Understanding Society: Resisting authoritarian populism

The rise of an organized effort to create an authoritarian right-wing government in the United States is palpable. Unhinged Republican elected officials call for political violence and “civil war”; an ideological and Christian-nationalist Supreme Court moves forward unhesitatingly in attacking long-established and fundamental rights, including rights of reproductive freedom; Republican-controlled state houses enact ever-more restrictive legislation and gerrymandered electoral maps restricting voting rights. What recourse do Americans who care about their democratic institutions, rights, and liberties have in face of this rise of populist authoritarianism?

Political sociologists David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow addressed this set of crises in an intriguing volume, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. Regrettably, the book was written too early. It was prepared for publication in 2018, and the political threats to democracy are much, much worse today. Writing in 2018, the editors summarize the situation in these terms:

Importantly, the election of Donald Trump represents an attack not only on the Democratic Party, or the Left more generally, but also presents a clear threat to well-established bipartisan policies, the independence of institutions in the American Constitutional order, and America’s place in the world. In this context, it is not surprising that a diverse and volatile opposition quickly emerged. (3)

This is a clear statement, but in hindsight it understates the magnitude of the threat, and unfortunately it seems to exaggerate the strength of the “diverse and volatile opposition” that has emerged. Meyer and Tarrow are social-movement scholars, and they focus on several important examples of social movements and protests that occurred in 2016 and 2017 — the Women’s March (January 2017), demonstrations in support of immigrant and Latino rights, residual Occupy Wall Street activism, activism around climate change, and the mobilization and demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

But notice — with the exception of the Women’s March, these moments of activism rarely succeeded in gathering a broad cross-section of the American public. Black Lives Matter generated greater public knowledge and concern about misuse of force by police officers, and climate activists perhaps marginally extended the range of concerned citizens actively concerned about climate inaction by our government. But these causes and organizations did not succeed in engaging a significant percentage of the attention or concern of ordinary citizens across the country. 

So a crucial question demands answering: do these examples constitute a “movement”, or do they point to something less focused — a readiness of many Americans to answer the call to mobilize around specific issues and specific moments of demonstration, rather than a broad-based commitment in support of our democracy? The question is important, because “resistance” ultimately requires widespread, committed, organized, and persistent readiness of large numbers of diverse people to come together in opposition to an ongoing seizure of power.

The assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was the most striking instance of attempted violent insurrection in our country in over a century and a half. So why was there not a massive response from the American public reaffirming the integrity of the election, the fundamental importance of our democratic institutions, and a repudiation of the “Stop the Steal!” lies? Where was the resistance on January 7? Why did corporate advertisers continue to support Fox News with advertising revenue? Where is the American “democracy movement” when we need it?

Effective resistance to rising authoritarianism will require the development of a set of demands that can engage millions of Americans across class, race, religion, and region in a persistent and committed way. Alliances with existing activist groups are valuable, but we need a broader basis for consensus that can give rise to a genuinely broad-based movement of resistance. Perhaps the broad platform for a democratic resistance movement can be as simple as this:

  • “No to all politicians and parties who undermine the legitimacy of our political institutions!”
  • “No to all politicians and activists who call for political violence!”
  • “Yes to full and equal voting rights for all Americans!”
  • “Yes to reproductive freedom!”
  • “Yes to greater equity for the bottom 75% of Americans!”

And the actions that can give force to these demands? Massive, persistent non-violent demonstrations in many cities; boycotts against companies that continue to support anti-democratic parties and candidates; lawsuits against unconstitutional gerrymandering by state legislatures; and effective communications campaigns aimed at broadening the base of opposition. Mass collective action can be immensely powerful.

Or, as composer Frederic Rzewski put it in 1975, “The people united will never be defeated!”. The historical moment was the violent overthrow and murder of Salvadore Allende in Chile and the seizure of power by dictator Augusto Pinochet. Where is the next Martin Luther King, Jr., when we need him or her?