community, how we teach our country’s history, these are topics that continue to reveal and accentuate the divisions within the church. The question many have been asking is what these antagonisms reveal about us as followers of Christ? An equally important question might be how can what is being revealed in these antagonisms become a catalyst to the healing of the church and of a broken world?”

Emergent Strategy

By: adrienne maree brown

“Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. This is a resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.”

WATCHING

Next Normal Introduction Video

Short discussion from Jigsaw Foresight of the 10 Principles for the next normal for our work effectiveness. Favorite insight: “Becoming Indistractable is the skill of the century” By: Nir Eyal

Tackling Extremism: The Greek experience and comparisons with the US

This event from The Social Change Initiative includes great resources on how Greek civil society came together to fight against rising extremism from the far right with insights on lessons learned from US organizers.

LISTENING

The Complex Truth About American Patriotism

This episode of The Argument podcast with Jane Coastan features a discussion with Ben Rhodes (who recently wrote This is No Time For Passive Patriotism in The Atlantic) and Jamelle Bouie. It’s a fascinating debate about whether we can build a new unifying “story” of America, or whether we are too diverse to rally around a “baseline of meaning” and rather need to move forward based on our distinct values.

Forward: Practical Ways to Create Narrative Change 

On this episode of Forward: How Stories Drive Change, Rinku Sen, from Narrative Initiative discusses her organization’s approach to narrative change and gives some great examples of their current work in practice.

INTERESTING TWEETS

THE VISTA: January 2022

WHAT WE’RE READING, WATCHING & LISTENING TO AT HORIZONS 

There are so many wonderful insights and ideas that inspire us at The Horizons Project, helping to make sense of what’s happening, what’s needed, what’s possible and ways of working within a complex system. Once a month we share just a sampling of the breadth of resources, tools, reflections, and diverse perspectives that we hope will offer you some food for thought as well.

READING

Coordinates of Speculative Solidarity

By: Barbara Adams as part of UNHCR’s Project Unsung

“Solidarity has a speculative character and is fundamentally a horizontal activity with its focus on liberation, justice, and the creative processes of world- and future-building—projects that are never complete. The horizon is always present in the landscape, reminding us that there are things beyond what is visible from a particular location. As a coordinate central to perspective and orientation, the horizon is vital to successful navigation. As we move toward the horizon it remains “over there,” showing us that there are limits to what we can know in advance. However, rather than frustrating our efforts, horizons represent possibilities.”

The Relational Work of Systems Change

By: Katherine Milligan, Juanity Zerda and John Kania at the Collective Change Lab

“People who work with collective impact efforts are all actors in the systems they are trying to change, and that change must begin from within. The process starts with examining biases, assumptions, and blind spots; reckoning with privilege and our role in perpetuating inequities; and creating the inner capacity to let go of being in control. But inner change is also a relational and iterative process: The individual shifts the collective, the collective shifts the individual, and on and on it goes. That interplay is what allows us to generate insight, create opportunities, and see the potential for transformation.”

6 Key Practices for Sensemaking

By: David McLean on LinkedIn

This post highlights the work of Harold Jarche and is chock full of tips on how to deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity.

More Common Sense, Less Ideology: Modern Communications Lessons from the Critical Race Theory Debates

By: Nat Kendall-Taylor at Frameworks Institute

“Being smart and right is getting in the way of moving hearts and minds towards positive social change…Speaking to what people are worried about resonates, while rhetorical quips and barbs make it seem like communicators don’t get the point, or worse, that they don’t care. Instead of defending the definition of Critical Race Theory, communicators could have pivoted to discussions about the importance of having an education system that prepares children for the world they will inherit, or of the role of having children realize their potential for the future prosperity of our country.”

After the Tide: Critical Race Theory in 2021

By: Baratunde Thurston on Puck

“So, I want us to stop talking about ‘critical race theory’ and start talking about what it means to love this country. I want us to stop burying our heads when someone shares an unflattering truth and instead embrace the discomfort and recognize it as a sign of growth. I want us to stop talking about ‘freedom’ as if it means denying the truth and instead remember that living a lie is what holds us captive, and the truth is what sets us free. I’m ready to get to the part of the American story where we have processed our pain and used it to forge a stronger nation, where we can heal from our historic traumas and focus our energies on building that ever-elusive multi-racial democracy where everyone feels like they belong. But we cannot heal from injuries we do not acknowledge. We cannot grow from pain we refuse to feel. Let’s know America. Let’s love America. Let’s grow America.”

To Tackle Racial Justice, Organizing Must Change

By: Daniel Martinez HoSang, LeeAnne Hall and Libero Della Piana in The Forge 

This provocative read names how internal conflicts can show up within racial justice movements and offers concrete advice on creating an “organizational culture with more calling-in than calling-out.”

Just Look Up: 10 Strategies to Defeat Authoritarianism

By: Deepak Bhargava and Harry Hanbury

“The gravity of the threat demands a reorientation of energy from organizations and individuals to prioritize the fight to preserve democracy.  Unless it is addressed, there is little prospect of progress on other issues in the years to come. The fate of each progressive issue and constituency is now bound together.  We might even imagine a practice of “tithing for democracy” — finding a way for all of us, whatever our role and work, to devote a significant portion of our time to address the democracy crisis, which has become the paramount issue of our time. We may each make different kinds of contributions, but there’s no way to honorably keep on with business as usual in the face of the current crisis. We’ll explore a wide variety of possible approaches with the understanding that there’s no silver bullet or quick fix for such a deep-rooted problem.”

Strengthening Local Government Against Bigoted and Anti-Democracy Movements

The Western States Center released a new resource for Local Governments on how to counter groups working to undermine democracy and counter bigoted political violence. “Local leaders have the power to confront hate and bigotry. Many have shown bravery and commitment in working to counter these dangerous forces in their communities….we hope these recommendations provide one more tool to support these critical efforts.”

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer was recently released with the study results of levels of trust in business, governments, NGOs and media. Across every issue, and by huge margins, people indicated they want more business engagement and accountability in responding to societal problems, especially climate change and rising inequality.

LISTENING

Podcast Undistracted: “This Big Old Lie”

The author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper TogetherHeather McGhee sits down with host Brittany Packnett Cunningham to explain her research, the “hypnotic racial story” fueling American injustice, and how we can do better.

Podcast Scholars Strategy Network: Reflecting on Two Years of Trauma

Dr. Maurice Stevens, from Ohio State University, reflects on how Americans react and respond to traumatic events both as individuals as groups, and on how we can better connect amidst the current chaos.

Fear and Scapegoating in the Time of Pandemics 

A podcast interview with Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab, on the connection between pandemics and our need to assign blame.

Podcast StoryCorps: One Small Step

In this episode, StoryCorps shares examples of people sitting down and talking about what shapes their beliefs and what shapes us as humans. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay describes what he envisions for this new initiative, One Small Step.

Reading of “Let Them Not Say”

If you like poetry, you’ll enjoy this reading by Krista Tippet of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Let Them Not Say” which is so powerful and relevant even though she wrote it a couple years ago.

Let them not say:     we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say:     we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say:     they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say:     it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say:     they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Let them say, as they must say something:

A kerosene beauty.
It burned.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

WATCHING

Unraveling Biases in the Brain

By: Dr. Emily Falk and Dr. Emile Bruneau at TEDxPenn

“How can we unravel the conflicting biases in our brain to work towards a more just and peaceful world? In this talk, Dr. Emily Falk honors Dr. Emile Bruneau’s work at Penn’s Neuroscience & Conflict lab, describing the opportunity to look closer into our unconscious biases, question them, and face discomfort to make a change in our communities and beyond.”

Dialogue Lab: America 

This documentary by Ideas Institute that brings together twelve Americans from across the ideological spectrum to participate in a dialogue experiment on political polarization. It’s an hour long and “tracks each participant as they voice their political opinions, come face to face with those holding different views, and, perhaps, forge a path to mutual understanding.” You can watch the trailer here, and watch the movie from their website.

Hope-Based Communications for Human Rights Activists

By: Thomas Coombes at TEDxMagdeburg

Coombes reflects on how “social change activists are very good at talking about what they are against, but less good at selling the change they want to see to the wider public.”

INTERESTING TWEETS

Kicking Off the Horizons Project

We are thrilled to announce that in January 2022, The Horizons Project has launched under the auspices of our fiscal sponsor, the New Venture Fund. We are very grateful for the support of Humanity United and the Packard Foundation to begin this next phase of the Project’s journey.

As systems-level organizers, we are committed to proactively sharing our insights and reflections as they emerge about how peacebuilders, social justice movement leaders and democracy advocates operate and can potentially collaborate more effectively. Over the course of many insightful conversations and deep reflections with colleagues and network leaders in 2021, we have compiled some of the key tension points within that ecosystem. We hope that this evolving list may help to illuminate how we can deepen our understanding of each other’s perspectives and continue to find common cause in the future.

  • Calls for understanding, “healing divisions” and unity are often criticized as not addressing the root causes of the problems we are facing as a nation (e.g., inequality, racism, rising authoritarianism, etc.), or as being disconnected from those efforts. Meanwhile, more confrontational forms of direct action (protests, boycotts, strikes, etc.) can be misunderstood or seen as overly divisive and unhelpful. It can be hard to see how these approaches can be complementary.
  • Peacebuilders and bridge-builders who feel the need to maintain “neutrality” can be seen as propping up the status quo and not in solidarity with movements calling for equal rights and justice. Meanwhile, activists’ “polarize to organize” approaches can be seen as creating overly simplistic binaries and vilifying the “other.”
  • Certain approaches to “calling out” those who are causing harm, or are perceived to be causing harm, can erect walls between people and create simplistic categories of “good” and “bad”. Calling in, or “calling out done with love,” can be a way to address harm in a way that centers relationships over shame while offering people onramps to changing their behaviors.
  • Tactics of engaging the “exhausted middle” (where complexity of thought may still be flourishing) are criticized as a waste of time because the mythical moderate/independent voter is seen as “wishy washy.” Instead, activating the base is prioritized, with less attention paid to how to reach people beyond the base.
  • Toxic polarization may be recognized as a problem across the board, but there is blame, defensiveness and othering (based on a lot of trauma on all sides) that drives us back to our ingroups and prevents intra-group self-reflection and dialogue around dehumanizing behavior and tactics. Emphasizing how polarized we are can also be a self-fulling prophesy.
  • Bridgebuilding efforts to address toxic polarization can lead to greater hostility and inequality if done without paying proper attention to power relationships and wider societal factors (e.g., active disinformation efforts, historical traumas and injustices). Meanwhile, focusing on reaching out across divisions can downplay the importance of intra-group work to shift norms and behaviors.
  • Many want to “focus on the future” as a way of finding common ground and coming together around shared values. This can be deeply troubling and hurtful for those who feel that we need to first recognize past injustices and harms and finally confront the painful history of white supremacy that continues to bleed into our present. Yet, the future-oriented framing can also be off-putting to those who don’t want change (or fear change) – so any call to “build back better” or for “democratic renewal” are met with resistance because of nostalgia for the way things were in a romanticized past.
  • We struggle with lack of shared definitions of terms, and we don’t acknowledge that humans make sense of the world in different ways based on the multiple narrative streams flowing within the ecosystem. What does peace and peacebuilding mean? Is it finding calm and togetherness? What about “justice?” There are many negative connotations (or simple lack of understanding) of peace, peacebuilding, democracy and social justice across different groups that impede our ability to find common purpose.
  • What does “democracy” mean and is it a shared goal for the US anymore? For some, the focus is on pushing for renewed civic culture and to embed the values of respectful dialogue, tolerance and empathy within society. Many hear these calls for “civility” with cynicism. They are more concerned about power imbalances around race and class and building power to participate equally in society and to push back against undemocratic forces. Others understand calls for “inclusive” democracy as only for liberals that seek to exclude more conservative perspectives.
  • There is existential dread that is flowing within our country, and we see how a different sense of urgency plays out in many of these debates. While many movements are working for those who feel a daily fear for their physical safety, this is juxtaposed with those who are also expressing fear of losing their way of life and/or feeling left behind in a changing society. Some don’t feel the same sense of urgency regarding the pace of change, the threats to our democracy, and/or have the luxury of not being as directly affected on a daily basis. This leads not only to a difference in tactics, but it can also cause resentment, distrust, and the inability to hear each other’s experience or find common cause.

There is truth and need in all these various approaches and perspectives. Yet, until we name and wrestle with these tensions within the ecosystem, we won’t be able to deal effectively with our trauma, better hold space within ingroups, and lessen the criticism and resentment towards outgroups who may nevertheless be potential allies. New tools and conversations are necessary to rediscover our shared, higher-level goals of upholding democracy and to prevent the very real threat of increasing levels of violent conflict. The Horizons team looks forward to working with our partners to continue to explore and expand on the current research and tools available to hold these tensions in such a way that we can better connect with each other, encourage innovation and avoid toxicity in our relationships.

Get a quick glimpse of The Horizons Projects’ areas of work in this graphic illustration from artist Adriana Fainstein! You can find more of Adriana’s work here.

America’s Democracy Moment

*This article was written by Chief Organizer Maria J. Stephan and was first published on Just Security.

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it is crucial to recognize the gravity of the threats still facing U.S. democracy, even after Donald Trump left the presidential stage. And it is more vital – and possible — than ever to mobilize a powerful movement in response.

That means, first and foremost, to find ways of talking about the threat that transcend partisan narratives, which limit the national conversation and shrink the collective imagination about how to respond together. Second, we Americans have to intensify community and national dialogue efforts with the aim of dismantling walls that prevent people from humanizing each other and recognizing that the fight for democracy is a shared struggle – and that confronting the legacy of slavery and white supremacy is an integral part of that struggle. Third, grassroots pressure must be sustained – including, when necessary, through organized non-cooperation and civil disobedience — to defend against attacks on fundamental democratic practices like free and fair elections. Americans have done it before and can do it again.

Starting with the declaration of independence from British rule, to the struggles to abolish slavery and win universal suffrage, to the Civil Rights movement, the people have flexed the muscle of democracy to expand meaningful participation and inclusion. In 2016, with Trump’s election, the United States confronted the prospect of losing its democracy altogether. Now, six months after the Jan. 6 insurrectionary attack on the Capitol, more than 100 democracy scholars have warned that U.S. democracy remains in grave danger. Citing state-level restrictions on voting rights and efforts to politicize election administration, they argue the foundations of American democracy are cracking, risking future violence and chaos, and they propose steps to prevent a downward spiral.

While Americans like to think that their democracy is exceptional, bolstered by a powerful Constitution and a set of institutional checks and balances that can serve as bulwarks against democratic breakdowns, the past few years, punctuated by the Jan. 6 attack, revealed how fragile it really is. This is the story playing out around the world, in places like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Venezuela, or Brazil. Those dramatic cases of backsliding did not occur as a result of a revolution or a military coup. Rather, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of “How Democracies Die,” remind us, “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

The electoral road to democratic breakdown, these authors note, is often dangerously deceptive and imperceptible to most people. It happens when democratically elected leaders, supported by politicians and others outside of government, subvert democratic norms and gradually eviscerate the substance of democracy. They use “legal” means that are approved by legislatures and accepted in the courts, and their efforts are often portrayed as being necessary to combat corruption, or to reform electoral processes. With the veneer of legality, elected autocrats and their backers have weaponized democratic institutions and changed the rules of the game to ensure they remain in power.

This is, essentially, how democracy died in the American South during the post-Reconstruction period in the 1870s, when “reform” measures (like poll taxes and literacy tests) were imposed by post-Confederate state governments to disenfranchise Black Americans. The result was nearly a century of institutionalized white supremacy and single-party (Democratic party) rule, and a lingering and pernicious ignorance of the role white people played in ending reconstruction.

As much as we like to focus on the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump, it is important to recognize that his actions were supported by enablers within his administration, within Congress, and within civil society. It is equally important to recognize that it took a broad-based coalition, including progressive organizers, civil servants, Republican and Democratic state and local election officials, military leaders, religious groups, and the business community, to forestall this subversion of democracy.

Devastatingly Effective Disinformation

Still, the United States came alarmingly close to the brink, as the violent Jan. 6 attempt to overturn the result of the election made clear. The #StopTheSteal campaign is, by one account, “the most audacious disinformation campaign ever attempted against Americans by any actor, foreign or domestic.” It has been devastatingly effective. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans continue to believe that the election was stolen, and almost half of independents think the election was rigged or are unsure. These dynamics help explain why the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index 2021 found that “the country which saw the largest year-on-year worsening in their total score [is] the United States.”

Yale historian Timothy D. Snyder recently laid out a chilling scenario: that key U.S. states adopt voter suppression laws now and the Republican Party recaptures control of the U.S. House and Senate in the 2022 midterms. Then in the 2024 presidential election, even if a Democratic Party candidate wins the popular vote and the electoral college with a few states, several key states challenge the count and overturn the results. Snyder continues: “The House and Senate accept that altered count.  The losing candidate becomes the president.  We no longer have `democratically elected government.’ And people are angry.”

So, with such a plausible scenario looming, how can Americans once again rise to the challenge of upholding the country’s democracy, especially coming out of a pandemic that has devastated so many, particularly the poor and communities of color?

First, we need to find ways to talk about the situation that break out of the traditional script of Republicans vs. Democrats. Stories and narratives need to make clear that this is not a struggle between red and blue America; this is a struggle between an anti-democratic faction in the country and a movement for an inclusive, multiethnic democracy.

We need to reflect together on what democracy means for us in today’s age, and the values that underpin our conviction to both a system of government and to each other as citizens. Our new democracy narratives need to convey urgency, transcend partisan formulations, and invite the maximum number of people to join the movement. This was critically important during the 1930s, when a national conversation about democracy played a significant role in challenging the rise of fascism in the United States and globally. Artists, entertainers, scholars, journalists, unions, and others spearheaded television series, town halls, lectures, and other fora to debate and discuss various topics on democracy.

Social science research shows that people tend to consume stories that affirm their social identities and disengage from stories that challenge them. Individuals and groups hold certain values and narratives to be sacred, or non-negotiable, and will perceive attacks on those values (both real and perceived) to be attacks on their identities. The choices we make in communicating about democracy therefore can either further entrench opposing identities and non-negotiable sacred values or can open up discussions for further understanding and a commitment to joint action.

Pro-democracy narratives need to embrace nuance and accept that human beings are complex and capable of change. This will take organizers, analysts, communications experts, peacebuilders, and creatives being willing to cross ideological, demographic, and political divides. As Levitsky and Ziblatt noted, “Coalitions of the likeminded are important, but they are not enough to defend democracy. The most effective coalitions are those that bring together groups with dissimilar — even opposing — views on many issues. They are built not among friends but among adversaries.”

Important, research-backed progressive efforts are underway to develop democracy narratives, including the Race Class Narrative Action project. These initiatives must be complemented and expanded by efforts that intentionally engage conservatives and others from across the political and ideological spectrum. Our Common Purpose, a report drafted last year by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, offered a blueprint for reimagining 21st century American democracy. The new, trans-partisan Partnership for American Democracy could be one such platform for developing and disseminating inclusive democracy narratives. Embedding narrative competency for restorative movements and creating spaces for shared democracy narratives is one of the main lines of work of the Horizons Project (on which I’m advising).

Second and relatedly, there should be an expansion of national and community-level dialogue efforts to challenge the social media-amped toxic polarization that is eroding U.S. democracy. While debate, argument, and fact-finding have their place, there is also a need for nonjudgmental spaces where people can come together and listen to each other with openness and curiosity. This work is not for everyone, and meeting with people does not mean endorsing their views. The purpose of this work is not to find the middle ground between opposing sides, but to find common ground anchored in shared values and shared humanity.

There are hundreds of dialogue and bridge-building efforts taking place across the country, including those led by networks including the Listen First Project, the Bridge Alliance, and the TRUST Network. Organizations like Search for Common GroundUrban Rural ActionBraver Angels, and Hand Across the Hills are experimenting with different dialogue models designed to bring people together across difference. Organizations like Over Zero are working with local communities to recognize and prevent cycles of identity-related violence.

Counterintuitive Effects

However, not all initiatives to bring people together across divisions have had a positive impact, and some have been harmful. A growing body of research on intergroup contact has found that in some cases, increased contact with members of the other side actually increased prejudice, anxiety, and avoidance. In still other cases, interaction with the other side undermined the willingness of historically marginalized groups to challenge social injustice. The evidence suggests that dialogue efforts should ensure participants have equal status and share a common goal, and that the contact is endorsed by communal authorities. Bringing people together in ways that do not emphasize their partisan identities holds particular promise at a time when people are exhausted with politics.

One particular dialogue tool used to advance social change, deep canvassing, could play a helpful role in bolstering popular support for basic democratic norms, like free and fair elections. Deep canvassing focuses on non-judgmentally asking people about their views on particular issues and includes follow-up questions that emphasize personal stories and experiences – of both the voter and the canvasser. A growing body of research has documented the effectiveness of deep canvassing in generating increased support for LGBTQ+ non-discriminatory laws and more humane immigration policies.

Developing a democracy-oriented deep canvassing script could involve the active participation of thoughtful Americans from across the ideological and political spectrum. It’s powerful to imagine a diverse, inter-generational group of organizers and volunteers going door to door together to talk with fellow Americans about what it would take to build a truly inclusive, multi-ethnic democracy that works for all Americans.

While dialogue is a critical element of social change, so too is mobilization and direct action. From the mass refusal by the colonists to pay taxes to British overlords, to the creation of the underground railroad for ushering enslaved Black people to freedom, to the bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins aimed at defunding Jim Crow, to worker strikes demanding fair pay and safe working conditions, to sit-ins and “die-ins” to demand urgent action on climate change, people power has motored American democracy. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police were the largest and most persistent demonstrations in U.S. history – and they were overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Nonviolent direct action of all sorts is necessary to push back against racist, anti-democratic behavior and to shift power in favor of organizations and institutions that defend democracy. The very purpose of nonviolent direct action, as Dr. Martin Luther King wrote so eloquently in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, is to raise the urgency of issues, shift power, and to make meaningful dialogue and negotiation possible.

During the 2020 election, Americans organized “joy to the polls” campaigns filled with music and dance to encourage people to vote in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They organized rallies and vigils to demand that everyone’s vote be counted and to recognize election officials for doing their part to defend democracy. At critical moments, leaders from entertainment and business issued statements affirming the results of the election and calling for a peaceful transfer of power. After the Jan. 6 attack, military leaders reminded those in uniform that their oath was foremost to the Constitution – not to any particular political leader. The success of this peaceful pro-democracy movement was probably one of the most consequential victories in U.S. history.

Grassroots Action

Today, direct action will likely be necessary to prevent state-level attempts to restrict voting and to politicize the election administration and certification process, particularly given Senate Republicans’ vote against federal voting rights protection. Progressive groups like Indivisible are organizing grassroots actions and campaigns to defend voting rights. Moral leaders and grassroots organizers from For All, Faith for Black Lives, Until Freedom, and others are pledging to join or help organize nonviolent direct action this summer across the country to suspend the congressional filibuster, which has historically been a tool to defend segregation and block civil rights legislation.

The challenge and opportunity now is to find common cause with key groups, including within the business community, veterans’ groups, and faith-based groups (including Catholic and Christian Evangelical groups), who are committed to multi-ethnic democracy and are willing to take action to defend it. Historically, large, diverse movements that innovate tactically, maintain organizational resilience and nonviolent discipline in the face of violence and disinformation, and that prompt defections from key pillars have been most effective at advancing change in the United States and around the world. Maximizing and diversifying participation in a new movement for democracy is key, since it expands pressure points that will be critical in the lead-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections.

This is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment for U.S. democracy – and that will go a long way to setting the pace for democracy around the world. Now is the time for progressives, conservatives, and everyone in between to come together to defend the very basic foundations of America’s republican, constitutional system of democratic governance. The United States needs a national democracy narrative that liberates the populace from the red vs. blue stranglehold that is blocking a positive vision of freedom and democracy. It needs a vision that invites the maximum number of people into a shared movement for democracy. Americans must invest in dialogue spaces that embrace shared humanity and encourage multi-racial democratic solidarity. Direct action at all levels can raise the urgency of this moment and generate moral, political, and economic pressure to preserve the great American democratic experiment.