Stories and images of Ukrainians fighting for their democracy have inspired citizens worldwide. Many Americans have wondered what we should do to defend ours. They’re right to wonder. American democracy is in grave danger from the same anti-democratic forces.
Authoritarianism — the political belief that danger and chaos require a strict obedience to authority (a strong leader or strong government), even at the expense of individual freedom — is growing in America.
So far, we’ve let them. The threat to our democracy exists.
The situation is urgent.
As community organizing scholar Marshall Ganz explains: inertia, fear, apathy, self-doubt, and isolation are all barriers to communal action.
Democracy thrives when we urgently believe that democracy is valuable, when we allow ourselves to hope for better, when our righteous anger overcomes our apathy, when we believe that we can make a difference, and when we feel solidarity with others.
Right now, we have trouble thinking and acting communally. As political scientist Robert Putnam explained in Bowling Alone, the last several generations have failed to join civic groups, bowling leagues or other “bridging” social organizations. We have cocooned ourselves in our private spaces — which means we’re more “bonded” to people who are already like us and more fearful and distrusting of others.
Trust is crucial to healthy interpersonal relationships. Ditto for healthy political relationships. It’s “the mutual confidence that no party to an exchange will exploit another’s vulnerability.” When we trust we acknowledge that relationships (whether with our constitution, friends or family) are risky. We are interdependent. That makes us vulnerable.
Political theorists know democratic stability requires a capacity for trust. It prevents our government from decaying or backsliding. We must trust in government itself, that the branches will fulfill their obligations, that decisions made by local, state and national elected officials are just and in our best interests. We must trust one another.
All of these metrics of political trust have cratered since the 1970s. Now we only trust the government when “our side” controls it.
We gave weakened our communal ties, according to Jeffery Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, at the same time news media has shifted from the kind of “least offensive programing” that used to appeal to the entire nation to the “niche programing” that appeals to dedicated news consumers.
That niche programming attracts and keeps audiences by feeding them outrage that tells them their political opposition is their enemy. The outrage industry is thriving, but democracy is shriveling.
One effect of all this outrage is that it turned Americans into what some political scientists call “political sectarians.” That’s when good, healthy partisanship turns into bad, cancerous partisan hatred.
The nonpartisan Pew organization found that Americans don’t just have different policy preferences from their political opposition. They think of them as enemies of the American way of life – of America.
It’s a significant problem that 64 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats say the other is “close-minded.” Fifty-five percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats say the other is “immoral.”
It hasn’t helped our broken public sphere that 39 percent of Trump supporters and 42 percent of Biden supporters reported that they had zero close friends who supported the other candidate in 2020.
Our failure to connect makes it difficult to trust one another. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. It allows us to believe the worst about the opposition. It makes productive political discussions harder. This lack of communal behavior weakens communities, It foments distrust, alienation, cynicism — anti-democratic feelings eroding democracy.
Ironically, distrust makes us more vulnerable. Trust is a social, political and economic lubricant. It makes everything in human relations easier. Distrust does the opposite, though. It makes everything harder.
Democracy thrives on trust.
Authoritarianism thrives on distrust.
A whole of society approach
Global threats of the past five years — like climate change and covid — have led to partner nations adopting a “whole of society” approach to mitigating the threats. We need that same approach to mitigating the threat of authoritarianism — domestically and internationally.
A “whole of society” approach means all relevant sectors of society work together — business, education, law, governments, communal groups — to solve a problem. Each sector asks what it has done to contribute to the problem and what it can do to contribute to fixing it.
And of course, that means you too. Here are 10 democracy defending practices that you can do today to help to defend our democracy.
- Build trust between different sectors of society and different factions. Democracy thrives with bridge-building; it erodes with distrust and cynicism.
- Use whatever power you have, in whatever spheres of influence you are in, to ask one question, “are we doing enough to defend democracy?”
- Spread good information, online and off. Support those who are generating and distributing good information (researchers, teachers, media, librarians). Consider establishing a little free library.
- Support institutions, especially communal ones like parks, libraries, food banks and schools. Support places where people connect.
- Call people in, not out. We tend to shame those with whom we disagree, but authoritarians thrive with alienation. Shaming and shunning will drive people toward authoritarians. Call them in, befriend them. Build bridges. Bridges strengthen democracy.
- Give money, time and attention to pro-democracy politicians, organizations, institutions and movements. Look for groups already working to support democracy.
- Democracy is everybody. Everybody. Check your skepticism of people not like you. Work on that. We need all of us.
- Go out in public as a democracy defender. Talk about democracy with people. Show up to events, hearings, etc., as a democrat. Join a march. Make being pro-democracy a thing people know about you and associate with you.
- Communicate as a democrat. That means using persuasion, not compliance-gaining strategies. That means being open to new information, perspectives, values. It means being inclusive, not exclusive. Democracy is a way of life – a way of thinking and communicating.
- Finally, do not be cynical. Do not defeat democracy with your cynicism. Block or mute cynical people/accounts. Cynicism is not useful for a pro-democracy movement. Hope is necessary.
Democracy isn’t just defended with tanks. Democracy is a way of life as well as a method of politics. The authoritarian plan is to sow division, to exploit distrust, polarization and frustration.
Authoritarians love cynicism. We have to normalize democratic hope.
The political project of our time is to defend democracy.