November 24, 2020

Defend Democracy: Fighting Elected Leaders Who Won’t Leave Office


When an elected leader takes office through democratic means but won’t leave office when they lose an election or due to term limits, democracy is in trouble. This presence of anti-democratic forces active in electoral democratic systems is a major weakness, as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Ranciére have both argued. Yet the problem is very common, as any quick historical review shows: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.

So when a U.S. president recently declared he would not leave office if he loses the vote, and repeatedly invites his followers to elect him for “12 more years” or “for life,” this problem seems to have arrived through the front door of one nation that some identify with democracy. So how does a democratic nation respond?

The past few months have seen an outpouring in the United States of organizing to prevent a sitting president who loses the election from refusing to leave office. This organizing was fully in gear before President Trump was declared the loser of the presidential election on November 7, four days after the Tuesday election.

Since many citizens in the United States are ignorant of the global history of elected leaders not leaving office and the common experience of coups by elected officials, one group even developed a dashboard website to gauge “Is This a Coup?” Because ignorance, confusion, and chaos are common techniques used by autocrats, clarity on what constitutes authoritarian activities and coups is important to the process.        

The organizations working to prevent full-blow autocracy in the United States have a wide range of different approaches. There are a number of organizations committed to nonviolent civil action, such as ChooseDemocracy.US, Frontline Election Defenders, which is a collaborative effort of Movement for Black Lives and the Working Families Party, and a group who wrote the “Hold the Line Guide.” They have used long-established non-violent civil action training practices and English-language scholarship in their trainings, such as the work of Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institute, George Lakey, Stephen Zunes, and others.

These organizations have attempted to appeal to a wide range of citizens by emphasizing the integrity of the electoral process, and even sending “Election Defenders” to polling places to provide accompaniment and de-escalation for voters who had been threatened with harassment and even gun-carrying thugs at some polling places. These groups have been careful to maintain non-partisan political positions, even though in the post-election period their work clearly supports Biden’s efforts to take office after winning the popular vote. Because of the gap between the popular vote and the electoral college vote in two recent U.S. elections, 2000 and 2016, where the president was not determined by who won the popular vote, the official state electoral college declarations at this point remain in play. During the interim period between the election and the state electoral college declarations, there will continue to be efforts to change the electoral college process in favor of the sitting president, and these organizations continue to mobilize their participants to ensure that the electoral college reflects the popular vote.

Other groups have been more expansive in their fight against a possible coup, working with organizations that have often supported particular political parties, such as labor unions, and even with groups with declared party affiliations. One such impressive large coalition of organizations,, includes as its partner organizations SEIU, a prominent labor union, and Republicans for the Rule of Law, as well as the Black Lives Matter PAC.

Because violence often gives autocrats reason to crack down and use police, paramilitary, and military force, most of these organizations have carefully avoided advocating violent modes of resistance. Some movements have emerged from long But the debates over the use of violence in radical organizing continue to surface in the resistance to a possible coup attempt in the United States. 

It is also clear that provocations by individuals affiliated with white nationalism and white supremacy resulted in violence at some protests this summer, however. President Trump’s efforts to paint the Black Lives Matter protests as violent has also served his election campaign goals while provoking widespread fear and even increasing gun ownership in the United States.

Other social sectors in the United States are not convinced that elections will bring the social equality that is democracy’s main selling point. Long histories of unregulated domestic violence against women, state violence against black, Indigenous, and other racial groups, and the rapidly expanding wealth gap in the United State remain reason for some to focus their work in areas besides elections.

Some democratic organizing requires work not around elections but towards self-subsistent, autonomous governance. These approaches include mutual aid organizing in Black, Trans, and other communities; Zapatista and other forms of autonomy; food justice and other subsistence oriented community building. For these organizations the election process is only a sideshow to their attempts to produce equality within organizations and local spaces.

President Trump does have at his disposal not only all the power of the executive branch, such as the power to replace military leadership and send the Attorney General to do his bidding, he also has the expansive powers of a declared domestic state of National Emergency, which he declared in February, 2019. So his attempts to remain in office will not be concluded until the January inauguration, and the impacts of his erosion of electoral processes will have long-term effects.

Only time will tell whether the efforts to oppose a coup by a sitting president will be successful in the United States. Similar efforts have been successful in other countries, such as in 1978 in Bolivia and 1961 in France and in 2004 in the Ukraine. But sitting presidents have also been successful at changing popular vote tallies and outcomes in order to remain in office, as seen in Mexico in 1988, Belarus in 2019, and on many other occasions. Whatever happens in the present U.S. electoral cycle, there is little promise that it will bring the equality that democracy promises.

August 31, 2020

Defend Democracy: Building Social Groups to Strengthen Democratic Power

                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.

Protecting 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.

June 30, 2020

Racial Inequality and Democracy

Democracy promises equality in the abstract, but often does not deliver. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring this inequality to wide attention. Our present day has plunged into just such a crisis in at least two ways.
Since members of some social sectors continually confront the violent impacts of what passes for democracy in most nation-states, they already know that inequality is a major weakness for democracy. But among those belonging to privileged groups generally protected from democracy’s destructive daily impacts, crises like the COVID19 pandemic and the police shootings of innocents are what it takes to wake them up to the problem.
During the Corona virus pandemic inequality in health care and job markets became more obvious to those in more protected groups. News media began reporting on higher rates of unemployment, infection rates, and deaths among African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. context, and similar impacts were found in Britain and other countries.  
Increased awareness and outrage at the unequal impacts of police violence has emerged from recent successes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., and this outrage has found resonance from London and Paris to Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, South Africa. As U.S. resistance to state violence increases, some Black parents of young people killed by the police have even asked for an intervention from the United Nations.
Racism also has violent effects in more subtle ways. Communities of color often enforce racist preferences for light skin tones internally, a problem that is found in the Caribbean, Latin America, India, and England and is not limited to the United States and Canada.  While these self-inflicted modes of racism can have significant economic and social impacts, they also impact the sense of self worth and value that may make healing internalized oppression an important part of anti-racist work.
Equality itself is a value that derives from a time when slavery and colonialism were widely practiced, the eighteenth century. The recent decision by British corporations such as Lloyds of London founded in that era to acknowledge their complicity with slavery and pay reparations.
As Emmanuel Eze has shown, race was a central theme in the production of the “universal” subjects who may have appeared to be equal to white Europeans, but who were actively being enslaved and colonized during the Enlightenment. Gayatri Spivak has shown how such major European thinkers as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel privileged European populations in their thinking about the ideals and practices of “modern” practices like the nation-state and democracy.
As anti-racists reconsider the effectiveness of courts, electoral systems, and other institutions that have their origins in a period of European history known for its white supremacy, they may also come to reconsider whether equality itself is an effective belief in fighting racism and white supremacy. The persistence of police and other state violence despite reforms suggests the problem will require solutions that go well beyond simple policy changes.
               The decline of trust in the police, courts, and governments as a result has pressured those who still believe in equality to widen the horizons of needed solutions. Wresting decision-making from the “experts” who have made democracies into austerity zones protecting oligarchies who hate democracy will take more than street protests. Our historical moment will surely test us to see if it is really democracy we want.

April 28, 2020

Defend Democracy: Literacy and Citizenship

               What basic conditions does democracy require? If democracy requires elections, then reading might be one fundamental condition.  Reading makes it possible to review candidate statements, follow news reports about the impacts of candidate policies, write letters or emails to let their elected representatives know where they stand, and draft proposals for elected leaders to consider.
Yet literacy is not widely held to be a condition for democracy, and many democracies have surprisingly large numbers of illiterate citizens as voters. UNESCO estimates range from 800 million to one billion people globally are without the ability to read or count at a level that allows for full social participation as citizens.
Those who are without these skills often abandon the notion that they are full participants in their government, leaving the business of governing to educated classes and experts. Their normal lives do not include the assumption that they can participate in public discussion and in managing their own affairs, what some call subalternity
This abandonment of citizenship is a blow to democracy. Yet subalterns can transform their assumption that the governments of the territories where they live will never serve their interests.
Many citizens cannot read, including those in wealthy countries like the United States. Recent data shows that 19% of the U.S. adult population does not have basic reading skills, and 29% do not have basic number skills, a slight increase in illiteracy over the past quarter century. In countries widely accepted as democratic yet struggling with profound inequality, like Mexico and India, very large numbers of their citizens are not literate: over 4 million adults in Mexico and over 250 million adults in India. Other countries may hold elections but many doubt that democracy is possible when large social sectors remain unable to read, as in Egypt  where some 20 miillion are illiterate, and Brazil, where over 10 million are unable to read a ballot. Other countries claim to be democracies when large percentages of their population are not literate: including some of those least successful at democratizing wealth and social equity, like Bangladesh (25%) and Haiti (40%). 
Should citizens be able to read? The answer to that question is not settled in policy and judicial arenas. A landmark court decision was just issued by a Federal Court of Appeals in the United States stating the literacy is foundation for citizens, for example, but that decision may be appealed. The judge in the case noted that white people have repeatedly withheld education as a way to deny political power to African Americans and members of other groups. The United States Supreme Court has not been supportive of educational equality, so if the recent decision is appealed it may not have long-term traction. Even when court decisions force states to increase school funding, as in a California February, 2020  court decision, the courts may not mandate enough funding to correct the many problems causing poor school performance. The specific problems in Detroit included adequate physical facilities, qualified teachers consistently present in classrooms, and relevant textbooks (Detroit students were given biology textbooks for physics classes).
Work with subalterns can take literacy and other citizenship skills as its goal. This work would need to include the interruption of subaltern notions of their normal lives as cut off from public participation, what Gayatri Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of the desires” for subalterns. This work requires building an infrastructure that can recognize subaltern desires operating in terms that differ from those of European-derived education and liberal humanism, so that what subaltern communities are always already saying can be heard and recognized as political speech.
Rather than attempting to better the subaltern conditions along Eurocentric avenues of development, this infrastructural work will have to change what education means to begin to recognize subalterns and literate rural communities in the global south as agents of production.  This work may produce democratic mechanisms and forms of social justice that can accommodate rather than block subalterns from access to mobility and citizenship.
Rather than working for the narrow interests of the educated and wealthy, this infrastructural building project requires that we rethink the interests we serve and consider serving those with whom we have been taught to not identify, our Others.  
If those reading this blogpost are literate, then subalterns are you Others. If you have voted in an election, then your Others are those who never vote. If you have been served by your elected representatives, then subalterns are your Others.
This transformation of political work can become an entry into democracy for all, rather than for the few. It begins with illiteracy, with those who have long been shut out of democracy, the unrepresentable, the others of democracy.