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Organizing Against Autocracy in the US: Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks

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Anti-Apartheid Demonstrator in South Africa

Authoritarian takeover in the US is not inevitable—but preventing it will require imagination, commitment, and a united democratic alliance like we haven’t experienced before.

Well before this midterm election, scholar/activists Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks “had been watching what’s happening to American democracy with great concern for many years,” they said. Although we may not know the full midterm results for days or weeks, we do know that MAGA’s threats to democracy have taken firm root. More than 200 candidates who question or deny the 2020 presidential election results won seats in Congress or important statewide offices.

In early 2021, the Social and Economic Justice Leaders project, a movement utility focused on long-term planning, had asked Chenoweth and Marks to study ways to respond to the gathering threats—and a potential authoritarian consolidation in 2024. Their recently released report, “Pro-democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States,” draws on history, political science, and the expertise of movement leaders to help prepare for previously unthinkable but now possible outcomes. Convergence editorial board member Marcy Rein asked Chenoweth and Marks to share some background and key takeaways from the report, which is now available online.

Marcy Rein: Up until recently, an authoritarian takeover of the US seemed like a remote possibility. What danger signs do you see in the political landscape now?

Erica Chenoweth: Most political scientists around the world no longer count the US as a full democracy. We’re now counted as a deconsolidated democracy because we have such high levels of factionalism, because we have a major political party that is anti-democratic, because of new restrictions on voting and civil rights that now exist in numerous states, and because we had a coup attempt and there’s been no accountability for it.

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The key prerequisites for a multiracial democracy to sustain itself are no longer in place. Many of the candidates from one party refuse to accept the outcome of the last election, won’t commit to accept a loss at the next election and are openly either endorsing, fomenting, or turning a blind eye to political violence.

Zoe Marks: Usually in political science we talk about a consolidated democracy as the thing that you want to work toward. There are lots of definitions for it, but the minimum standard is that competing candidates accept the outcome of elections, regardless of whether they win or lose.

EC: We should add that we aren’t saying that the consolidated democracy that we had prior to this was perfect. We have always had undemocratic ethnonationalist enclaves. But there have been these key moments when we have made steps toward a more egalitarian democracy. Genuine multiracial democracy in the US has always been an imperfect and unfinished project, but what progress was made is now being reversed in many states.

MR: You suggest that if the US takes a more authoritarian turn, it will become an “electoral autocracy.” What is that?

ZM: Electoral autocracy, or electoral authoritarianism, is basically authoritarianism with the semblance of procedural democracy. It’s the most common form of authoritarianism around the world today. There is centralized political control. There’s no meaningful political competition because there’s a single party or a single person in power and they don’t share power with others.

Whether it’s denying people access to the vote, ballot-box-stuffing or other forms of fraud, outlawing certain forms of opposition rhetoric or competitive parties, there’s a whole toolkit that electoral authoritarians use so they don’t lose elections.

These parties are often popular with a large swath of the population, and so one of the ways that electoral authoritarianism emerges is through competitive elections that bring in authoritarian leaders who then use their power and their institutions to eliminate competition. And that’s when democracy is lost. As soon as they have the reins of power, they can pass laws that make it look legitimate.

EC: There are very few opportunities for access to justice or protection under the law. If a crime happens and you’re in the opposition party or the opposition group, or you are a voter from a particular place that voted for the opposition, the law is not going to protect you. In fact, it’s probably going to be weaponized against you. Dissent is not tolerated.

This is what happened in Florida. In 2018 voters overwhelmingly approved the re-enfranchisement of over 1,000,000 people who had been incarcerated. That was a clear mandate from Florida voters across party lines. As soon as Gov. DeSantis and the GOP came into power, the legislature rolled back that amendment by creating a new law that you can only vote if you have all of your dues and outstanding fees paid. But they provided no way for people to find out through the state whether they had actually paid all of those dues and fees.

So, last summer they rounded up a bunch of people without warning and are accusing them of breaking the law, accusing them of voter fraud in 2020. Based on the reporting so far, the vast majority of the folks who were arrested were Black. DeSantis also signed a law that aggressively restricts the ability of people to submit others’ absentee ballots, which upended long-standing community organizations’ efforts to make it easier for working people and people with disabilities to vote. Along with partisan redistricting that dramatically reduces competition and representation, limits on expression in public schools, harsh penalties for various forms of protest, and trafficking immigrants as a political stunt with impunity, for example, we can see the hallmarks of electoral authoritarianism.

MR: The report draws on around 30 interviews with movement leaders and organizers. Could you say a bit more about who you talked with?

EC: We talked to a pretty diverse range of organizations that were involved in base-building work, community organizing, labor organizing, advocacy organizations, faith-based organizations, and very large member-based organizations. These were mostly progressive Left organizations, state, local and national. We tried to aim for kind of cross-sectoral and cross-issue representation too, so we’ve got people who are working in voting rights and basic democracy protections. We talked to people who are more focused on racial justice, on immigrant rights, on economic justice, climate justice. We talked to people situated in different parts of the progressive ecosystem.

We tried to get a good sense of what was going on in both rural and urban areas. We tried to get some good feedback from people who were living in deeply red states as well as in swing states and in coastal places.

MR: In the report you also draw on political science research, looking at resistance to authoritarianism. Can you suggest some examples that merit closer study?

EC: The best place to look is our own history, because so much of what we’re dealing with is a return to that. But we also have a lot of interesting and helpful or instructive cases happening right now in the country, particularly in states that have already succumbed to electoral autocracy. I’m thinking of Florida in particular because we’ve seen coordinated, sustained and aggressive assaults on basically every democratic institution, including protections for dissent, free expression, and minority rights in the state. So I think that there’s much we could learn from Florida-based organizers right now, particularly in organizations with Black leadership, about what autocratic consolidation looks like.

Outside of the United States, it’s very helpful to look at other electoral autocracies that have been led by far-right political parties. That’s why in our report we focus on Chile and South Africa. In both cases movements were basically confronting fascist regimes and in both cases, those regimes were overturned by some form of pacted transition into elections or through popular referenda. Those both happened because of unprecedented levels of civil society cooperation and mobilization under a united front orientation. Nothing less than that is required to capture those political opportunities that present themselves to oust the autocrat.

ZM: We also asked this question of our interviewees and overwhelmingly the collective reference points were the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi rule, and the backlash to Reconstruction within the US. I agree completely with Erica that the most important reference points are what’s actually happening now within our states, because they are facing such different levels of authoritarian consolidation.

MR: The report mentions the need to build “active muscles for united front orientation.” How can we begin to do that?

ZM: It’s really about having an inclusive movement that has access to diverse strategies and tactics, particularly the ability to innovate beyond street protests. We’ve talked about some kinds of economic resistance—strikes and general strikes, boycotts, alternative institutions, those sorts of things. But there are also other ways to think about how you can pull on the pillars of support for an authoritarian regime, or for a status quo that enables an authoritarian regime. If it’s a large and inclusive or diverse movement, it will be more resilient, more innovative, and more likely to shift the power structure that would otherwise enable authoritarianism.

EC:  There’s an increasing volume of research that shows that movements succeed when they divide their opponents’ coalition. The aim of resistance is to win by dividing the coalition. And that’s a different kind of orientation, because it requires the movement to know which pillars of that coalition are the most likely to defect at the first place.

In some of our recent research, we find that the most effective movement strategies are those that generate a cascade of defections of pillars, and they do that the most quickly when they know who’s the most likely to defect. That requires intelligence capacity. It’s important to figure out which power brokers can be shifted and how they need to be shifted. Will the shift happen because people go to their house and protest outside their house, or because they come to realize that their economic prosperity is tied to aligning with democracy? Economic noncooperation might actually be both safer and also more effective than the typical street protests.

ZM: From our interviews we also see that there are areas that can be quickly addressed where we can make efficient, urgent progress in ways that build a pro-democracy coalition, regardless of the outcomes of the midterms or 2024 election.

Two of those things are strengthening trust—particularly across the pro-democracy spectrum of people who might find unity without conformity, where people can work together without having to agree on every issue—and also improving communication and access to reliable information.

EC: This is really different from building a centrist movement. It’s really different from prioritizing unity by pretending there’s no conflict, or there’s no conflict around priorities. This is actually saying that organizations and communities and existing networks have different things they’ve been working on and different things that they care about the most. The important thing is finding ways to cooperate while allowing people at every level to continue pursuing whatever it is that they have prioritized for as long as they’ve existed.

MR: What are a few core ideas you would like readers to take from the report?

EC: We need to think about a united democratic alliance. That would be something none of us has ever experienced in our lifetime, but that we can do. It probably will happen if there is a major authoritarian transition in the US. It’s up to us how effective and prepared it will be. And the only way to be effective and prepared is to basically start now, with that level of urgency.

The second important thing will be having convenings among people who think this is about them and their organizations and their groups and their political home, and trying to bring them together over the next year to talk about how such an alliance needs to be structured and be accountable.

And then the third piece is that people are trying to get organized now and they don’t know where to go. It’s really important to try to provide a place that people can associate as their political home where they can make investments in democracy going forward, and experiment with democracy and mutual aid and alternative institutions and all the things we’ve been talking about. We need something that is visible as the obvious collective political home for nonviolent resistance.

ZM: Authoritarianism is not a foregone conclusion in American politics today. There are tangible strategic steps not only that can we take, but that many organizations and activists are already taking to prevent authoritarianism and respond to it where it’s emerging or consolidating.

An inclusive pro-democratic front is necessarily not centrist, and I think that opens up our political imaginations in ways that people haven’t been able to envision or articulate before.

It expands the richness of democracy and democratic discourse in the United States, which makes an inclusive feminist anti-racist democracy possible.

I’ll underline one challenge that Erica raised that we’ve taken away from the response to the report: people want to move on this now, ordinary people who are worried about democracy in America. After Donald Trump was elected, there was a huge inclusive coalitional movement of people. We saw mobilized Americans move from the Women’s March, to resisting the “Muslim Ban,” to the March for Our Lives and the March for Science, Families Belong Together, and the Movement for Black Lives, culminating in a movement to protect the results of the 2020 election and avert a coup attempt.

The same constellations and new constellations of participants were organizing and stepping up across a variety of issue areas. Now we have new voices emerging to defend democracy—people who are willing to vote but also want to know what else they can do to reassert the norms and institutions required to get the democratic experiment back on track in the US. But there’s nowhere for them to express a pro-democracy energy right now. And that’s a challenge that we have to be able to address imminently. The midterms are happening now. In a year, we’re going to have the presidential campaigns and already the landscape is shifting beneath us in terms of where authoritarian consolidation is happening in the United States.

Featured image: Anti-apartheid protests in South Africa in the early 1990s. The movement against apartheid is one we can study as an example of multi-faceted resistance that defeated autocratic minority rule. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun. Licensed CC BY 2.0, modified.

Convergence is co-publishing this article with The Forge.

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