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In Search of Democracy's Movement (II)
Rachel Kleinfeld says we need a broad-based, multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action if we're going to change America's direction.
If you are worried about the future of the United States, then take the time to read through this recent paper from Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy.” It’s long—30,000 words plus footnotes!—but possibly the best synthesis yet from anyone working on this problem. I’m not going to recapitulate the whole thing here but instead want to use it to drill down on one key strategy Kleinfeld identifies that I think we need to flesh out more.
Kleinfeld makes a convincing case that, assuming current trends continue, we will be soon living in one of three equally nightmarish scenarios. Either we will find ourselves living in a stable country run by one political party where voters can’t change politics because that party has further rigged an already unbalanced system to its advantage; or we’ll be in an unstable country run by one political party whose control is upheld by violence; or a country stuck in political stalemate with increasing levels of both criminal and political violence. Arguably we are already living in the third scenario and are on the precipice of one of the other two.
The reasons she gives for these gloomy scenarios are many and too intricate to replay here; suffice it to say that the core problem, she writes, is “an alliance on the right between elites trying to consolidate power through antidemocratic means and an angry, illiberal social movement” PLUS rising numbers of people on the left who are giving up on democracy. Any solution to this challenge, she argues, “must counter forces on both the left and right contributing to the pernicious polarization that makes solving democratic challenges so intractable, offering instead a positive, attractive, comforting vision in which all parts of the nation can see themselves as potentially gaining through its mutual creation.”
And in case you are wondering, Kleinfeld isn’t a pessimist. She correctly notes that we have been at this place before in our history: in the 1880s at the height of the Gilded Age, and in the 1960s and 70s when political violence was much higher than now. In the first case, with the exception of the South (I know, big exception!), the progressive movement brought about more honest politics, an end to child labor, safe food and water, and the flourishing of unions alongside economic growth. In the second case new policies, from post-Watergate political reforms to improved policing led to reduced polarization, much lower levels of violence, and more productive politics, all of which held for nearly fifty years. So there’s room for hope.
With that in mind, I want to focus in on one aspect that think tank papers on democracy rarely cover: what ordinary Americans can do to help defuse the crisis. Kleinfeld has some useful ideas, but I would argue that this where her synthetic thinking needs more work.
First, steel yourself. Kleinfeld says most of the things we are currently devoting our energies to won’t be enough to stop the decline of democracy: tactics like helping Democrats win more elections, increasing voter turnout, getting more minorities to vote, courting more swing voters, improving election administration, improving the distribution of economic opportunity and wealth, and fixing gerrymandering.
Why aren’t these steps enough? First, because they’re stopgaps, not solutions. Kleinfeld likens them to the way the US and NATO fought their war in Afghanistan, as twenty one-year campaigns that got repeated over and over rather than a sustained commitment to the fundamental transformation of the country (let’s leave aside whether that was ever a good idea in the first place). In addition, she writes, “society’s immune system ha[s] been weakened by … long-term problems of polarization and decades of lost faith that democracy can deliver a better life,” Kleinfeld writes. “Thus, it isn’t enough to restore the status quo from just before the acute threat took hold—Americans must use this crisis to propel their country forward.”
Instead, her five strategies are:
Enable responsible conservatives to vote for democracy
Reduce the social demand from the right for illiberal policies and politicians
Engage the left in defending democracy by making it deliver
Build a broad-based, multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action
Strengthen accountability to reset norms on what behavior is legal and acceptable
These are all excellent ideas. My complaint is that most of these can only be done by elites, and elites alone cannot match the power of a mass movement.
For example, take Kleinfeld’s suggestions about creating pathways for responsible conservatives to vote for democracy. Right now, one-third of Republicans are not election deniers, so changing electoral rules in primaries to implement instant-runoff voting or expanding the practice of fusion voting are both changes would increase their sway and blunt the rise of the MAGA faction. But that’s a job for election lawyers and professional party functionaries, not ordinary citizens. Same with shifting to open primaries. That option already exists in Georgia, which is why Democrats were able to cross over this spring to help hold the line against MAGA wingnuts like Madison Cawthorn and give crucial support to Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who refused to give Trump the 11,000 votes he wanted to steal that state’s electoral votes in 2020. Kleinfeld’s call for a “new identity for conservative Republicans to stand for prodemocratic beliefs” is also a heavy lift, not something an ordinary citizen can just up and do on their own—though with the right kind of mass movement, there’d be room for conservatives to join in.
Reducing the social demand—especially among non-college educated white men--for illiberal policies and norm-breaking isn’t a simple undertaking either. Kleinfeld suggests that progressives do more to raise the income and status of skilled working-class jobs that don’t require a college degree, for example. She lauds President Obama for expanding apprenticeship programs during his administration, but then justifiably chides him for continuing to emphasize college as the goal everyone should aspire to. And she urges that we hold space for “emotionally and socially healthy men who also like pickup trucks, hunting, physical labor, physical strength, and traditionally masculine pursuits” instead of pigeon-holing them as all being toxic males. OK, does that mean I should try to make friends by taking up weight-lifting? She doesn’t say.
Where Kleinfeld really gets my attention is on her fourth strategy: to “build a broad-based, multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action.” She writes, “International examples suggest that people are motivated by positive messages and concrete actions. In the context of U.S. democracy, eschewing national messages and issues in favor of local change is the best way to build on the trust that remains in the system and to evade partisan polarization.”
Learning From Banned Books Week?
How? Kleinfeld points to things like shared sports events or moments when communities come together in the wake of a natural disaster as examples where seemingly polarized people set aside their differences. And she also argues that some existing social settings like unions or Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which emphasize connection as the antidote for weakness or addiction, can help reduce loneliness and polarization and remind people that we are better off when we get along with each other. Local community building activities around self-help and community improvement may be the most valuable thing we can do, she argues. Among her ideas: expanding lending circles for mutual aid, tilting recreation groups toward activities like trail-building or field improvement, tool lending libraries for garden groups, more civic festivals and holiday celebrations—all with emphasis where possible on building cross-racial and cross-class mingling and, if possible, positive social roles for men who might otherwise be easy prey for online extremist content.
I think she’s right about this, but would argue that such events need to be explicitly tied to the larger project of national reunification she is gesturing at, or these threads won’t weave into something more. Part of the challenge of confronting and defusing the authoritarian threat is in showing that we are united in support of democracy, not just that we are practicing democratic behaviors. So what I am hungry for are more local activities that not only build connections between neighbors but also level up concretely through some shared symbology toward an explicit celebration of democratic values.
For example, take this little march of a couple dozen local residents of Doyleston, Pennsylvania last Saturday as part of Banned Books Week, which I wrote about Monday on Medium. People dressed as books and walked through their town’s main streets, making periodic stops to explain how a specific book was being targeted, and handed out Pride flags and literature against book banning, garnering lots of sympathetic car honks and similar responses from passers-by. A lot of us are responding to the rise in book banning by crowdfunding donations to affected schools or libraries, or – if you’re a person with an audience – giving talks decrying the trend. That’s great, but it’s private, something you do from the comfort of your couch. Dressing up with some friends and marching down your town’s street takes organization and courage, and it also looks like fun!
Sure, if you’re a great public library like the Brooklyn Public Library, you can set up a QR code and website (Books Unbanned) so that kids in book-banning states like Oklahoma can access the titles that are being attacked. “The QR code has become — for lack of a better phrasing — it’s become a symbol of resistance locally in my state,” former Norman High School English teacher Summer Boismier told Politico’s Madina Toure. (Boismer quit her job in protest, and her teaching license is now in jeopardy, after she provided the code to students.) But we need visible, tangible things that ordinary people can do, not just elite actors and institutions.
At the same time, we also need a fresh and encompassing name for what this work is part of, and symbolic imagery that spreads that name. In the organizing bible Beautiful Trouble, Movement strategist Jonathan Smucker writes about the value of a “floating signifier” – “a symbol or concept (for example, the Zapatista balaclava) that's loose enough to mean many things to many people, yet specific enough to galvanize action in a particular direction.” He adds:
“Finding the right floating signifier can make or break a social movement or campaign. When a social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Previously disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side, and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.”
This what “Make America Great Again” does for the authoritarian right, by the way. There are a lot of activities falling under the MAGA umbrella: brandishing weapons at public events, harassing election administrators, hounding transgender kids, scrutinizing library book-shelves, driving or boating around in flag-bedecked convoys, defying mask mandates, sending public servants intimidating text messages, and so on. Wearing a red MAGA hat itself has become a statement of support for all these things. There’s a multiplier effect you get from a shared symbology, too. And let’s face it, having a visibly shareable identity is a great salve for loneliness (the source of so many totalitarian movements).
Something like this can’t be cooked up by consultants. In 2011, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, one group of organizers loosely aligned with MoveOn tried to galvanize a movement for economic justice around the meta-brand “We are the 98%.” They had a great viral video launch, and then it went nowhere. (Could it be because they were off by one percent?) Celebrity activist Van Jones tried his hand with “Rebuild the Dream” and the Netroots Nation conference gave him a big keynote slot to rev up the troops that spring. Again, no traction. It was only when Occupy Wall Street started that fall and people who were directly affected by the Great Recession, especially young students burdened by massive college debt, took desperate (and replicable) action tenting down in Zuccotti Square, that a mass movement to address economic equity took off.
Is the pro-democracy term we’re looking for the “Resistance”? I don’t think so. Even during the height of the anti-Trump years, I was never a fan of that term as a meta-descriptor of the many groups that arose to push back against his administration. First, because it was an appropriation of something way more substantial, organizations that worked in careful and dangerous defiance of dictatorial regimes to save lives and fight back, often with targeted violence. And second, because, let’s face it, opposing Trump by making campaign contributions to Democrats and knocking on doors was a very easy kind of opposition work compared to actual resistance.
Is it Team Human? That’s the meta-brand invented by my friend and neighbor Douglas Rushkoff. He’s built an online community around it and his books and podcast and talks do a great job of explaining what it’s about; but it’s not solely focused on the crisis of democracy in America so it may be too broad a banner to gather under.
Is it a renewal of the Wide Awake movement, a youth organization that helped propel Abraham Lincoln to victory in 1860? Well, it’s a great name for our moment but the Wide Awakes were also paramilitaries, and I’m in full agreement with Kleinfeld and others that any broadbased movement for democracy has to be committed to non-violence.
Frankly, I don’t have an answer to this question, just putting up a bat signal for all who are in the fight and searching for greater unity. For all we know, the name and the symbols are already out there and we just haven’t connected yet. Got ideas? See something happening near you that might be the answer? Chime in in the comments!
—Related: This piece (free link for nonsubscribers) by Blake Hounshell in the New York Times on how extreme snowboarders and rockclimbers and other members of “the outdoor state” have gotten organized into Protect Our Winters, a muscular (in both senses of the word) lobbying organization addressing climate change, is a great illustration of the potential of moving people from apolitical recreation to political creation, something I covered in part one of “In Search of Democracy’s Movement” two weeks ago.
Odds and Ends
—Today in Web3 scams: The People’s Network, a $500 million distributed networking project of Helium, a blockchain start-up backed by the likes of Andreesen Horowitz, is exposed by Forbes’ Sarah Emerson, David Jeans, and Phoebe Liuas a gigantic money grab by its insiders.
—On the same topic, only broader, don’t miss Dave Karpf’s recent post on the huge blindspot ignored by boosters of AI, Web3 and other forms of tech futurism. Dave’s Substack, The Future, Now and Then, is a rollicking read.
—Sawyer Hackett tweets: “It costs approximately $1,200 for someone to evacuate a massive hurricane like Ian. So with the $12 million in taxpayer funds Gov. DeSantis spent exploiting refugees, he could have covered those costs for 10,000 Floridians.” (h/t Murshed Zaheed)