While many have recognized the rising crisis of American authoritarianism, making sense of the complexity of the authoritarian system is a challenge. Is the true problem misinformation fueled by social media? Or the inflexibility of our political institutions to respond to changes in demographics and technology? Is it about the normalization of political violence? The return to prominence and troubling mainstreaming of racist white nationalist ideologies? Or perhaps a lack of institutions of deliberative democracy? Maybe the real problem is the longstanding trend of rising economic inequality? Or is it all of the above?
The complexity of the problem has hampered efforts to coordinate action against authoritarianism. Yet such coordination is crucial. Research shows that the most effective social movements involve broad, diverse coalitions that are united around a shared strategy of success. And a central element of any strategy is a clear understanding of the system that the strategy seeks to address.
One powerful approach that can help make sense of this complexity is the “pillars of support” framework. The pillars framework can be summarized in a simple image: a roof held up by several pillars. The roof represents a political system’s leaders, while the pillars represent the key organizations or institutions that give those leaders the resources and legitimacy they need to exercise power. The model rests on two insights: power in any social or political system is something that flows up from below, and this flow almost always takes place through specific institutions. If we can identify those institutions and the resources they provide to the authoritarian system, then we can understand how power operates in that system and be better equipped to change it.
Horizons is currently conducting a set of research projects to explore and better understand the pillars of support for authoritarianism in the US, and what insights historical cases in the US and around the world can give us on how to change the incentives of key pillars to disrupt authoritarianism and incentivize pro-democracy behavior. Based on conversations with partners, we are focusing on four pillars: business, faith communities, civic/professional groups (including organized labor), and veterans’ groups. Key research questions include:
- What are specific examples of how these key pillars have employed moral, cultural, social, economic/financial, and political levers to push back against democratic backsliding in semi-autocratic contexts in the US and globally?
- Which groups and organizations constitute the key network nodes within each pillar in the US today?
- What lessons from domestic and international cases could inform current pro-democracy organizing in the US?
- How might these lessons inform best practices and specific tools that cross-partisan organizers can use in their work to push back against the authoritarian playbook across the US at the national level? At the state level? At the community level?
- What are the barriers to operationalizing these best practices and tools and which groups, networks, individuals, etc. are best placed to overcome them?
To answer these questions, we are currently conducting two large-scale research projects. The first is collecting data on recent periods of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism. While scholars of nonviolent action have categorized hundreds of tactics for activists to employ, there is a lack of mapping the tactics that are uniquely applicable to engage specific societal pillars. So, for each period we examine two sets of questions: first, if a movement to protect democracy existed during this time, how did the movement seek to incentivize pillars to push back against authoritarianism, and how successful were such efforts? Second, we examine and systematically categorize any actions by pillars to push back against democratic backsliding and their outcomes. This enables us to identify the most effective levers that pillars have available to them to reverse authoritarianism and restore democracy.
When completed, this research project will provide systematic evidence of global trends both in what has been most effective in swaying pillars away from authoritarianism, and the most effective ways in which pro-democracy allies within these pillars have used their unique position of leverage to disrupt democratic backsliding. We will also harvest a wide range of vignettes that can provide inspiration for organizers and actors within the relevant pillars in the US.
Our second research project is developing a process to conduct comprehensive mapping of the pillars of support for authoritarianism in the US, focused on our four pillars of particular interest (business, faith, civic/professional, and veterans’ groups). The most acute democratic backsliding is taking place within certain states, and levels of authoritarianism vary widely from state to state. Recognizing this fact, we are piloting a process of mapping pillars of support for authoritarian systems at the state level, conducting an initial mapping in the state of Georgia over the course of 2023. Our goal is to offer both the results of the Georgia pillars analysis and the mapping process itself as a resource for pro-democracy organizers to replicate in other states. Ultimately these efforts would be linked in a larger national-level map.
No single framework can fully capture the complexity of the authoritarian system, but through carefully analyzing the key resources that sustain authoritarianism and the pillars of support through which those resources flow pro-democracy organizers can more strategically go on the offense to build key relationships and counter authoritarianism to advance a more just, inclusive democracy.