THE PILLARS PROJECT: Veterans and Military Families

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.

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

THE VISTA: November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

READING

The Pillars of Support Project

By The Horizons Project

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

The Role of In-Group Moderates in Faith Communities

by The One America Movement (OAM)

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

The Importance of Corporate Political Responsibility

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

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

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

by Dan Vallone, Stars and Stripes

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

WATCHING

Perspectives from Neuroscience: Visualizing the Wonders of the Brain

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

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

Signals in the Noise

by Reframe

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

Building and Sustaining Resilience Amid Rising Political Violence

by Western States Center (WSC)

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

LISTENING TO

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

The Ezra Klein Show podcast

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

Complexity & Genius

The Deep Dive podcast with Philip McKenzie

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

Ripples of Hate

StoryCorps podcast

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

How to Depolarize Deeply Divided Societies

The Conversation Weekly podcast

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

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

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

Violence and the Backfire Effect

Any movement that seeks to stand up against powerful opposition and advocate on important political issues must be prepared for a violent reaction. Eighty-six percent of major nonviolent movements around the world have faced significant violent government repression. And other forms of resistance to movements, such as disorganized violence or harassment by movement opponents, are so common that social scientists call it a “law” that movements will experience them.

But there are ways that movements can handle violence to their advantage. Through skillful rhetorical and practical strategies, they can cause the violence directed at them to backfire. Violence, rather than suppressing the movement it targets, can end up strengthening it. For instance, during the civil rights movement, attempts by the Selma police to violently disperse civil rights marchers backfired when dramatic pictures and footage of dogs and water hoses being turned on peaceful protesters sparked widespread outrage.

Why does violence backfire?

Violence backfires when news of violence is widely disseminated and the violence is framed as unjust, illegitimate, and possible to do something about. When these messages are clearly communicated and accepted, it can become psychologically costly for previously passive observers to simply stand by and ignore the violence. People sympathetic to the movement who have previously not participated in it can become emboldened to participate, and it can even change the perspectives of former opponents to be more sympathetic to the movement.

All these aspects (wide dissemination, framing as unjust, and framing as possible to do something about) are critical. If violence is perceived as regrettable but justly and legitimately carried out, then those learning about it will not be motivated to attempt to do anything about the perpetrators. If violence is perceived as unjust, but impossible to change, then audiences are more likely to be motivated to simply shrug their shoulders and accept it as inevitable. For instance, the rising frequency of mass shootings in the United States and lack of meaningful policy responses have sparked widespread apathy among most Americans.

What situations make it less likely that violence will backfire?

Structural racism and engrained patterns of prejudice make violence less likely to backfire. In an online experiment, simply showing a picture of Black protesters made American survey respondents more likely to describe a protest as violent and say that police should stop it. However, survey respondents disapproved much more vigorously of actual physical violence. People from marginalized groups face additional challenges when it comes to sparking backfire. Yet through maintaining nonviolent discipline they can maximize their chances of doing so. Highly polarized environments also make backfire more challenging, as partisans may be more likely to simply perceive their opponents’ actions as violent, no matter what they do.

A media environment suffused in misinformation and disinformation also presents a significant challenge to sparking backfire. For example, in 2020, data clearly shows that the Black Lives Matter movement was overwhelmingly peaceful, even more peaceful than the civil rights movement of the 1960s, despite facing significant violence from police forces and movement opponents. Yet polarized media discourses that spread misleading or inaccurate information about high levels of violence in BLM protests undermined support for the protests and reduced the backfire of violence directed towards them.

What can movements do to increase the potential for violence to backfire?

The standard toolkit to prevent violence from backfiring involves five key steps: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels, and intimidation/bribery. Perpetrators of violence seek first to prevent information about the event from emerging, then to devalue the targets of violence, then to reinterpret the facts to make them seem less damaging, then often to diffuse and redirect popular anger through time-consuming official channels, and finally, when all else fails, to intimidate or buy off those who might spread information about the violence. In a polarized environment, reinterpreting the facts is often the centerpiece of this toolkit. For instance, media and political figures on the far Right have sought to downplay the violence of the January 6th attack on the Capitol or claim that the attack was a “false flag” operation conducted by government agents or the far Left.

Enhancing backfire involves denying opponents these five strategies: clearly communicating information about violence, validating the target of violence, interpreting the situation as unjust, refusing to let official channels sap legitimate outrage, and insulating against intimidation and bribery. These struggles over communication and interpretation can be deeply challenging and are best taken advantage of when they have been extensively planned and prepared for in advance. As scholar and activist George Lakey put it: “it is not repression that destroys a movement, it is repression plus lack of preparation.” Researchers have studied many avenues that can heighten the “paradox of repression” and increase the chances of backfire. While the specifics vary widely across cases, a few consistent patterns stand out.

Build Institutions and Trusted Networks: Movements that have strategized about how to respond to violence, and put in place structures to respond to it, are much more likely to successfully spark backfire. One study found that backfire was much more likely when movements had previously invested in external and internal institution-building, particularly in institutions that facilitated “communication channels and tactical adaptability.” Movements that had built strong networks throughout social groups were able to draw on those networks to mobilize in response to that event, and to mobilize participants to engage in follow-up tactics that could show their opposition to the violence while putting them at reduced risk of violence themselves.

Get the Word Out: One of the key things that organized institutional structures can do is ensure that violence is clearly communicated and that attempts to cover up violence fail. Social media has made government cover-ups more difficult, leading to protests spreading more rapidly once they’ve been initiated. Yet social media has also exacerbated misinformation and disinformation, reducing people’s trust in publicly communicated information. Building relationships of trust across partisan and identity lines before a violent event occurs may make it easier to diffuse information about violence when it occurs. Movements should strategize each step in the communication chain, from the original source of information about violence, to the ways in which it is transmitted, to how different audiences receive and react to it.

Maintain Nonviolent Discipline: By adopting and sticking to nonviolent tactics, even in the face of violence, activists can highlight the injustice and illegitimacy of violence towards them, preventing attempts by their opponents to devalue the targets of violence, for example by reinterpreting state violence as necessary law enforcement. A growing series of studies show over and over again that even modest levels of physical violence significantly reduces support for that movement. Movements can improve nonviolent discipline through training, choosing more dispersed tactics that reduce the chances of direct physical confrontation.

Focus on Overcoming Fear and Apathy: Backfire is a product of society’s interpretation of a violent event, not directly of the event itself. One part of shaping this interpretation is through highlighting violence’s injustice. A second is not allowing the violence to lead to paralyzing fear and apathy. In Zimbabwe, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise movement achieved this through building a culture where they “turned arrests into a celebration of successful resistance…beatings, arrests, and detentions became a badge of honor.” Leaders walked at the front of protests that were likely to face police brutality, and thousands courted arrest when a single protester was arrested.

While the situation in the United States differs from Zimbabwe, and the movement for democracy faces a variety of different forms of violence, from online harassment to threats from heavily armed conspiracy theorists the same underlying principle holds reinterpreting violence as a badge of honor and sign of the impact of resistance can keep core members of the movement motivated and defang the power of the violence turned against them. Violence towards the movement should never be accepted as just or inevitable, but neither should it be treated as something so horrific that it paralyzes a movement with fear. Instead, movements can empower their members to accept violence as a sign that their work is touching on critical and impactful issues and is even more important to continue.

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

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.

Sensemaking

One of the three lines of work of The Horizons Project is “sensemaking.” As organizers and coalition-builders who believe in the power of emergent strategy, the practice of sensemaking is something that we are continually reflecting upon: What is sensemaking? What is its purpose? How do we do it better? How can it drive our adaptation? How can we share what we’re learning and doing with diverse communities?

So, what exactly is “sensemaking” and why is it important to organizers? First and foremost, we acknowledge that we are operating in a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Even if we weren’t such a small team, we could never hope to fully wrap our minds (and arms) around this VUCA world. If our goal at The Horizons Project is to provide value and help connect actors within the social change and belonging ecosystem, we must find ways to constantly scan and interpret what’s going on within the system to then strategize, act and adjust as needed. Sensemaking is one of those practices. While there are many methodologies and definitions of sensemaking, we are drawn to the approach of Brenda Dervin that is based on asking good questions to fill in gaps in understanding, to connect with others to jointly reflect on our context and then take action.

For example, when we launched Horizons full time in January, we had no idea that a war in Ukraine would pull us so strongly back into discussions of nonviolent resistance on the international stage; that the stark battle between autocracy and democracy there, and evidence of worsening democratic decline globally would offer an opportunity to reframe the threat to democracy in the US; or, that there would be new-found resonance for concepts of peacebuilding as graphic scenes of war are on display daily. How does what is happening in Ukraine affect Horizons’ work of bridging democracy, peacebuilding and social justice in the US? How does the world’s reaction to Ukraine highlight existing inequities within the system, especially with the racialized dynamics experienced within the outpouring of solidarity? How do we make sense of this huge turn of events, both as individuals, as a team and as a broader community of colleagues, and where we go from here?

There is no one way to conduct sensemaking. In fact, this word means many things to different practitioners. So, at a recent gathering we asked a group of trusted women in positions of network-wide leadership, to share with us how they think about sensemaking, and what it looks like in practice for them. In a series of short, personal testimonials, Horizons captured these insights in our very first podcast series that we are excited to share.

Several themes emerged from those conversations that we find inspiring, and indicative of the ways women show up as leaders, naturally holding nuance and seemingly contradictory practices that can all be equally true:

Sensemaking is a balance between heart and head. There are many ways of knowing. Placing too much emphasis on analytical skills and tools, and over-intellectualizing how we discern what’s happening around us can be a barrier to also sensing with our emotional intelligence. How do we feel about what’s happing in the world, and how are others’ feeling? Sensemaking involves empathy, and yet radical empathy can also lead to overwhelm and paralysis. Staying within our analytical selves is often a way of protecting our hearts and can help stem the anxiety that comes from uncertainty and volatility. Finding that balance isn’t always easy, but some useful tools are with the arts or through physical activity, finding creative ways to connect to our bodies that can spur new insights.

Sensemaking is not the same as aligning. When working within complex ecosystems with diverse networks and coalitions, we are not always called to make sense in order to identify points of alignment. Having different theories of change is healthy and needed. Naming all of our distinct definitions of the problem and then allowing for a diversity of approaches to unfold is an important network leadership practice. Sensemaking in coalitions does not always have to lead to collective action, but we can uncover shared values when we listen deeply.

I am a person who believes in living as one would want to see a life lived.

Poet, Jericho Brown

Sensemaking takes place externally and internally at all levels. We all go to trusted sources to help make sense of what’s happening around us. Participating in a wide array of communities of practice is useful. We read, we listen, we share. Sometimes we have time to go deep into topics, and other times we are broadly scanning and skimming many sources. But we also need quiet time to hear our own voices through all the noise to take time to process and make sense at the level of our individual selves. This helps us stay coherent with our values and lets our lives represent the world we want to help create.

…the sun blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises
under the lashes
of my own eyes,
and I thought
I am so many!

Sunrise by Poet, Mary Oliver

Sensemaking involves awareness of energy flow: It’s okay to feel the discomfort of uncertainty. And yet, we pay careful attention to what gives us energy on a personal level. We are also continually observing what others are doing that seems to be garnering their energy and inspiring others. If we believe that what we focus on eventually becomes our reality, we need to be careful about doom-scrolling or focusing too much on the negative. Broadly, engaging in sensemaking doesn’t mean that we must feel responsible for doing everything and solving every problem ourselves. Elevating the priorities and perspectives of others is a way of supporting collective sensemaking.

Sensemaking is a commitment to being in relationship with others.  The human dynamic of building connection is an important practice to create the conditions for effective sensemaking. Playful spaces that allow for us to laugh and let loose – to be embodied human beings as our full selves, this helps to later know who to go to for information and to navigate challenges together. We might think we always have to be “productive”—that we should come together to do mapping of our system, should be identifying intersections for partnership, should be sharing our workplans and formal analysis. But sometimes sensemaking looks like a dance party or just having a meal together. Prioritizing relationships and fun is integral to the work.

Sensemaking includes observing patterns of power and privilege: Being an “outsider” or coming from different cultural, racial or economic backgrounds can help shed light on power dynamics that otherwise might not be seen. Sensemaking by cultivating spaces for individual storytelling, raising the voices of those perspectives not always heard and stitching together many stories to understand common and divergent narrative streams helps to observe those patterns and realign our collective action.

Sensemaking requires authenticity and grace. If we are making sense of “what to do” without a complete picture or levels of certainty (either as individuals or in coalitions), then we will often make mistakes. Giving each other grace to navigate these challenging moments is key: we must allow for incomplete conversations and yet still act; we may choose one imperfect theory to test out and see what happens; we often must agree to disagree and realize that there is not one perfect path that we should all be working on together. Sensemaking in community is also an act of “having each other’s backs” and assuming the best intentions of others doing their best to make sense in their own way. This works best when we act with authenticity, which naturally shines through.

Here are some additional resources on sensemaking to check out:

Horizons Presents (Our podcast, Season One focuses on sensemaking)

Sensemaking in the New Normal

Facilitating Sensemaking in Uncertain Times

There is no Elephant

Thirteen Dilemmas and Paradoxes in Complexity

Energy System Science for Network Weavers

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

America’s Democracy Moment

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Face the Authoritarian Threat, and Organize Accordingly 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Down Siloes and Embracing Tensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Domestic Civic Movements Could Reshape US Foreign Policy

President Joe Biden’s early reversals of Trump policies have included at least three that were the direct or indirect result of grassroots movements. The administration froze the extraction of oil and gas from federal lands, ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and launched an initiative to advance racial equity in the federal government. The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which made climate change a central issue of the 2020 election, is largely responsible for the first victory. Relentless grassroots pressure ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s disastrous offensive in Yemen. The Black Lives Matter movement forced national action on systemic racism at all levels.

Broad-based civic movements provide the energy, dynamism, and power-shifting ability necessary to address the world’s interconnected social, political, and economic crises, including climate change, staggering inequality, structural racism, and resurgent authoritarianism linked to white nationalism. Given the inextricable linkages between domestic and foreign policy, the ability of movements to bridge these domains is critical to addressing these challenges.

These kinds of powerful movements operating in the United States have human rights and human dignity at their core and bring together domestic and foreign policy. They are critical to developing and implementing effective solutions at home and abroad. And practical steps can enhance collaboration between domestic movements and the U.S. foreign policy community, building on previous efforts to bridge domestic and foreign policy.

Why Movements Matter 

For centuries, grassroots movements have driven social, political, and economic changes in the United States and globally. From abolishing slavery and ending apartheid, to winning women’s suffrage and worker protections, to resisting dictatorship, movements have achieved impressive successes while contributing to more democratic and inclusive societies. Rooted in communities and driven by volunteers, movements are fluid entities made up of diverse actors including youth groups, faith-based organizations, professional associations, neighborhood committees, trade and labor unions, NGOs, and artist groups. Movements have change-oriented goals and use extra-institutional tactics like vigils, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and sit-ins, often in combination with courts and legislative actions, to raise the urgency of issues, disrupt the status quo, and shift incentives and power dynamics.

There has been a dramatic rise across the globe in the number of protests and movements focused on resisting authoritarianism (Hong Kong, Belarus, and Uganda); challenging corruption (Iraq, Lebanon, and Chile); and advancing religious freedoms (India), among other causes. The Black-led protests in the United States following George Floyd’s murder, which the Crowd Counting Consortium called the broadest in U.S. history, forced a national and global reckoning on racism and police brutality. The COVID pandemic, which has disproportionately harmed vulnerable and marginalized communities, exposed structural injustices and spawned protests demanding government accountability. Not all protests have focused on public health – there have been anti-mask protests as well in the U.S. and across world. 

Movements and U.S. Foreign Policy

Movements in the United States focused on issues including climate, labor rights, immigration, anti-poverty, and racial justice link domestic and foreign policy in their analyses, platforms, and coalitions. However, for institutional, budgetary, and other reasons, contact between these movements and the foreign policy community (particularly in the executive branch) has been limited. Exceptions to this include antiwar and labor movements, which have targeted defense and international trade agencies in the U.S. government.

The walls separating domestic movements and foreign policy should be dismantled by policymakers and civil society for three key reasons.

First, the intersectional approach that movements like Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Sunrise Movement, and feminist anti-war movements apply to their organizing efforts strengthens the analysis of issues like inequality, racism, and climate change by highlighting the linkages among them. For example, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) policy platform connects systemic racism and police brutality at home to aggressive militarism, police and security force training, and the marketing of violent technologies abroad. The M4BL platform calls for the demilitarization of police forces and offers a plan for reinvesting war-making funds in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.

The Poor People’s Campaign, a faith-based U.S. anti-poverty movement, focuses on the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and the war economy, and the false narrative of religious nationalism. Drawing inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement connects U.S. militarism abroad to violence and poverty at home. Its 2020 Jubilee platform prioritizes “provid[ing] for the common defense” and lays out a plan for defunding militarism and reinvesting in communities. The movement has facilitated connections between U.S. labor groups, like the Service Employees International Union, and the proposed U.S.-European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to push for worker rights and fair trade.

feminist peace initiative established in 2019 by Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a group of 60 U.S.-based grassroots organizing groups comprised of working and poor people; Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace on the Korean peninsula; and MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, highlights how militarized approaches to security through weapons sales, militarized policing, and mass incarceration have contributed to violence and insecurity domestically and internationally. It calls for a reorientation of foreign policy around an intersectional, movements-focused framework. These movements and others, including the Women’s March and #MeToo, the DREAMers, and the LGBTQ and transgender movements, focus on those most adversely impacted by violence and inequality at home and abroad, including indigenous populations, Black and brown communities, and women.

A growing veterans’ movement, which includes traditional organizations like the Vietnam Veterans of America and newer groups like VoteVetsSecure Families Initiative, and Common Defense, works on both foreign and domestic policy. Common Defense focuses not only on traditional veteran issues but also larger society issues like health care, the minimum wage, and anti-poverty. These groups, which are starting to organize military families for alternatives to war and militarism, could play a significant role in changing the public conversation about national security priorities.

second reason to remove the wall separating domestic movements and foreign policy is that engaging with grassroots movements would democratize U.S. foreign policy. That would bring motivated and mobilized constituencies into the foreign policy arena and make cross-national connections.

While technical expertise is critical to effective policymaking, the concentration of foreign policy expertise and decision-making in a relatively small number of hands inside the Beltway has disconnected foreign policy from mainstream America. The best way to address this disconnect is to diversify the foreign policy and national security communities to make them more reflective of the country, something groups like Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security and the Diversity in National Security Network are doing effectively. An additional and crucial approach is to engage with those movements that represent broad and diverse constituencies across the country.

Democratizing U.S. foreign policy through movement engagement would make it more inclusive of the interests and needs of domestic constituencies. At the same time, such actions would connect foreign policy to the kind of grassroots pressure needed to reduce reliance on military solutions and invest in alternatives. Movements led by youth and women are particularly adept at building diverse alliances and challenging the status quo.

A prime example is the Sunrise movement, a multiracial youth-led environmental movement with over 400 hubs across the United States that was established in 2017 to stop climate change and create a green economy. The movement, with tactics such as sit-ins at congressional offices and acts of civil disobedience, has driven the Green New Deal, which aims to shift American society to 100 percent clean and renewable energy over the next 10 years. Sunrise has combined skillful direct action, backed by extensive training, with successful campaigns to turn out the youth vote for political candidates who endorse the Green New Deal. The result has been a number of prominent electoral victories and a greater public understanding of the urgency of climate action.

Other youth movements have combined mass action with institutional politics to advance key policies. The DREAMers youth movement has built a broad, nationwide coalition to protect the rights of undocumented youth, fundamentally shifting the immigration debate. Dissenters, a youth-led anti-war group led by people of color, has mobilized hundreds of young people through local chapters to oppose war with Iran, linking the uprisings against policy brutality to the struggle against global militarism.

Feminist and women’s-led movements have a long history of resisting war and militarism, including the famously audacious campaign undertaken by Liberian women to end a civil war in 2003 that featured blockades and a sex strike. More recently, women marched across the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea to demand a negotiated peace to end that war. CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization in the United States working to end war and militarism, uses similar audacious tactics. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 by a small group of Black women fed up with systematic police killings and centuries of entrenched racism in the United States.

The resolve of these movements and their ability to mobilize people across divisions and national borders make them a significant foreign policy asset – even if they do not feature prominently in foreign policy discussions. Their organizing prowess could strengthen efforts to increase U.S. foreign assistance in public health, women’s development, indigenous and LGBTQ+ groups, support for violence prevention initiatives, and greater investment in renewables.

Meanwhile, the cross-national nature of feminist, youth, environmental, anti-corruption, and racial justice movements is an added strength. The transnational solidarity around the Black Lives Matter movement, which included a campaign organized by U.S.-based BLM activists targeting the Nigerian government after its violent crackdown on activists protesting police brutality, is a case in point. The global environmental movement that includes the Sunrise movement, and which made Greta Thunberg a household name after her sit-in outside the Swedish parliament, has focused priorities and coordinated global mass actions.

The third reason why building bridges with movements is critical for foreign policy is that it could help close the hypocrisy gap between the values the United States professes overseas and the realities at home. As Travis Adkins and Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote, the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States has weakened claims to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms abroad. It was difficult for American diplomats to condemn apartheid in South Africa while Jim Crow was deeply entrenched in the United States. Similarly, it is hard for the United States to credibly criticize human rights abuses in places like Myanmar, China, and Russia in light of the systematic state-sanctioned killings of unarmed Black men and women in the US and militarized police responses to protestors.

Movements force honesty and self-improvement at home, which in turn enhances credibility and leverage abroad. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, which exposed profound injustices at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for global influence, ended legally-sanctioned racial discrimination in the United States and bolstered U.S. moral authority abroad. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought together an unprecedented number of Americans from different generations, genders, races, and ideologies, has forced a conversation about police reform and systemic racism, while inspiring global solidarity actions.

At a time when foreign aid and development are coming under criticism for their role in perpetuating racist and neo-colonial policies and practices, listening to the experiences of individuals fighting to end poverty and advance racial and economic equity in the United States could deepen diplomats’ and foreign aid practitioners’ understanding of those issues. Those focused on human rights and democracy would do well to learn how movements in the United States, led by people of color, are countering anti-democratic policies and practices, the challenges they face, and how they are learning from activists and movements challenging authoritarianism abroad. 

Getting Practical 

Building meaningful relationships between domestic movements and the foreign policy community will take time, patience, prioritization, and commitment. While there are already strong connections between movement leaders and progressive members of Congress, notably through the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which recently introduced the 2021 People’s Agenda, developing links to the executive branch may take more effort. The National Security Council (NSC) and the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), along with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), could start by acknowledging the powerful role of movements at home and abroad and commit to a listening tour. They might tap the experience and expertise of their younger staff, who are undoubtedly clued into these movements and familiar with their work.

The NSC or the DPC could help coordinate federal government engagement with movements and include both domestic and foreign policy officials. It may be a propitious time for such engagements given National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s depth of experience on domestic policy and DPC leader Susan Rice’s background in foreign affairs.  For example, meetings with the Poor People’s Campaign could include representatives from the State Department and USAID, in addition to the Department of Health and Human Services and other relevant domestic agencies. Meetings with M4BL activists or leaders of the Feminist Peace Initiative could involve a similar mix of State, USAID, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and other agencies as appropriate. The purpose of these meetings would be to build relationships, exchange ideas, surface tensions, and discuss potential alignment around shared priorities.

Trusted intermediaries in civil society, including think tanks, academic institutions, faith-based groups, human rights and peacebuilding networks could host movement-centered roundtables and other convenings whose goal is to build relationships between movement leaders and policymakers and align strategies on shared goals in various issue areas. They could include domestic movement priorities in their outreach and advocacy strategies, something that the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group, and Win Without War already do. While think tanks like the Quincy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies have highlighted movements in U.S. foreign policy, and CSIS hosts a webinar series on Race and Diplomacy, more think tanks, foundations, and the NGO community could follow suit.

In its 2019 report, “Reimagining U.S. Security Spending for the 21st Century and Beyond,” Win Without War recommends four priorities: halting the spread of global authoritarianism, combating the climate crisis, reducing mass inequality, and repudiating militarism. These priorities could inform a series of roundtables or other meetings involving movement leaders and the FP community. The Poor People’s Campaign, whose People’s Agenda emphasizes the close interlinkages between domestic and foreign policy issues, could serve as a key conduit for these convenings. The movement roundtables that formed after the 2016 election, including Fight Back Table, the Social and Economic Justice leaders project, and The Frontline, which unites M4BL, United We Dream, and the Working Families Party, are other key interlocutors.

There are existing models of effective coalition building between foreign and domestic policy groups that could inform this process. One is the partnership that has developed in recent years between foreign policy experts and U.S. officials and civil society for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global plan adopted in 2015 to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. In Pittsburgh, in an effort led by the mayor, different constituencies and stakeholders including city workers and Carnegie Mellon University have mobilized around the SDG framework and committed to achieving goals set out in the SDGs, notably those related to green jobs.

Another example is the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an alliance between governments and civil society organizations launched in 2011 to strengthen transparent and accountable governance. There are now 78 OGP national members, a growing number of local governments, and thousands of civil society organizations that come together to co-create OGP action plans focused on reinvigorating democracy. U.S. civil groups have prioritized combating corruption, protecting civil rights and electoral integrity, and tackling disinformation in the fourth OGP national plan. The linkage between open governance and racial justice opens new avenues for OGP engagement with domestic movements in the United States.

The Biden-Harris administration could use platforms like the SDGs and OGP, along with other high-level initiatives, to highlight the work of movements and build bridges between the domestic and foreign policy communities. One such opportunity is the Summit for Democracy that the administration has committed to hosting and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said would likely occur by the end of this year. The summit, which will seek to address democracy challenges at home and internationally, could put movements fighting corruption, authoritarianism, and inequality in the United States and abroad at its center. Prioritizing engagement with activists and movement leaders in the lead-up to, during, and following the summit would signal humility and a recognition of their importance in advancing democracy.

Exchange and fellowship programs could be used to build and strengthen relationships between movements and the foreign policy community. Existing exchange programs that send diplomats and Foreign Service officers to work with state and local government offices could be expanded to include “postings” with social movement organizations. The State Department and USAID could consider hosting “activists-in-residence” to build bridges between domestic movements and offices focused on human rights and democracy overseas. Think tanks, NGOs, and philanthropies could establish fellowships for movement leaders and federal government leaders dedicated to forging these relationships.

Others have recommended creating venues where foreign policy professionals could talk openly with American and overseas audiences about their experiences with racism. Establishing and institutionalizing these fora, and inviting movement leaders to participate in them, would generate honesty while building trust and relationships between the domestic and foreign policy communities. At the same time, there is always a risk that such interactions between movements and policymakers could lead to exploitation of the former by the latter. Movement leaders should establish clear ground rules for policy engagement, guard their political independence, and use their best judgement about whether and how to engage with policymakers.

Anticipating Challenges 

The perspectives, approaches, and tactics used by activists and movements may differ from what government officials are used to. Unlike government bureaucracies and traditional NGOs, grassroots movements are fluid, non-hierarchical, and decentralized by design. For this reason, inclusivity and flexibility on issues of rank are particularly important. Some of the most impressive activists and organizers are local youth leaders who will be at first unknown to most policymakers and NGO leaders.

While movements include policy experts and those skilled in advocacy and negotiation, they also feature activists who have no qualms about engaging in civil disobedience or being arrested for challenging government policies. They would likely be very sensitive to attempts to coopt or water down their goals and strategies. While some activists may not wish to engage with government officials for ideological or other reasons, others will see engagement as core to their inside-outside strategy. Policymakers should avoid “choosing favorites” and prioritize the agendas of movement leaders. They should be aware that U.S. movement leaders, who have experienced many hardships and traumas over the past few years, may have immediate priorities that take precedence over engagement with the foreign policy community.

Public and private funding pose further challenges to bridge-building. Philanthropic funding, for example, is usually divided between domestic and international programming. There are some noteworthy exceptions, including efforts by the Colombe Foundation, Arca Foundation, Compton Foundation, and Ploughshares to bridge these arenas. The campaign to right-size the Pentagon budget, which brought together the National Taxpayers’ Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Win Without War, and the Coalition on Human Needs, is a good example of philanthropic funding that incentivized domestic-international collaboration. The Colombe Foundation has actively connected M4BL with anti-war groups.

Furthermore, the amount of private funding to groups focused on peace and security (about 1 percent of total foundation giving) is miniscule compared to the amount of funding in the social- and environmental-justice ecosystem. This disequilibrium poses a challenge to effective collaboration between groups focused on social justice and those focused on peacebuilding and anti-militarism.

The federal budgeting process creates further barriers. The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which created a decade-long budget cap and a firewall between domestic and defense funding and which requires that any increase in domestic spending has to be matched by increases in defense spending, discouraged honest conversations about budget priorities and resulted in an explosion of post-9/11 defense spending. The expiration of the BCA this year creates an opportunity to revisit budget priorities and could prompt collaboration and alignment between domestic and foreign policy groups. Movements will be key to making this happen.

Conclusion 

Movements are natural bridges between domestic and foreign policy. They bring fresh ideas, critical perspectives, and the ability to mobilize diverse coalitions over interrelated issues. Movement participation could democratize U.S. foreign policy while strengthening domestic constituencies for foreign assistance programs and priorities – because they would be seen as improving communities and priorities at home. These partnerships could build momentum for focusing U.S. foreign and national security priorities and budgets on human security.

Tensions and disagreements between movements and the foreign policy community are inevitable and healthy. While intermediary organizations such as universities, NGOs, think tanks, and foundations can help facilitate relationship-building and problem-solving, it may not be possible or even desirable for movements and policymakers to reach unified positions on key issues. Still, their interaction could pave the way to dynamic new coalitions, and create a sense of urgency about the interconnected crises faced jointly by the United States and the world. Ultimately, they could build the power necessary to transform these crises and build a more just and peaceful world.

Seven Foreign Policy Issues to Watch In 2022

This article contains contributions from Director of Partnerships and Outreach Tabatha Pilgrim-Thompson and was first published on InkStick.

We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.

As the Biden-Harris administration enters its second year in office, it will grapple with formidable foreign policy challenges that affect the wellbeing of Americans and global citizens alike. Seven members of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative highlight seven of these challenges, ranging from ending the COVID-19 pandemic to reducing dependence on fossil fuels to identifying Unidentified (and perhaps unidentifiable) Aerial Phenomena — not to mention getting national security officials past the Senate and into leadership roles in order to tackle all of these challenges.

1. ENDING THIS PANDEMIC AND PREPARING FOR THE NEXT ONE 

As the world heads into the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration will be looking to end the current pandemic and invest in programs to prevent and respond to future pandemics. With vaccination rates plateauing and high-income countries consider authorizing fourth doses, the need to vaccinate low- and middle-income nations will become that much more critical, as will increased access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and PPE tools.

As we have seen time and again, inequitable access to vaccines led to the development of more lethal, more contagious, and more severe forms of the disease. Rapid and accurate tests will need to be brought to scale as the world becomes more dependent on negative test results to attend school, travel, and access essential health services. Shortages of tests seen in the United States are far more severe in less wealthy countries and will not improve without significant donor intervention. It will be especially exciting to track new therapeutics, like those that significantly lower the risk of severe disease in immune-compromised patients. Careful attention should be paid to existing therapies, like medical oxygen and steroids, to avoid supply chain stock outs.

RAPID AND ACCURATE TESTS WILL NEED TO BE BROUGHT TO SCALE AS THE WORLD BECOMES MORE DEPENDENT ON NEGATIVE TEST RESULTS TO ATTEND SCHOOL, TRAVEL, AND ACCESS ESSENTIAL HEALTH SERVICES.

This year will also see US bilateral and multilateral global health programs pivot from the immediate response to the current crisis to planning on how best to prevent, prepare, and respond to future pandemics. To be determined are how the US government will structure and resource pandemic preparedness programs at State and USAID, and the role of US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) headed by the former Africa CDC Chief, Dr. John Nkengasong, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. In the fall of 2022, the United States will host the Seventh Replenishment Conference of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the largest global health funder. The upcoming Replenishment Conference will bring together donor and implementing governments, private sector, civil society, and affected populations to rally resources to end the deadliest infectious diseases and invest in efforts to prevent the spread of future epidemics. The Global Fund’s ability to draw on its strengths of achieving results against HIV, TB and malaria, civil society inclusion, and strengthening health systems will lay the groundwork for future pandemic preparedness and response. This will be a significant opportunity for the Biden administration to diplomatically engage other donors to increase contributions in global health, an area where many other high-income donors have fallen short. Without leadership — diplomatic, political, and monetary — there will be no end to this, or future, pandemics.

Shannon Kellman is the Policy Director for Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. 

2. A CITIZEN-LED APPROACH TO REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY

The deterioration of freedoms under the guise of pandemic response, successful coups in places like Myanmar and Sudan, and a violent insurrection in one of the most well-established democracies signal that democratic decline is unlikely to abate in 2022 without significant course correction. With general elections in declining democracies like IndiaBrazil, and Hungary, deepening toxic polarization heading into the US midterms, and a never-ending global pandemic, it is evident that we are at a turning point. Democracy advocates around the world will have to organize in ways that they never have before.

Commentary surrounding the Summit for Democracy and the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection provide exhaustive diagnoses of the problems facing the US and its democratic allies. Some proposed concrete solutions, including crafting country-specific agendaspursuing electoral reform and establishing a formal global democracy alliance. Yet, many recommendations targeted governments and political party infrastructure and offered less detail for how civil society can organize for democracy globally and here at home in the United States. With so much at stake, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.

A sustainable movement for democracy needs a global coalition of activists, peacebuilders, organizers, academics, and community leaders to create pressure for local, national, and global reforms that translate into meaningful action at the community level. It requires organizing within and outside of elections, cross-sector strategic and scenario planning and mobilizing people who represent diverse constituencies, ideologies, and geographies. This is a big ask, but we have seen this level of coordination (albeit imperfect) before for issues like racial justiceclimate change, and, on a smaller scale, to protect the 2020 US election results. With renewed attention internationally and new investments domestically, previously siloed democracy champions have a new opportunity to come together, learn, and share experiences, and plan this global movement.

Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson is the Director for Partnerships and Outreach at The Horizons Project, a new initiative focused on strengthening relationships among social justice activists, peacebuilders, and democracy advocates working to advance a just, pluralistic democracy in the United States. 

3. OVERCOMING CONGRESSIONAL OBSTRUCTION TO NATIONAL SECURITY APPOINTMENTS

While not as headline-grabbing as other issues, one trend that will have major foreign policy implications in 2022 is the Congress’s refusal to confirm necessary staffing to national security positions. The Partnership for Public Service found that just over half of key Senate-confirmed positions, 97 out of 173, were filled as of Dec. 31, 2021. In part, this is the fault of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who single-handedly held up a number of positions due to disagreements over the Biden administration’s waiver of NordStream 2 sanctions. While Senator Cruz and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were able to find an agreement to move forward with confirmations, it only takes one senator to keep these jobs vacant.

This slowdown in appointments creates a variety of problems that often lurk in the background of headlines. France recalled its ambassador to the US over the cancellation of a submarine contract related to AUKUS. How might have that situation been different if we had had an ambassador in Paris or an Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department? Potentially to avoid these issues, the president has grown the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) to approximately 350, but the impact of growing the NSC is unclear. America needs these key national security and foreign policy positions filled now.

Grant Haver is the host of the Next in Foreign Policy podcast, podcast producer and new content coordinator at TRG Media, and Senior Fellow for National Security at the Rainey Center.  

4. MITIGATING THE IMPACT OF FOSSIL FUEL DEPENDENCE 

The pain of global dependence on fossil fuels will increase, with many domestic fuel issues exacerbating social unrest and bubbling up to become international security issues and humanitarian crises. First, there is the post-COVID demand recovery outpacing supply, increasing fuel costs, and angering consumers. Second, there is the volatility of geopolitics mixed with fossil fuel dependence, resulting in some groups harnessing the demand for fuel to impose their will. Any combination of these two factors makes fuel shortages a potent weapon.

WHILE FUEL MAY NOT BE THE DIRECT CAUSE OF SOME OF THESE PROBLEMS, THE WORLD MAY REALLY START TO FEEL THE NEED FOR ENERGY DIVERSIFICATION THIS YEAR.

Kazakhstan is a good example of what may be in store for 2022. What started as a protest over increased fuel prices grew into a humanitarian crisis stemming from a violent crackdown and internet blackout. Russian military involvement, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, unnerved the West as experts initially speculated whether Russia’s military would leave. There is also Yemen, where potential rebel control over the oil-rich city, Marib, could financially legitimate Houthi governance over the country. In Haiti, gangs cut off fuel supplies in October 2021 to provoke domestic chaos amidst the turmoil sparked by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. With the end of the assassinated president’s term nearing in February, some are concerned over the potential flash point this could create, forcing more refugees to the US border. If the gangs weaponized fuel once, they may do it again.

While fuel may not be the direct cause of some of these problems, the world may really start to feel the need for energy diversification this year.

April Arnold is a Senior Nonproliferation Adviser for Culmen International, where she advises the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence.  She is currently pursuing her MA in Sustainable Energy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

5. REVIVING THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL 

After a full year of stop-and-go diplomacy, 2022 could finally be the year that the United States and Iran return to full compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA put into place the most stringent nonproliferation restrictions on a country in history until the Trump administration withdrew in 2018 and reopened the nuclear crisis with a failed “maximum pressure” policy. In response, Iran increased its nuclear leverage by reinstalling advanced centrifuges and stockpiling uranium up to 60% enriched. For a nuclear weapon, 90% enrichment is required, but under the deal, Iran can not surpass 3.67%.

In 2022, the reality that a diplomatic agreement is in the interest of the United States, Iran, and global security will not change. CIA Director Bill Burns has said there’s no evidence Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon while State Department spokesperson Ned Price has stated that Iran has made “modest progress” since the negotiations in late December 2021. We should, therefore, remain optimistic. Still, negotiators need to move faster as there are two looming hurdles ahead: Iran’s growing stockpile of highly enriched uranium and increasing technical knowledge, and the political chaos of midterm elections in the United States. Tehran is also demanding assurances that the US won’t withdraw, again, under a future president. Meanwhile, the Iranian people continue to suffer under corruption at home, economic sanctions from abroad, and an ongoing pandemic. A return to the JCPOA, or at least an interim deal to give diplomats breathing room, cannot come soon enough for all involved.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a Middle East Analyst and communications consultant.

6. REPEALING ANTIQUATED WAR AUTHORIZATIONS

In 2022, expect Congress to debate whether to reclaim its ever-eroding constitutional war powers and withdraw far-reaching authorizations for the use of military force. Soon after withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said, “for the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war.” However, the open-ended laws that authorized the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the Iraq war remain on the books. Congress will likely consider whether to repeal standing authorizations for the use of military force this year. Recent revelations of widespread civilian casualties from airstrikes conducted under GWOT and Iraq war authorizations make Congress’s efforts to rein in executive uses of military force all the more important.

Last summer, Biden announced his support for a repeal of the 2002 Iraq war authorization. The House of Representatives then passed Representative Barbara Lee’s bill to repeal the Iraq war authorization. Schumer soon after promised a 2021 Senate vote on a bipartisan proposal to repeal two laws authorizing the Gulf War and Iraq War. The vote, however, was delayed amid negotiations around the year’s largest defense policy bill. If the Senate finally votes on the repeal, it will likely pass, teeing up a debate over the 2001 war on terror authorization. Congress may also try to update the War Powers Resolution, a Vietnam War-era law that governs when the president may conduct military operations and what the president must report to Congress.

John Ramming Chappell is a J.D. and M.S. in Foreign Service candidate focusing on human rights and national security law at Georgetown University.

7. FINDING A NEW APPROACH TO UNIDENTIFIED AERIAL PHENOMENA

Perhaps the most fascinating trend in national security in the last year was increasing executive and congressional interest in the topic of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Following the bombshell 2017 revelations in the New York Times that the Pentagon had concealed an ongoing UAP monitoring effort, public interest has grown regarding repeated incursions into protected US airspace. A June 2021 unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) investigated 144 incident reports from 2004 through 2021, and 18 reports included what ODNI termed “unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics” — including movement that defied physics and craft that operated without visible propulsion systems or emitted radio frequency energy. In addition, no evidence was found that any of the investigated cases could be attributed to a foreign adversary. As such, the report concluded that “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to US national security.”

When asked about the report, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently remarked that the obvious question remains, “…is there something else that we simply do not understand, that might come extraterrestrially?” Haines’ remarks seem to reflect a growing tone shift within the US government at both the executive and congressional levels. The Rubio-Gillibrand-Gallego UAP Amendment included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the first publicly acknowledged UAP office since the 1969 termination of the US Air Force’s controversial Project Blue Book.

While Air Force Regulation 200-2 prohibited the public release of UAP incident reports without a conventional explanation, the new UAP office will provide annual unclassified briefings and biannual classified briefings to Congress. Regardless of the explanation(s) behind these phenomena, the UAP issue represents an ongoing threat to US territorial sovereignty that must not be silenced due to the decades-old stigma attached to the topic.

Katie Howland, MPH, is an award-winning humanitarian with experience managing programs related to genocide response, literacy, and global health across the Middle East and Africa. She has been recognized as a 2021 National Security Out Leader, 2020 Aerie Changemaker, and a 2019 Nonprofit Visionary of the Year finalist by San Diego Magazine.