US Bishops and the January 6th Capitol Attack on Democracy: A Pillars of Support Caselet

*This article was written by Research Assistant Adam Fefer.

This caselet is about US Catholic bishops’ responses to the January 6th Capitol attack. Why did some bishops denounce the attack as anti-democratic while others merely called for peace or stayed quiet? On the one hand, Catholic teaching on the sanctity and protection of life places bishops on the traditionalist side of issues like abortion and physician-assisted suicide. On the other hand, Catholic social and economic teaching places bishops on the progressive side of issues like universal healthcare, the living wage, debt reduction for developing nations, and immigration (Fichter et al. 2019). Bishops focused on so-called “life issues” (especially abortion) seem to have been less likely to view the attack as anti-democratic. By contrast, bishops who take a broader “seamless garment” approach to Catholic social and economic teaching seem to have been more likely to take a strong stand against the attack.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) occupies a unique role in American religion: no other denomination has an authoritative, ecclesiastical body like it. The temporal focus of this caselet is mostly January 2021, the month where many bishops issued condemnations of the attacks and of Donald Trump’s incendiary behavior. The geographical focus is largely on archdioceses of the most populous US cities. The conclusion offers other examples of Catholic political activity that are relevant to pro-democracy organizing.

I. Catholics’ Right Turn and Persistent Divisions

The January 6th attack exemplified the US’ increasing democratic backsliding, especially since 2016 (Williamson 2023). US backsliding is largely a Republican Party-led phenomenon. This is true nationally, where leaders like Donald Trump have undermined the integrity of elections and checks on executive power. It is also true sub-nationally, where Republican-led state legislatures have furthered voter suppression and racial gerrymandering (Grumbach 2022). 

The US Catholic clergy and laity are divided on partisan lines (Audi & Rocca 2015). Roughly 48% of Catholic voters self-describe as Republican while 47% self-describe as Democrats (Smith 2020). These divisions are relatively new, tracing to the late 20th century. In the early 20th century, by contrast, Catholics supported the Democratic Party. For example, between 70-80% of Catholics voted for FDR in 1936 (Rozell 2022, Catholic University of America 2023). As a predominantly immigrant, working class bloc, Catholics were key beneficiaries of FDR’s New Deal (McAndrews 2021). Official Catholic doctrine is also progressive on many issues: support for a strong welfare state and immigration as well as opposition to the death penalty and nuclear deterrence (Feldman 2006). During the early 20th century, the Catholic clergy was relatively apolitical; parish-specific issues like education and spiritual guidance dominated the Catholic agenda (Sammon 2008).

By the mid-twentieth century, Catholics had more fully integrated into American society and the middle class (Massa 2021). These trends were exemplified by JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign and the decline of overt anti-Catholicism. During this time, Catholic clergy and their upwardly mobile laity became more politically engaged (McAndrews 2021). For example, liberal Catholics spoke out against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights. Meanwhile, an increasingly vocal conservative clergy focused on issues of perceived moral decline, like abortion and contraception. 

The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision was a landmark in US Catholic history (Sammon 2008). Catholic clergy and laity mobilized vigorously against the decision. In doing so, Catholics found common ground with Evangelical Christians in their mutual hostility toward abortion, school desegregation, LGBTQ+ rights, and feminism. Since then, conservative Catholic activists have worked to make abortion a “non-negotiable” part of Catholic political identification. This is especially the case among white, church-going Catholics (Feldman 2006). These changes upended previous patterns of Catholic support. For example, Reagan obtained between 54-61% of the Catholic vote in his 1984 reelection campaign (Prendergast 1999). Abortion has become a central part of Catholic politics. 

Despite being split on partisan lines, Catholic majorities have consistently supported winning presidential candidates. This includes both Reagan campaigns, both Bill Clinton campaigns, and both Obama campaigns. However, these patterns break down when examining ethnicity, religiosity, and income (Gray & Bendyna 2008). For example, despite Donald Trump winning the Catholic vote, Hispanic Catholics supported Hilary Clinton by a margin of 67-26 (Martinez & Smith 2016). The Trump presidency energized many liberal Catholics, who detested his “Muslim travel ban” and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric (Barb 2022). However, progressive Catholic interests are relatively marginalized in institutions like USCCB.

II. The January 6th Campaign and Catholic Bishops’ Tactics

The 2020 election campaign witnessed “unprecedented levels” of polarization among Catholic bishops and the US population writ large (Gayte 2022, 113). This culminated in the January 6th attack, which exemplified many Republican elites’ disdain for a key tenet of democracy, namely that parties accept election results (Williamson 2023).

The bishops’ pro-democracy responses to January 6th consisted of multiple tactics. These included signed public statements, declarations by organizations and institutions, letters of opposition or support, and interviews with journalists. 

It should first be noted that Catholic leaders and institutions outside of USCCB also spoke out against the January 6th attack. For example, Father James Martin wrote an op-ed denouncing the attack, while Catholic laity held commemorative vigils for January 6th a year later (Martin 2021, Jenkins 2022). The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (2021) released a newsletter denouncing the attacks. And the Catholic lobby NETWORK also issued a response (2021) to the “violent effort by extremists to overthrow the United States government.” Finally, Catholic media including America Magazine (2021) and National Catholic Reporter (2021) also denounced the attacks.

We can begin our analysis of bishops with Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, also USCCB’s president. Gomez expressed that “peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of this great nation. In this troubling moment, we must recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our democracy” (USCCB 2021a). Gomez’s response was noteworthy given his statements both before and after January 6, 2021. For example, on January 20, Gomez authored a letter stating, “that our new President [Biden] has pledged to pursue certain policies [related to abortion] that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity” (USCCB 2021b). Gomez’s letter furthered divisions among US bishops. For example, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase J. Cupich authored his own letter in response, which called Gomez’s statement “ill-considered” and issued without other bishops’ prior consultation (White 2021). This exchange highlights the centrality of abortion politics in USCCB.

In Chicago, Cardinal Cupich lamented “the deliberate erosion of the norms of our system of government [and] violence in the service of a falsehood,” prayed for “the peaceful and orderly transition of power” and implored elected officials to “recognize threats to democracy, no matter their source” (Archdiocese of Chicago 2021). Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson J. Perez affirmed that “Regardless of political affiliation, we are united by democracy,” expressing his gratitude to those who “worked through a dark day in our history to ensure the peaceful transition of power” (Archdiocese of Philadelphia 2021). And in one of the most forceful statements, San Diego’s Bishop (now Cardinal) Robert McElroy said “We must be clear in identifying this moment as the logical trajectory of the last four years of President Trump’s leadership of our country…we have stood by without giving greater witness to the terrible danger that leadership rooted in division brings to a democratic society” (White 2021).

Other archbishops’ responses are noteworthy for their omissions. For example, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan condemned “the man [Trump] who should be leading us…[for] stoking these flames” (Lavenburg 2021). Although Dolan omitted mention of the attack on democracy, his direct criticism of Trump was surprising in light of his behavior during the 2020 campaign. Indeed, Dolan had called Trump a great friend, “salute[d] Trump’s leadership” on Fox News, and gave a prayer at the 2020 Republican National convention (White 2020, Warren Davis 2020).

In addition to Dolan, San Antonio’s Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Dallas’ Bishop Edward J. Burns, and the Diocese of Austin all tweeted for “peace” without explicitly mentioning the attack on democracy (Gledhill 2021, Guidos 2021). Meanwhile, Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Phoenix’s Bishop Thomas Olmsted were noteworthy for their silence, unsurprising in light of their conservative views on social issues. These omissions cohere with Reese’s (2020) finding that across 160 USCCB press releases between 2019-20, bishops were unlikely to criticize Trump by name and instead make references to his “administration.”

What patterns can we glean from these varied responses? Consider first the bishops who diagnosed January 6th as an attack on democracy. One thing that stands out is their broad political agendas that encompass more than just abortion. For example, both Bishop McElroy and Cardinal Cupich have been strong advocates for immigration, anti-poverty, and the environment, lamenting the church’s narrow focus on abortion (O’Loughlin 2015). Archbishops Perez and Gomez also have strong records on immigration and poverty, although they seem content with the USCCB’s prioritization of abortion (Gayte 2022). Looking at the neutral or silent responses, one finds bishops who are more singularly focused on abortion, including Cardinal DiNardo (Reese 2019).

III. Beyond USCCB and January 6th

Looking beyond USCCB and January 6, there are several domains of Catholic political activity that may be relevant to pro-democracy organizing. To begin, bishops and parishioners have criticized prominent Catholic politicians with anti-democratic sympathies. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbot in Texas have faced Catholic backlash, albeit more for their stances on immigration and capital punishment (Scanlon 2023, Guidos 2022, Nowlin 2020). It is crucial that Catholic organizers recognize the threats DeSantis and Abbot pose to democratic practices such as voting rights and lawful protests (ACLU 2023, 2024). 

A second domain is higher education, where Catholic leaders at universities like Notre Dame, Fordham, and Villanova have denounced Donald Trump’s immigration ban and racist rhetoric (Jenkins 2020). As with Catholic governors, university leaders could go further by identifying Trump’s threat to democracy. Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (2021) was exemplary in this respect, providing a host of analyses that linked the January 6th attack to narrow self-interest, charismatic demagoguery, and disinformation. 

Finally, Catholic podcasts have become important forums for articulating pro-democracy agendas and shaping parishioners’ beliefs via digital video and audio art. For example, The Commonweal Podcast and Just Politics have broadcast episodes entitled “Should Catholics Promote Democracy?” and “Actual Strategies for Saving Democracy,” respectively. NETWORK, a Catholic lobby for social justice, has sponsored a three-part “White Supremacy and American Christianity” series. Organizing via podcasts and universities may help reach youth voters, a key demographic, yet one that is more religiously disengaged. 

IV. The Future of Pro-Democracy Catholic Politics

The USCCB’s right-wing orientation that prioritizes abortion may generate pessimism that Catholics can be a pillar of democracy. However, there are several sources of optimism. First, Catholics are more liberal than Evangelicals –and many mainline Protestants– on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and social welfare (Sammon 2008). Relatedly, the Catholic church is among the US’ most racially integrated and diverse Christian denominations (Lipka 2015). This cluster of issues may serve to push Catholics toward politicians who emphasize inclusive, multiracial democracy.

A second reason for optimism is that Catholics are a key swing constituency. Because official church doctrine pushes them in opposite political directions, strategic political parties cannot expect unwavering Catholic support. In addition, Catholic voters are concentrated in midwestern swing states. That Donald Trump courted fringe Catholic elites –like the conspiracist Carlo Maria Viganò– during his 2020 campaign may serve to further push Catholics away from leaders who propagate conspiracies about elections (Anti-Defamation League 2023).

Finally, and concerning bishops specifically, Pope Francis appointed many bishops who wish to broaden USCCB’s agenda and prioritize social and economic issues (Allen 2016). Although these bishops currently constitute less than a quarter of the USCCB, they have been outspoken in attempting to change the conference’s priorities. Especially in the post-Roe environment, many USCCB bishops have taken a conservative hard line on issues like trans rights and the religious liberty to discriminate. So long as such issues continue to direct the conference’s agenda, many bishops and parishioners may continue to support anti-democratic politicians.

Discussion Questions 

  1. Catholicism is a very hierarchical denomination. How might bishops best use these hierarchies to engage priests and deacons in pro-democracy activity?
  2. In addition to abortion, some Catholic parishioners prioritize “culture war” issues (e.g., related gender and racial identities) over issues relating to US democracy. How might these priorities be reversed? 
  3. How might Catholic organizations educate more Catholics to consider issues beyond abortion when deciding who to vote for at the local, state, and national level?

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Understanding Pillars of Support

Horizons has been focusing on how various Pillars of Support, notably faith-based organizations, businesses, unions & professional associations, and veterans/military groups, have contributed to authoritarian systems and how they have supported pro-democracy movements in the US and globally.

To complement our pillars-focused research and organizing, we have developed this short, 5-min video focused on what pillars of support are, why they matter, and what it means to both engage and pressure key pillars as part of pro-democracy organizing that reaches beyond the base.

We hope that activists, organizers, trainers, educators, bridgers, funders, and other democracy practitioners will find this tool helpful in your daily work. Please feel free to share the video with interested folks.

Thanks, and we look forward to joining forces in this critical year for democracy in the US and around the world!

Welcome to Jarvis Williams, New Director of Applied Research at The Horizons Project!

Enjoy this short interview between our Chief Network Weaver Julia Roig and our new Director of Applied Research Jarvis Williams as he describes his excitement and motivation about joining the Horizons’ team.

Julia: Hi everyone, Julia Roig, the Chief Network Weaver at the Horizons Project, celebrating on this hot summer day, that we have a new team member who has joined us at Horizons, Jarvis Williams.

We just wanted to have a chance for you to be able to say hi to everybody because of course, since we’re so into working within a broad ecosystem of a lot of different partners, we wanted to give you a chance to tell us something about yourself.

Jarvis: Well, first of all, thank you. It’s so exciting to be with the team. I enjoyed the interview process, I think I told a friend of mine I held you captive for several hours when we were supposed to be talking for a short amount of time, but it’s just great conversations.

But I think that probably explains part of who I am. I really enjoy trying to be in community with people.

I think three things that would probably define who I am now is that I’m highly sensitive to the power of relationships to change people’s lives and that’s important to me.

It started growing up in a small community in Mississippi and watching my father be in relationship with patients, watching people in the church be in relationship. So I care about that and my work culture matters to the extent that I’m in relationship with great people.

I guess the other two things that really matter to me that I guess define who I am is that I have attempted to try to be attendant to what people believe.

Why their beliefs matter to them, not simply just to change their beliefs, but to appreciate how they have come to see the world the way they do.

And then I’ve really committed myself to trying to be a part of helping us to get better information about what we believe so we can actually act better. And that’s where scholarship and academia comes into play, trying to learn about the world we live in, in a reliable way.

Julia: Yeah, that’s great. And, you know, I failed to even describe the fact that you’re taking on the role of the Director of Applied Research.

So I’m really glad that you mentioned the power of, academic rigor and your experience with research. And so I’m really curious for you to share what you’re the most excited about with regards to this job, and the Horizons mission and what you’re going to be doing in this role?

Jarvis: Oh, absolutely. I think for me, the wording that really just fascinated me was this idea of connective tissue. What do we need to know to help us connect better? Or what beliefs do we have that may be prohibiting us from connecting? And so I know that to confront the moment I think we find ourselves in with all kinds of threats, we don’t have to just connect, but we have to have a certain depth to those connections. And in order to explain some of that, it requires… interrogation to those deep beliefs that complicate how we act. And so in Horizons Project, religion, the role of Christianity in democracy, I think it’s a deep conversation that we need to think about.

The challenge of race, I think those are deep conversations. There are moments where you have to try to have a polite conversation to move on, but to build great relationships, there needs to be great understanding. And sometimes it takes a kind of depth of understanding to get there.

And then this mystery we call democracy. What beliefs are essential to be able to hold on to what we have and what beliefs have complicated it? So Horizons gives me an opportunity to, think about not just, what we know about those beliefs, but how people are actually living out those beliefs currently, and to be in relationship with them and to push and to probe and to learn and I think I’m excited about being in a space where we’re not trying to pretend we don’t disagree, but we are curious how we can believe better about each other.

Julia: Yeah, that’s beautifully put, and folks are going to very quickly realize, why you were the right choice to join our team and all this “connective tissue-ing” that we’re trying to do.

So Jarvis, just to end, you are going to interact with a lot of different folks, it’s the joy of this work of being ecosystem organizers.

So for those partners or those collaborators who are going to have the opportunity to work with you, what would be something that you’d want them to know about you as you’re getting started?

Jarvis: Yeah, I think two things for me. One, I will absolutely listen to them. I will care to hear and to see the world through their eyes. And I think that is connected to the other thing, that they will absolutely be respected. And for me, if you know that you will be heard and that you will be treated with respect, I think that’s what I would want to offer.

And in the words of John Lewis, whatever good trouble we get into, we’ll be fine. As long as we respect each other and listen.

Julia: Well, wise words to end on. And you know, Jarvis, we really are just thrilled on behalf of Maria and Tabitha and Nilanka and the whole team, just we want to give you a big warm welcome .

We’ll look forward to a lot of good trouble coming next.

Well, I so appreciate it. And I’m so happy to be a part of this team.

Julia: Thanks Jarvis.

THE VISTA: March 2023

During this last week of March, the U.S. is hosting the Summit for Democracy and Women’s History Month comes to a close. As proclaimed by one of the Summit’s side events: The Status of Women IS the Status of Democracy it is clear that gendered attacks on human rights continue to be directly tied to the trends of democratic decline globally, a tactic studied by many scholars of authoritarianism. The current dehumanization of transgender people in the US is just one of many examples of the dangerous “othering” used to keep citizens divided and fearful. If you have questions about states’ current legislation against gender-affirming health care, please consult these resources at the Human Rights Campaign.

As john a. powell and Sara Grossman of the Othering & Belonging Institute recently wrote about Countering Authoritarianism, “this moment calls for renewed concern about the threat of fragmentation and the ways division is being exploited by anti-democratic actors.” Horizons agrees! And we recently released the first research product from our Narrative Engagement Across Difference (NEAD) Project, a multi-disciplinary literature review of narrative practices that support collaboration across difference in the deeply divided contexts of declining democracies. This short blog in both English and Spanish offers a summary of the findings, stressing the importance of complexifying narratives in both our discourse and our coalitional work. Recognizing the impact of trauma on our movement-building practices was an important aspect of the NEAD inquiry. For example, this article by Prentis Hemphill taken from New Narratives for Health describes a personal journey with trauma and the words we use to describe how the body holds trauma and experiences healing.

The United States is a complex country that requires narrative practices full of nuance and that legitimizes the diversity of lived experience. As New America’s Us@250 is preparing to celebrate the country’s 250th birthday, check out their focus on narrative change – how we think about our national narrative, American identity, and the future of the country. There are several discussions unfolding about changing societal norms and concepts of free speech and how to approach systems change and complexity, with a commitment to “operating with awareness, responding to resonance and engaging creatively.” These are all essential elements of reparative narrative practice.

We hope you enjoy some of the other materials we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

READING

6 Reasons Why Movements Sing to the Choir

by Rivera Sun, Waging Nonviolence

We often critique the old adage of movements only “singing to the choir” rather than reaching out beyond the already converted. In this article, Sun uses this beautiful musical metaphor to remind us of when it’s actually needed to sing to our own choir. For example, when some may need to rest their voices or when we need to find new inspiration to sing together again. “Be thoughtful about this aspect of organizing for change. Not only will it make your movement stronger, it can also be a source of inner resilience, inspiration, solidarity and connection. There’s a reason why singing together is more than a metaphor in movements for change. It’s powerful. Tap into it with love.”

The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America

Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council

“Belonging is a fundamental human need, and one that is linked to many of the most complex challenges of our time.” This newly released report makes the case for including belonging as a key aspect of programs and policies in the United States, linking it to indicators of health, democracy, and intergroup dynamics. The report includes recommendations for changemakers of potential interventions and measurement tools; helps to define concepts of belonging; and describes initial findings from survey data on the state of belonging across five life settings – family, friends, workplace, local community, and the nation.

Liberal Professors Can Rescue the G.O.P.

by Jon A. Shields, New York Times Opinion

The pro-democracy agenda must be cross-ideological. This professor from Claremont McKenna College extols the need to provide mentors and serious intellectual foundations for conservative undergraduates so they have positive influences and role models for engaging in political life. Even “liberal professors have the power to help…. They can show their conservative students how to become thoughtful and knowledgeable partisans — by exposing them to rich conservative intellectual traditions…setting up reading groups, helping to vet speakers and creating courses on conservative intellectual thought.”

WATCHING

Is it Still Possible to Change Minds in Politics?

Anand Giridharadas with Maurice Mitchell and Dorian Warren, The Ink

We highly recommend watching this video recording of an important conversation about the possibility and difficulty of persuasion in a time of polarization, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and political violence. The panel reflects on various topics, including the current state of the neo-fascist right and how to build a pro-democracy movement that can seize the moment. They highlight the importance of finding a way to move towards a “powerful posture of joy and victory” to prevent hate-fueled authoritarianism in the country.

Healing Race Season 1

Healing Race, YouTube Channel

Shout out to the Listen First Coalition for sharing this great video series in their recent updates. As the country continues to grapple with our history and systems of racial injustice, discussing race can be difficult but essential. Healing Race is a new video series started by two college friends, Andre, who is black and Todd, who is white, as they delve deep into the topic of race and race relations in the US. The goal of the series is to demonstrate the power of real and unfiltered conversations about race as a step towards working together for change.

The Rise of a Pro-Democracy Coalition

Simon Rosenberg’s YouTube Channel

Check out this recent webinar recording hosted by Markers for Democracy (and many others) featuring Robert Hubbell, Bill Kristol and Simon Rosenberg discussing how people across the political spectrum must come together (and are!) to form a pro-democracy coalition.

LISTENING TO

The Revolution Will Be Hilarious

Getting to Yes, And Podcast

In this episode, American University professor Caty Borum discusses the intersection of social justice and comedy which she explores in her new book, “The Revolution will be Hilarious.” Borum explains how comedy can be used as an important tool in the fight for social justice because comedy brings levity and a sense of humanity to many people and situations, helping to capture the nuance and true nature of so many different lived experiences.

Tucker’s Latest Lies

The Bulwark Podcast

The Horizons team feels that it is important to reckon with the latest controversies that have arisen about the Fox News’ 2020 election coverage and Tucker Carlson’s most recent attempts to rewrite the narrative of January 6th. This podcast episode with two conservatives, host Charlie Sykes and Will Saletan, discuss these issues and more, also covering the inflammatory rhetoric at the recent CPAC meeting and reflections on the state of the Republican party.

Do Generations Matter?

Prospect: Generations Podcast

We love to highlight inter-generational collaboration! The American Prospect has started a new podcast series: Generations which is bringing together younger and older staff to discuss various topics surrounding politics and culture. In this pilot episode, Lee Harris and Paul Starr are featured who both graduated from college during turning points in US history. Lee graduated in 2020 during the pandemic and the George Floyd protests and Paul graduated in 1970 during the Vietnam War and the counterculture era.

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

CQ Roundup with Hayden Joseph, Ana Egge, Pelvis Wrestley and more

by: Christopher Treacy, Country Queer

Music has the power to unite us and to remind us of our common humanity – in all our complexity. Country Queer is a website that focuses on LGBTQ+ voices in country and roots music. These musical roundups include interviews and reviews of new music releases from queer and allied artists, and other news and events such as virtual concerts and fundraisers. For example, this recent benefit concert in Nashville where local singers banded together in support of LGBTQ+ rights.

THE PILLARS PROJECT: Veterans and Military Families

*By former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.

Why should veterans and military families care about authoritarianism?

American democracy is in a moment of crisis. Long-standing authoritarian trends and practices by a dedicated segment of our political class are undermining shared agreement on the rules of the political game, curbing constitutional rights and freedoms, excluding minority groups from political representation, and using disinformation and violence to suppress opposition. A growing segment of anti-democratic extremists have taken one of our political parties hostage, sidelining principled and patriotic pro-democracy leaders, in an attempt to advance a white Christian nationalist agenda.

Veterans are uniquely positioned to help stem this authoritarian threat. Upon entering their military service, veterans swore an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. They chose to put their country above all else, and for that, they are venerated in their communities as true patriots and model citizens. Veterans have been on the frontlines of the fight against authoritarianism in the U.S. and around the world throughout our nation’s history. From the beaches of Normandy to the Korean Peninsula to the shore of Kuwait, committed servicemen and women risked their lives to defend freedom and democracy. Today, however, the authoritarian threat is found much closer to home.

Former top military commanders, including Gen. James MattisLt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Gen. Mark Milleyamong others, have modeled how both veterans and current servicemen and women can uphold their oath and code of ethics by standing against strongman tactics. Yet, as the January 6 insurrection revealed, some of the same characteristics that inspired veterans to serve—including a strong sense of patriotism, duty, and volunteerism for a purpose bigger than themselves—can also drive them down paths of violent extremism and manipulation by dishonorable, undemocratic actors.

Authoritarians seek to leverage Americans’ respect for veterans and current servicemen and women by using them as political pawns and targeting them and their families with anti-democratic misinformation and disinformation. More troublingly, White supremacist and other anti-government violent extremist groups explicitly seek out veterans for recruitment, hoping to use their discipline, skills, and credibility while taking advantage of their struggle to find purpose and community after leaving the military.

Getting veterans and military families directly involved in the struggle for democracy is a potent way to draw on the strong sense of civic duty and the skills and discipline that veterans and those who support them have developed during their military service. It can also provide a powerful avenue for preventing recruitment into violent extremist groups and help assuage the difficulties of the transition to civilian life. Many American veterans who have gotten involved in pro-democracy struggles see their activism both as a direct continuation of the commitments they made through their oath of allegiance, and as a core community through which they are able to find collective purpose in civilian life.

Veterans and military families have a long history on the forefronts of activism to advance American democracy. Today, many organizations are mobilizing veterans and military families for greater civic engagement. Leveling up those engagement efforts and joining forces with the larger pro-democracy ecosystem can be a powerful force for protecting, healing, and revitalizing American democracy.

How can Veterans and Military Families Support Democracy?

  • Veterans can use their discipline, training, and high levels of community cohesion to be powerful mobilizers for democracy, participating in and often leading community organizations and social movements to protect the right to vote and advance the rights of all Americans to fully participate in our democratic process. During the civil rights movement, Black WWII and Korean War veterans like Medgar Evers and Hosea Williams drew on the skills and confidence they gained during their military service to lead key civil rights organizations and often lead the way in the riskiest forms of activism.
  • Veterans and military families are in a particularly influential position to build bridges across partisan and identity-based divides. Toxic partisan polarization has extended across almost every major social identity in American life, from geography to hometown to race and ethnicity. Yet veterans and military families span the political spectrum. This makes non-partisan veterans groups one particularly important forum for conversation to break down toxic polarization, build networks across divides, and counter the misinformation and disinformation that authoritarian actors use to undermine American democracy.
  • In moments of democratic crisis, veterans can be important influencers to active-duty military, police, and other security forces, drawing on their connections and shared experience to call on people in these institutions to stand up for democracy and not follow illegal or unconstitutional orders. For instance, during the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, former air force chief General Volodymyr Antonets built an extensive network of contacts among mid-ranking Ukrainian officers that helped ensure that the Ukrainian military was not used to violently suppress peaceful pro-democracy protesters.

The Horizons Project’s Work

The Horizons Project recognizes the importance of veterans as a force for democracy and is engaging with diverse veteran service and military family organizations to help establish a common framework to understand and combat the authoritarian threat. We also seek to link these organizations more strategically with the pro-democracy civil society ecosystem. We are reaching out to or partnering with organizations such as We the VeteransDivided We FallVeterans for Political InnovationCommon DefenseArmed Services Arts PartnershipMilitary Veterans in JournalismThe Mission ContinuesVeterans for American IdealsSecure Families Initiative, and National Military Family Association, among others.

  • Research and Analysis: As part of its larger pillars of support project, Horizons is examining how veterans have helped protect democracy both in the US and other countries during democratic backsliding, and the most effective ways for veterans to leverage their unique position to do so. We will work with veteran and military family groups to share the results of this research and explore practical tools and ideas for how veteran service and military family organizations can mobilize their respective constituencies to pro-actively protect democracy from the current authoritarian threat. Horizons will produce short, action-focused publications and, together with partners, hold a series of salons on Veterans and Democracy.
  • Relationship-Building: Research shows that protecting and restoring American democracy will require united effort across a wide range of sectors. Horizons is building connective tissue among veteran and military family groups, as well as other key nodes in the pro-democracy ecosystem to strategize how efforts to protect democracy can be most effectively coordinated at the state level and nationally. We will organize both formal events and informal conversations between veteran service and military family organizations, 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.

THE PILLARS PROJECT: Labor Unions and Professional Associations

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

Why should labor unions and professional associations care about authoritarianism?

American democracy is in a moment of crisis. Long-standing trends and practices that undermined agreement on the rules of the political game have been weaponized by a segment of our political class that seeks to undermine constitutional rights and freedoms, exclude minority groups from power, and suppress opposition through disinformation and violence.

Democratic backsliding in the United States is a particular threat to labor and professional organizations. The research is clear: democracy is good for labor. Democracies not only provide more robust protections for freedom of association, they pay higher wages! Rollbacks in democracyhave led to significant attacks on both labor rights and the autonomy of professional organizations in IndiaHungary, and elsewhere. Would-be authoritarians undermine the autonomy of outside organizations to centralize control over all the major organs of society.

Both labor and professional groups have played critical roles in advancing and protecting democracy in the past, and many continue to do so today. When labor and professional groups join social movements pushing for democratic change, they tend to have much higher rates of success and long-term sustainability. Professional disciplines such as the law have particularly important relationships to the state of American democracy. Yet there is a strong need in the current moment of democratic crisis for disparate efforts to protect and advance democracy to be levelled up and conducted collaboratively with the broader pro-democracy ecosystem.

How can Labor and Professional Groups Support Democracy?

  • Labor and professional groups can be influential persuaders for democracy, when it is clear that they are speaking for the interests of their members and not seeking political power. For example, in Tunisia lawyers’ associations played a powerful role in advocating for the rule of law during the Ben Ali dictatorship, and later used the respect and symbolic power of their black robes on the front lines of 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising to lend legitimacy to those protests and help facilitate a democratic transition.
  • Labor and professional groups bring formidable organizing skills and networks to the pro-democracy ecosystem. For example, the civil rights movement in Winston-Salem, North Carolina had foundered, struggling to attract participants and effectively organize the Black community until tobacco industry unions (led by Black workers) organized membership drives for the NAACP, began building dense local networks among the Black working class through activities centered on the local union hall, and organized citizenship classes, political rallies, and mass meetings on civil and voting rights issues.
  • Labor and professional groups can often provide crucial resources for frontline activists struggling to advance democracy, from professional know-how to specialized access to political elites. During the 2017 protests against Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” thousands of lawyers descended on airports to provide pro bono legal counsel to immigrants caught by the ban. Conversation and connection between organizers and professional groups can help better catalog what resources are needed in the moment, and help streamline effective coordinated action.
  • In moments of democratic crisis, labor and professional groups are critical sources of organized non-cooperation, from organizing sectoral or general strikes to refusing to participate in legal proceedings or unjust professional standards. Research shows that the capacity for such widespread non-cooperation is crucial to counter an authoritarian breakthrough. For instance, widespread strikes organized by labor unions in cooperation with pro-democracy activists have been crucial in pushing back against democratic backsliding across many countries including Sri LankaIndiaFiji, and South Korea.

The Horizons Project’s Work

  • Research and Analysis: As part of its larger pillars of support project, Horizons is examining how labor and professional organizations have helped protect democracy in the US and other countries during democratic backsliding, and the most effective ways to do so. We will be working with labor and professional groups 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 Labor and Democracy.
  • Relationship-Building: Research shows that protecting and restoring American democracy will require united effort across a wide range of sectors. Horizons is building connective tissue between labor and professional groups 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 labor and professional organizations, 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.

THE PILLARS PROJECT: The Faith Community

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

Why should faith communities care about authoritarianism?

A flourishing democracy is one of the strongest protections for the free exercise of religion. From the persecution of Christians and ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in mainland China to the suppression of the Baha’i faith in Iran to the targeting of religious minorities in the backsliding democracy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, the pattern from around the world is clear: when democracy breaks down, people of faith suffer.

The connections between faith and freedom are even more important at a time when some American politicians are appropriating religion to advocate for an exclusive “Christian nationalism” that uses government to impose their ideology on others. The examples of dozens of countries that have put the supremacy of one religion at the center of their politics shows the devastating consequences of this approach: heightened deadly conflictincreased political corruption as political leaders adopt the mantle of religion to pursue their personal agendas, and often a decline in the vibrancy of religious life. Indeed, the close affiliation of a political ideology with certain brands of Christianity is the primary reason for the stunning growth over the last three decades in Americans abandoning identification with religion.

Yet the answer to the appropriation of religion by an authoritarian faction in the United States is not to depoliticize religion. Indeed, history shows that when people of faith withdraw from the social issues of the day their withdrawal reinforces existing systems of injustice.

Instead, faith communities have a critical role to play in revitalizing our democracy and countering toxic polarization. Communities of faith have always been a bedrock of American democracy. Following one’s conscience in defiance of established state churches motivated the pilgrims and many of the other early immigrants to North America. Faith was at the center of almost all the great American social movements; from the Abolitionist movement against slavery in the 1800s to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As the great writer of Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville put it: “in America the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom…[are] intimately united.”

So what does this role look like for faith communities in America today? The specifics will look different depending on faith communities’ positioning in the rich tapestry of American religious life. But the history of religious engagement in struggles for democracy in America and around the world suggests a few common effective strategies.

How can Faith Communities Support Democracy?

  • Communities of faith often come with unique positions of moral influence that make them powerful persuaders for democracy. Such acts of persuasion are most effective when they are clearly linked to faith community’s spiritual mandates, and when they directly address the spiritual and moral claims of those undermining democracy. For instance, in Malawi in the 1990s a pastoral letter by Catholic bishops condemning restrictions on political freedoms was pivotal in leading to the restoration of democracy. The letter linked human rights and freedom to the Catholic Church’s spiritual mission and undermined the moral authority that dictatorial president Hastings Banda claimed as a church elder. Religious women like Quaker Minister Lucretia Mott leveraged their faith and gender as powerful advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. More recently, after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, numerous faith leaders, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, issued statements calling on their members to “honor democratic institutions and processes.”
  • Persuasion is important but may have a limited impact unless it’s backed up by courageous acts of noncooperation, where religious leaders, institutions, or communities refuse to continue normal patterns of behavior in response to egregious violations of democratic principles or human rights. There is a long and storied tradition of non-cooperation and civil disobedience across many faith traditions, from the earliest history of Christianity to modern debates on civil disobedience in Islam. For example, during the People Power movement in the Philippines, courageous Catholic nuns who knelt before tanks while praying the rosary were crucial in preventing a violent crackdown and ensuring the movement’s success.
  • Faith communities can engage in bridgebuilding and mediation, drawing on their positions of respect in the communities where they live and work to connect parties across difference. Democratic breakdown is fueled by hyper-partisan polarization. Faith communities provide one of the strongest and most resilient forums for overcoming that polarization. Effective engagement typically looks more like shared effort towards common goals, rather than dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and requires outreach beyond sympathetic audiences. In Liberia, Muslim and Christian women ended their country’s civil war by forming the “Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace” that brought women together across long-standing divides and pressured their government and rebel groups to do the same.
  • Faith communities are often one of the best-placed organizations for providing material support for pro-democracy mobilization. Community organizing networks rely on the physical infrastructure, interpersonal networks, and practical resources that churches, temples, mosques, and other religious institutions provide. This approach was most famously and effectively used in the American civil rights movement, when Black churches formed the backbone for almost every major civil rights campaign. Similarly, evangelical churches in East Germany in the 1980s provided one of the few free spaces for organizing against the country’s Communist dictatorship, playing a pivotal role in the nonviolent resistance campaign that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Faith communities often provide great symbolic power to unify across difference, build momentum to push for change, and remain resilient in the face of challenges. From the freedom songs of the civil rights movement to the Muslims and Christians joined in prayer during the Arab Spring in Egypt to the courageous activists of the Polish Solidarity movement against Communism celebrating Mass on the frontlines of their campaign for freedom, religious faith is one of the most powerful animating forces in the struggle for justice and democracy.

The Horizons Project’s Work

The Horizons Project recognizes the importance of the faith community as a force for democracy and is engaging with diverse faith leaders and coalitions to establish a common framework to understand and combat the authoritarian threat; and strategically link faith-based organizations with the pro-democracy civil society ecosystem. We are reaching out to or partnering with organizations such as the One America Movementthe Kairos Centerthe Poor People’s Campaign, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, the Ignatian Solidarity NetworkNETWORKSojournersFaith in Public LifeFriends Committee on National LegislationMormon Women for Ethical GovernancePax Christi, and the National Council of Churches.

  • Research and Analysis: As part of its larger pillars of support project, Horizons is examining how faith communities have protected democracy both in the US and other countries during democratic backsliding, and the most effective ways for faith communities to do so. We will be working with faith communities 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 one or more salons on Faith and Democracy.
  • Relationship-Building: Research shows that protecting and restoring American democracy will require united effort across a wide range of sectors. Horizons is building connective tissue between faith communities 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 faith 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.

THE PILLARS PROJECT: The Business Community

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

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.

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

How Can Funders Support Pro-democracy Movements?

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

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.

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.