The warnings about a surge towards autocracy in the United States, Europe, Turkey, and the Philipines have turned from a steady stream to a flood in the past year. But there is much we can do to build stronger centers for democratic power.
Democracy comes from the people, not from governments. So organized communities can hold governments accountable and pressure them to become more democratic. Popular movements successfully pressing for democratic practices and freedoms fill the past half century of Latin America’s recent history in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, and beyond. Protestors in Belarus this summer have shown how popular protest can pressure elected leaders who put their personal interests above those of the country. Successful popular movements have overthrown presidents in Burma, Argentina, and Egypt and changed policies in many other nations.
The study of weaknesses in autocracy by Gene Sharp, who explored resistance movements in India, Panama, Poland, Chile, and Thailand, found multiple centers for democratic power. These centers of power include not only government bodies but also many non-governmental groups and institutions. While many are familiar with major non-governmental institutions that claim to promote democracy, such as mass media, political parties, watchdog organizations, unions, churches, and economic bodies, not all recognize the importance for democracy of less formal social groups.
Increased involvement in such informal social groups is an important way that we can strengthen the structural base for a free democratic society. Neighborhood councils, sports clubs, student groups, cultural associations, musical groups, or other common interest groups: any group that knits people together in ways that can be activated when democracy needs to be defended. Such groups might form in urban (reading groups; community garden groups), suburban (sewing groups; youth groups; permaculture groups), or rural settings (small farmer associations; cooking clubs).
Many such groups have formed during the pandemic as communities develop mutual aid resources for meeting needs that governments won't address. The Movement for Black Lives and other supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement actively bring people together in new ways to practice joyful ways of being together.
Getting to know others in these group settings resists autocracy because it brings people together. Authoritarians must divide to conquer. So building relationships with those unlike yourself weakens authoritarian attempts to divide.
Participating in informal groups is also an important tactic for keeping democracies healthy, in the view of the historian Tim Snyder who has studied Nazi groups in Europe. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people is one of his twenty points for protecting democracy. Another one is “stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.” Building trust with people you do not customarily befriend is an important part of defending democracy.
institutions that counterbalance executive power or
bring hidden activities to light is also important in protecting democracy. Supporting an independent judiciary, investigative journalism, and other pillars of democratic governance will strengthen democracy.
When democracy suddenly seems at risk these organizations will emerge as needed, or they can be formed before needed to defend democracy. When Pakistan tried to force courts to support the government, lawyers came out in force in 2007 to keep the courts independent. When economic experts in Argentina tried to close the banks so that the World Bank could be paid its debts, a massive explosion of neighborhood councils and street organizations emerged (complete with homemade musical accompaniment) in late 2001. Many of these organizations remain at work to exert pressure on their government to remain democratic to this day.
When subjects do not obey, rulers have no power. While activists in some thirty countries have used this approach to resist dictators and overthrow oligarchs, theorists such as Michel Foucault have found that power is not monopolized by those who seem to have it. Jacques Derrida argued that centralized institutions like governments depend on a sleight of hand to trick people into giving up their own agency.
If autocrats do take power, Gene Sharp and others will still be around to help those of us who want democracy back. There is even a phone app on Sharp’s work! And there are many other ways to advocate for democracy when an elected national leader goes rogue and tries to turn an electoral government into a single-party autocracy.
Social division is an autocrat’s best friend. So joining groups with new friends and building trust knits society across divisions. Gayatri Spivak invites us to practice democracy by listening effectively to those with whom we do not identify, so we can build trust with subalterns over the long term.
Friendships and organizations can reach across national borders. So “Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad” in the words again of Tim Snyder. Reaching out internationally builds bridges from the local to the global, work that may provide resources if needed.
These actions will hinder the one-party state, which often emerge from two-party or multi-party electoral systems. Remember that many dictators were once brought to power by elections: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.
History will show whether elected leaders active today will prove to be autocrats in the making: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, and Trump in the United States. But the time to act is now.
The future is ours to make. Make it with friends new and old, in organizations large and small, networked locally and globally.