We at the Movement Law Lab (MLL) are lawyers troubled by the threat of rising authoritarianism and the conservative capture of US legal institutions. We believe the law can be leveraged to intervene in and interrupt the erosion of our democracy – but it will require a massive transformation of our sector and a new power-building commitment to bolster, defend and embolden social movement organizers. These “Democracy Dispatches” are an agitation to the legal sector to fulfill our role in fighting for a multiracial, pluralistic democracy. Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing them with MLL.
Over the course of this series, we hope to make meaning of the current moment and help both lawyers and organizers understand the gravity of what is at stake when democracy erodes. We’ll offer encouragement for how lawyers in every sector can become protagonists in the pro-democracy movement. We’ll also lift up examples of lawyers and legal institutions who are moving beyond winning cases to building collective power.
We hope you will join us on this journey. And more than read, we hope you will engage. Read and share this series with your communities, join our live events, and contribute your thoughts to the discourse. We don’t have all the answers; we invite you to struggle with these questions alongside us as we cultivate new ways to democratize, decolonize, and deploy law. Together with people’s movements, let’s organize lawyers into a force for human dignity, multiracial democracy, and ecological harmony.
We are at a crucial turning point in the trajectory of the world. The unfolding genocide in Gaza, an ongoing climate crisis, and persistent racial, economic, and gender inequity, all reveal how the steady backsliding of democracy worldwide has contributed to increasing political instability and worsening conditions for the working class. Elected leaders elude accountability to the people they represent, as more powerful interests distract from the issues people face on a daily basis. The most recent elections in Argentina and The Netherlands are the latest confirmation that authoritarianism is on the rise globally.
Our present situation in the US is no exception. People’s experience of democracy in the places that most intimately touch their lives—schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and ballot boxes—is often alienating and disheartening. As Max Elbaum highlights, while people have flooded the streets in protest of the US-backed Israeli military onslaught in Gaza, the consensus of progressive forces about what needs to be done to beat back the MAGA bloc is fraying. It is a challenging time to galvanize support for democracy as people’s faith wanes in both the Democratic Party and the integrity of our formal democratic rights.
And yet we cannot allow our attention to drift away from the very real threat the MAGA faction poses to the future of democracy and democratic institutions in the US. What we see playing out in the courts, legislative institutions, and governing bodies at all levels is the result of decades of organizing by the conservative legal movement and reactionary right-wing forces seeking to severely narrow the definition of “We the People” to prioritize the interests of White Christian male ethno-nationalists. The MAGA bloc has now consolidated three powerful sectors of US society: libertarian billionaires, big capital anchored in fossil fuel dollars, and a multi-class alliance of people invested in a society ordered by racial and gender hierarchies. We can already see the advances they’ve made towards consolidating executive power, controlling the judiciary, and eviscerating the reproductive, voting, environmental and civil rights gains of the past. There are detailed plans underway to rewrite our Constitution, extend term limits, reject the separation of church and state and fire perhaps as many as 50,000 civil service workers who don’t fall in line.
We have been decidedly out-organized by the Right on the terrain of law. It is thus imperative that we make big pivots to course-correct. And to be successful, we need progressive lawyers en masse to see their work as part of a pro-democracy fight and join efforts to build a new base of power in an emerging multiracial pro-democracy bloc.
To counter authoritarianism we must fight for a multiracial pluralistic democracy
When we talk about fighting for a multiracial pluralistic democracy, we mean affirmatively working to build a political system that is inclusive, equitable, reparative of past injustices, able to balance diverse subjectivities, responsive and accountable to the people, and majoritarian with meaningful avenues for participation and expression for minority positions. The rise of the MAGA bloc has exposed the intensity of the struggle for the future of the country. On one hand, multiracial majorities are demanding a more economically just and inclusive political system built on the democratic ideals of full participation in elections, freedom of speech and association, the right to protest and hold leaders accountable, transparency, equal opportunity, and access to justice.
On the other hand, right-wing forces are seeking to thwart these ideals and transform what imperfect democratic institutions we have into engines that serve their exploitative, xenophobic, patriarchal, and racist ideology. The struggle is existential. We all rely on our ability to organize people-power and voice our concerns in the streets, the weight of our vote, and the possibility of leveraging the courts as a check on authoritarian power grabs.
The most common path toward authoritarianism today is an “electoral autocracy”—a system that preserves some dimensions of democracy such as semi-competitive elections but loses other critical features such as separation of powers, press freedom, and civil and political rights. The most effective intervention strategies to counter authoritarian efforts to reshape government rely not on isolated legal challenges, but rather on a vibrant, thriving civil society. But organizers around the country who are building that civil society infrastructure—coalitions, networks, member bases, congregations, unions, and community groups—all tell us they struggle to find lawyers to back them up.
Grassroots organizers need lawyers to join the pro-democracy fight
Lawyers should continue to protect formal democratic rights, but in ways that build long-term community power.
In the face of this formidable fight, most progressive lawyers are continuing to work in a vacuum, doing what we have been trained to do for decades: strategic litigation, individual case work, policy advocacy, and academic research and writing. We often execute a string of tactics to deal with our clients’ most immediate problems with little coordination or time to think about whether the tactics add up to a long-term power-building strategy for and with frontline communities. When we talk about lawyers defending democracy, we often only think about the work we do during elections—like poll watching, monitoring legal hotlines, and defending individuals’ right to vote. Work that happens in between election cycles is often limited to protecting traditional voting rights, for example challenging voter purges or gerrymandering.
It is crucial that we continue to protect formal democratic rights, but we must do so in a way that does not just win cases, but also builds the power of directly affected communities. The sobering truth is that the legal sector is not presently positioned to guard against the imminent anti-democratic threats from the MAGA bloc. To get on track, we need to widen the lens of what we conceptualize in movements as “pro-democracy” work at the same time that we transition traditional electoral and voting rights work to more of a “movement lawyering” ethos.
Unlike traditional progressive lawyers, movement lawyers believe that organized communities – not isolated lawsuits or policy campaigns—are the engines of change. This is the stance-shift we’re urging: to both see democracy fights as a cross-cutting theme for all of our work and to prioritize work that centers transformational rather than transactional wins. We urgently need a deep bench of lawyers who are willing to shift their practice to be of service to organized communities, even if it means upending traditional views of the role and positionality of the lawyer in the process of social change. Ultimately, lawyers and legal institutions across every field of law will need to change their orientation in great numbers.
Lawyers need to protect more than formal democratic rights.
To truly achieve a multiracial democracy, pro-democracy lawyers must work toward expanding democracy in our economy, our workplaces, our doctor’s offices, our climate, and more. Over the past year, we’ve talked with dozens of grassroots organizers across a variety of sectors and movements. They told us they do need more skilled lawyers to back up electoral and voting rights fights – traditional pro-democracy work. However, they are most concerned about a gap in the legal infrastructure to support an emerging pro-democracy bloc in facets of work that span far beyond traditional voting rights. Fair and participatory elections are a critical dimension of democracy, but elections alone are not enough.
A multiracial pluralistic democracy requires wide participation in developing policy priorities, holding leaders accountable to the policies they pass, shaping budgets, designing communities and much more. Democracy also will require massive changes to our economic system, an acknowledgment of the harms of slavery and settler-colonialism with provisions for reparative justice, and a commitment to meaningful engagement and inclusion of all voices. Lawyers who put their skills in service of fights to realize such changes can contribute to cultivating this more expansive view of democracy and improve people’s everyday experiences of democracy between election cycles. Examples of organizing wins that leveraged movement lawyering support include the decades-long fight for a torture reparations ordinance and memorial in Chicago and numerous housing struggles across the country resulting in such advances as a tenants’ bill of rights in Miami and rent stabilization in New York.
We must see the fight for democracy as a throughline that connects our smaller, everyday fights to our big visions for a new economic system that works for all people and the planet. Right now, we are stuck and perpetually playing defense: we spend most of our time trying to defend the civil rights wins of the 1960s, we aren’t able to exercise existing democratic rights to build meaningful pluralistic governing power, and because we don’t have governing power, we’re unable to win new, stronger democratic rights and processes. So what do we do? Voting rights attorneys alone won’t get us where we need to go. Ultimately, we need movement lawyers who can struggle alongside communities over the long haul to win lasting, transformative reforms while, at the same time, developing new leaders, growing the power of grassroots formations, and achieving governing power. To do that, we need a complex understanding of power—one that goes far beyond the power to win a simple lawsuit or campaign. It must also recognize the need to develop power to set the agenda, achieve governing power, and make advances in the terrain of narratives, worldview and culture. Lawyers have a critical role to play at every step of the journey.
Our invitation to each of you
Everyone has a part to play in building a multiracial pluralistic democracy in the United States but we lawyers have a special role in this effort—indeed, it is our sacred responsibility. We are inviting you to bravely step into an arc of work upon which all of our other work depends. A deeper, further-reaching justice—which all progressive legal work at least implicitly strives toward—requires lawyers to clearly see the existential threats to US democracy in the present moment.
At a minimum, each of us must deepen the threads of connection between the work we’re already doing and the collective task of defending, building and strengthening a multiracial democracy. For example, legal aid lawyers can lend their skills in a way that supports base-building organizations in expanding their membership and collect data through intakes in a way that shifts policy down the line. Impact lawyers can represent movement organizations in cases that help shift the narrative and turn the courtroom into a forum for democratic expression and advocacy. Those of us positioned to influence entire sectors or regions must use our platforms to turn out people to train and educate themselves in rapid-response moments like the present repressive period that is silencing and criminalizing pro-Palestinian organizing. Others who are systems-thinkers and able to gather and deploy volunteers can put their skills to task in building legal infrastructure to meet new challenges as they arise at scale.
In order to develop effective strategy, we must be able to assess the risks and opportunities of the present moment. Given the magnitude of the present threats, lawyers cannot merely defend existing rights; rather, we must join with organized social movements to reimagine law itself.
This requires a commitment to study, a curiosity to interrogate the lessons of the past and a stance that is both brave and humble. Most importantly, we must do this work together as long-term partners with organizers. Strategy is so much more than a good idea put forth by one individual or group. While each of us has a role to play, this is a collective endeavor.
Tune in for the “Democracy Dispatches” series!
In the dispatches to follow, we will continue exploring the threats to our democracy and will outline in detail our recommendations for how the legal sector can level up. Specifically, we’ll highlight stories from global struggles for democracy and explore the legal sector’s role in supporting a “block and build” strategy. Whether you’re a lawyer, legal worker, organizer or strategist who thinks about the intersections of law and organizing, we invite you to journey with us: read the series, join our workshops to engage in live conversations, and dialogue with us on social media.
- The authors emphasize that democratic fights are about much more than voting rights and elections. What are other aspects of pro-democracy work?
- How does building a multiracial democratic front help to protect us against the threat of authoritarianism?
- Do you have any reservations about prioritizing fight for democracy? Why?
- Do you agree that lawyers need to make a big shift to help organizers build a new multiracial pro-democracy front? What are lawyers being invited into? What would that mean for you personally–your current work, your sector, your organization?