As the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Day this January, Americans also confronted the reality of the recently failed attempt to pass voting rights legislation and the ongoing dysfunction of the national-level political system. With this defeat, many political analysts, academics, and organizers feel a growing sense of existential dread that the country is at a tipping point of democratic decline, including an alarming pushback against the struggle for racial justice. International IDEA’s recent report on the Global State of Democracy classified the United States as a backsliding democracy for the first time in its history. Yet, many other Americans feel the threat to democracy is being overblown, taking comfort that “our institutions will protect us,” as they did when President Joe Biden was sworn in a year ago despite a violent uprising to prevent the certification of the election results.Institutions are made up of people, however, who are influenced and held accountable by citizens and peers. In fact, there was significant organizing and coordination between different groups during the presidency of Donald Trump and around the 2020 election, when it had become clear that he posed a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy and was actively seeking to stay in power by whatever means necessary. That mobilization generated the largest voter turnout in U.S. history and an organized, cross-partisan campaign to ensure that all votes were counted, that voters decided the outcome, and that there was a democratic transition.
Today, a similar organizing effort is needed to confront a threat that has mutated and is in many ways more challenging than what Americans faced in 2020.Yet even with the many painful commemorations of January 6th, polls show that democracy is not top of mind for most Americans. When asked to rank their five biggest priorities for national leaders, only 6 percent of those polled mentioned democracy – instead voicing concerns for their health, finances, and overall sense of security. Those who are inspired to organize to protect democracy, have radically different views of the problem, with a large swath of the country still believing “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. The country has become dangerously numb to all types of violence, but especially political violence, as many Americans report that violence would be justified to protect against the “evils” of their political adversaries.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series from leading experts with practical solutions to democratic backsliding, polarization, and political violence.
January 27, 2022, Just Security
Articles for reflection in WIN Digest
About the Author(s)
Maria J. Stephan
Maria J. Stephan (@MariaJStephan) is Co-Lead and Chief Organizer for The Horizons Project. She formerly directed the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” “Bolstering Democracy: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward,” and “Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback?”
Julia Roig (@jroig_horizons) is Founder & Chief Network Weaver at The Horizons Project, which focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding, social justice, and democracy in the United States. She previously served as President and CEO of the international democracy and peacebuilding organization PartnersGlobal.