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Toward a People-Powered Democracy

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“We can weave organizing and narrative strategies that will help us go beyond simply being the majority, to acting effectively as the majority. And for the first time in US history, we can do so without leaning on exclusion.”

Concern about the mounting MAGA threat is percolating through left and progressive movements, and conversations and convenings are brewing. One such is the 22nd Century Conference: Forging a People-Powered Democracy, set to take place in Minneapolis, MN on July 6 – 9, 2023. Here, the conference organizers reflect on the strategies, alliances, stories and political imagination needed “to turn back the authoritarian tide and create a resilient and inclusive multiracial, feminist, and pluralistic democracy.” This is the latest in the Convergence “Organizing Against Autocracy” series.

The struggle between authoritarian minority rule––largely by white Christian nationalists with a reactionary patriarchal, xenophobic, and racist agenda––and multiracial majorities committed to a pluralistic democracy is playing out at every level in the United States from school boards to statehouses, the US House of Representatives and the Supreme Court of the United States.

This struggle is not new. The historical roots of the US in Christian supremacy, racial capitalism, colonialism, native dispossession, and patriarchal exclusion of women from political life are exacerbated today by the relentless authoritarian onslaught against majority rule through undermining trust in elections, gerrymandering, money in politics, anti-protest laws, disinformation, misinformation, mass incarceration, and political violence. The US is two years away from the possibility of federal autocracy if the MAGA-controlled Republican Party succeeds in electing the next president and taking control of the US Senate. Such an outcome would consolidate the last 60 years of authoritarian gains that have already eroded majority rule, and lead to sweeping structural changes cementing minority rule for years to come.

The questions at the heart of this struggle between authoritarian minorities and multiracial majorities are fourfold: who is in, and who is out of, our democracy and economy; who deserves dignity; and who gets to decide? In a pluralistic democracy these questions are decided in free and fair elections, where majorities decide policy and minority opinions are protected by the courts without bias and the threats of state violence or extrajudicial violence.

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It will take the power of a united pro-democracy movement to turn back the authoritarian tide and create a resilient and inclusive multiracial, feminist, and pluralistic democracy. But right now, communities are struggling to meet basic needs, the responsibility for which has devolved to them. We who struggle against these odds to lead the way to justice, dignity, and freedom, but against a rising tide of exclusionary, punitive authoritarian policies, find ourselves stuck in a playbook that is mostly defensive.

We have some good news and some bad news. Let’s face the bad news and brutal facts first. The authoritarian movement is a permanent counterinsurgency. As long as we have corporations and concentrated wealth, they will use their power to capture the public sphere to serve the interests of private capital, even if this contradicts democratic values and practices. Similarly, the drive by the Christian Right to criminalize or limit democratic rights for all other identities is not going away. Authoritarians undermine free and fair elections until elected autocracies fully control electoral outcomes. They will shift blame about economic inequality from the forces of private capital onto immigrants, people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ people as a means of strategic polarization. Capital writ large is using every opening to consolidate wealth accumulated in the neoliberal era. Together, these symbiotic authoritarian forces will work to institutionalize minority rule wherever they can by capturing and dismantling democratic institutions that protect pluralism.

Time on the clock of democracy

The 22nd Century Initiative tracks the time on the clock of democracy in tandem with the time on the clock of racial capitalism. The hour is late. We have arrived at an inflection point, a time when paradigmatic shifts are necessary in order to protect us from a future that extends our long histories of exploitation and dispossession of people and nature. On defense, we have become very good critics. We understand the challenges we are facing. To take action, we need to be prophets, not just critics. And to do that, we must gather, share, and create the contexts for learning, organizing, storytelling, and mutual aid that will be necessary for a new generation of prophets and change makers to rise.

The good news is that we can rise above the fray of constant conflict to see the field of play. From that view we can see that the authoritarian movement is not a united force, and it doesn’t represent majoritarian values. This fact creates an opening for organizing and narrative strategies that can change the terrain of struggle. We can weave organizing and narrative strategies that will help us go beyond simply being the majority, to acting effectively as the majority. And for the first time in US history, we can do so without leaning on exclusion-–exclusion of women, of religious minorities, and of people of color. The changing demography of the US requires this of us, and the challenges we are facing make failing to meet these challenges perilous. The stakes are extremely high. This will require building relationships, learning and unlearning, and developing new ideas, strategies, and actions together.

The key is to react from a place of power and strategy. Our immediate work to strengthen the resiliency of government at all levels is a critical stopgap measure while we address economic uncertainty and other drivers of authoritarianism in order to reduce the power of the authoritarian movement through defections and narrative shifts. This is not extermination, it’s integrated pest management.

We thus find ourselves in a struggle for governing power at all levels. Neoliberal policies have helped to bring us to this moment of crisis, hollowing out the democratic functions of government while insulating markets from democratic decision-making and causing the repressive functions of government to grow bloated, from the prison industrial complex to the military industrial complex and the militarization of domestic law enforcement in the context of a growing surveillance state. Government has grown unresponsive even as markets have grown increasingly unstable without the regulatory influence of democracy and in spite of the need to maintain a stable workforce in an increasingly de-industrialized state.

Defining our agenda

If we––the people on the frontlines of communities, organizations, and movements under direct assault by authoritarians––do not define the pro-democracy agenda then it will be articulated far from the frontlines of the struggle where grassroots leaders are gaining valuable on-the-job experience and insights into how to counter authoritarianism, build community, and reframe important issues in majoritarian terms. We have much to learn from them and should not be developing movement strategies without them. Defining what we mean by a multiracial pluralistic democracy and inclusive economy across communities and issues is the right place to start. As organizers and storytellers we know that shared analysis leads to alignment on vision and strategy. We can define the “bigger we” in ways that leave no daylight for white Christian male supremacy and corporate power. We can craft a long-term agenda that will take us decades to achieve, one informed by a positive vision for the future, a collective power analysis, and strategic pathways that lay out milestones to make sure we are on the right path.

We know that becoming an effective countervailing force in the fight to preserve and expand upon the democratic potential of the US is a heavy lift that will require us to rethink, retool, and build new capacities and infrastructures. But if we aren’t part of the effort to fight back against authoritarianism, the struggle becomes a fight among elites, and whichever side wins will position itself to become the prevailing power without us. We know from looking back at how we got here that this outcome will lead to further repression to protect elite interests. If a countervailing power is to rise, we need to be all in.

We know this is a lot for folks who are going on offense to win critical issues and governing power locally and in states, as well as those playing defense against authoritarian forces. It’s hard enough to win the uphill fight against the fossil fuel industry for anti-racist and community-based climate solutions or to secure citizenship for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and win a humane immigration system. It may feel overwhelming to add the project of constructing a multiracial pluralistic democracy to this already uphill work unless we start acting like this is a real cross-community, cross-movement project. This is a question of power. If we can organize more people––organize our people to see their interests and goals aligning across differences and issues––then we can start to find openings to win multiracial pluralistic democracy at the local, state, and eventually national levels.

In order to fight and win, we will need to invest massively in building grassroots infrastructure and leadership. Majorities may be losing their power at the national level, but they still have a great deal of power at the municipal, county, and state level in most states. It is at the grassroots level that we can still score major victories that will reposition communities to move from defense to offense. And through working together, each victory can provide a laboratory for learning and a source of support that can lead to other victories. In other words, we can create an effective shared practice of democratic inclusion and expansion, both political and economic.

We also know that the work needed to stave off the present threats can build our democracy muscle so we can lift ourselves over the bog of neoliberal logics, the normalization of deeply anti-democratic politics, and entrenched, even libertarian-influenced individualism that neoliberalism is leaving in its wake. The fight can be just the tonic we need.

We know that majorities (and in many cases supermajorities) of people are on the side of freedom, fairness, and justice: 71% of American voters want stricter gun safety regulations (AP-NORC, 2022); 61% favor protection of abortion rights (Pew Research Center, 2022); 80% support providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements (NBC News, 2023); two-thirds of Americans want more aggressive government action on climate change (Pew Research Center, 2020). Creeping minority rule and demographic shifts are making it difficult for these majority positions to become policy. Reliable projections demonstrate that if current domestic migration patterns persist over the next 15-20 years, 70% of Americans will live in only 15 states, leaving the remaining 30% in position to choose 70 senators and control the electoral college.

Questioning from a space of inclusion and hope

We have to do our work differently if we want different results. The 22nd Century Initiative is asking questions of ourselves, our partners, and the wider justice and freedom movements that we think will lead to more power and sharper strategy. We are building a network that is open to everyone who wants to define and co-create a multiracial feminist pluralistic democracy. You are invited to the 22nd Century Conference: Forging a People-Powered Democracy where we will spend four days digging into these questions from a space of inclusion and hope. The answers to the following questions will come from these conversations and many more.

  1. How can we build a shared identity as the multiracial pluralistic majority and a pro-democracy movement across a wide spectrum of constituencies, organizations, and movements?
  2. What does it take to construct majority coalitions for people-powered democracy at this point in time, knowing that anti-racist majoritarianism has rarely been achieved or proven durable in the United States?
  3. How do we develop campaigns that achieve important goals and are also designed explicitly to divide the right and recruit communities and constituencies to pro-democracy majority coalitions? In other words, how can our campaigns animate the base, persuade the middle, and alienate our enemies (those committed to the ideologies of the authoritarian right)?
  4. How can we be more intentional about using our reaction to the actions of the authoritarian movements as opportunities to build power? How do we play political chess, not checkers, through scenario planning, long-term agendas and mid-range plans, and other strategy-generating methodologies?
  5. How can we revive civic life and local experiences of people-powered democracy? How can we strengthen the resilience of societal pillars against the authoritarian right? How can we build communities beyond our tribes more effectively through intentional cross-community relationships?
  6. How can we use strategic polarization to reshape the landscape and move constituencies toward our majority coalitions?
  7. How can the pro-democracy movement and its constituent organizations across communities and issue fronts more explicitly orient itself to build more power? We’re defining power as organized people, money and ideas. What arenas should we be contesting for in the state and economy?
  8. What do we need to do more of, or differently, to build power through elections and governance and as outside forces in elected autocracies that increasingly exist at the local and state levels and are a possibility at the federal level in 2024? If elections at various levels of government don’t work because elected autocracies prevent free and fair elections, what strategies, tactics, and alternative institutions will meet our needs and free us to organize under more repressive conditions?
  9. What does it mean for the US pro-democracy movement to orient ourselves to international democracy movements that can advance our respective goals of building more inclusive and pluralistic democracies?
  10. What support and resources do you need to explore these questions with the members of your organization?

No self-respecting organizer ends without a call to action: come to the 22nd Century Conference: Forging a People-Powered Democracy on July 6-9, 2023 in Minneapolis, MN, with some online access. The moment is calling all of us to greatness. Let’s do this work together. 

The conference will gather the pro-democracy movement to weave relationships, sharpen strategies, and equip people to block the rise of the authoritarian movement while advancing pro-democracy strategies and campaigns.

The conference agenda will feature thematic plenaries and breakout sessions in four areas: 1) Our Vision for a Multiracial Pluralistic Democracy – and the Movement to Win It!, 2) What We are Up Against: The Authoritarian Movement’s Strategy, 3) How We Will Block the Authoritarian Movement & Build a Multiracial Pluralistic Democracy, and 4) Building Pro-Democracy Majority Coalitions at the Local, State, and National Levels.

The 22nd Century Conference will bring together frontline activists and organizers, researchers, communicators, network weavers, narrative strategists, academics, elected officials, and donors concerned with rising authoritarianism and threats to democratic freedoms and rights. It will serve as a vehicle for networking, organizing, and building capacity, infrastructure, and resilience needed to advance a multiracial pluralistic democracy. Our expectations are that the conference will be a catalyst for relationships, collaboration, and deeper strategic alignment in the pro-democracy movement, especially frontline organizations that have the potential to coalesce across issues and constituencies.

Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing this article with The Forge.

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