Authoritarianism Is Making a Comeback - Here's the Time-Tested Way to Defeat It
After the spread of democracy at the end of the 20th century, authoritarianism is now rolling back democracy around the globe. In the US, supporters of democracy disarmed themselves by imagining an “end of history” in which nothing but their own ideas were possible. Authoritarians, meanwhile, keep practicing their old tactics and devising new ones.
It is time for those who support democracy to remember what activists from around the world have paid a price to learn: how to win.
Modern authoritarians rely on repression, intimidation, corruption and co-optation to consolidate their power. The dictator’s handbook mastered by Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Zuma in South Africa, Duterte in the Philippines and Trump here provides the traditional tactics: attack journalists, blame dissent on foreigners and “paid protestors,” scapegoat minorities and vulnerable groups, weaken checks on power, reward loyalists, use paramilitaries, and generally try to reduce politics to a question of friends and enemies, us and them.
Yet tyrants’ tactics require the consent of large numbers of people. The first lesson, then, is not to obey in advance. If individuals make the basic effort to consider their own sense of values and patriotism rather than subconsciously adjusting to the new reality, aspiring authoritarians have a major problem. Good citizens will then ask: but what should we do? History provides an answer: civil resistance.
Unarmed civilians using petitions, boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent methods have been able to slow, disrupt and even halt authoritarianism. Civil resistance has been twice as effective as armed struggle. Americans will remember the historical examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and perhaps the peaceful east European revolutionaries of Solidarity in Poland and Otpor in Serbia. Many of us have overlooked the more recent examples of successful civil resistance in Guatemala, South Korea and Romania.
Civil resistance works by separating the authoritarian ruler from pillars of support, including economic elites, security forces, and government workers. It attracts diverse groups in society, whose collective defiance and stubbornness eventually elicits power shifts.
Mass, diverse participation empowers reformers and whistle-blowers and weakens the support base of hardliners. The best gauge of the health of a resistance movement, then, is whether the size and representativeness of active participation are growing.
Civil resistance is strategic. Movements articulate clear, achievable goals (achieving independent trade unions in the case of Solidarity; de-segregating public places during US civil rights movement) and know when and how to declare small victories. They must endure inevitable set-backs – like arrests, large counter-mobilizations by regime supporters, and legislative defeats – while maintaining momentum.
Movement organization can take different forms, but decentralized leadership rooted in local communities is more important than charismatic leaders. The Serbian Otpor movement combined centralized planning with de-centralized tactical adaptation and recruitment.
The organizing approach of Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz, which emphasizes building cross-sector relationships and turning resources into the power needed to achieve clear goals, highlights how to build resilient movement infrastructure over the long haul.
Movements that devise and sequence a broad repertoire of tactics, including those that bring people together for concentrated actions (rallies, sit-ins, blockades) and those that involve dispersed acts of resistance (consumer boycotts, stay-aways, go slow tactics), are more likely to endure and grow.
Repeating the same tactics is boring, predictable, and unlikely to move the needle. Gene Sharp has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action grouped according to the level of risk, preparation, and forcefulness associated with them.
Authoritarian regimes often seek to provoke violence by opposition elements in order to justify repressive counter-measures. Nonviolent movements have invested in training, they have devised codes of conduct and designated marshals to enforce nonviolent discipline at protests. Scholars have found that the stronger the organization of a movement, the more likely it is to avoid responding to violence with violence, which weakens the resistance by decreasing the level of citizen participation.
Successful movements need to be able to inspire hope and optimism in order to sustain popular participation in the resistance and focus people on building alternative systems. Authoritarians thrive on popular fear, apathy, resignation, and a feeling of disorientation. Movement leaders need to assure people that their engagement and sacrifices will pay off, something Solidarity leader Adam Michnik understood well: “Above all, we must create a strategy of hope for the people, and show them that their efforts and risks have a future.”
Supporters of democracy have access to immense resources, in dozens of languages, on strategic applications of civil resistance and movement building. These include films, manuals, books, articles, databases of global nonviolent campaigns, and organizations that specialize in online and offline training and mentoring.
In the United States, the resistance is strong. Older civil rights organizations like the ACLU have stepped up their legal game and are starting to invest in grassroots people power training and activities. New structures, like the over 6,000 local Indivisible groups across the country, are channeling citizen outrage and depression into constructive forms of putting pressure on members of Congress at town halls and in their offices. The Women’s March mobilized the single-largest demonstration in American history.
Social trust is strengthening between movement leaders and organizations. Over 50 major organizations and movements representing a variety of issues, including environmental rights, economic justice, immigrant rights and anti-racism, formed a United Resistance campaign and vowed to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.
Another social change collective, The Majority, brings together activists, organizers, and groups with different missions. Meanwhile, sanctuary cities are popping up across the US to protect undocumented immigrants from forceful arrest and deportation. Federal workers are enrolling in trainings to learn their legal rights and discuss ways to serve ethically.
The question of “what can I do” has answers, supported by scholarship and experience. Authoritarianism always begins with the advance obedience of the thoughtless and the disorientation of the thoughtful. But we know that we should act, and we know how.