Here’s a basic rule of public policy: If a society wants a capability, it has to pay for it.
If we want a fire department, we have to direct our time, energy, people, and funds to build and support it.
If we want a Center for Disease Control, or a Federal Emergency Management Agency, we likewise have to pay for them.
We hope we don’t have to use them, but we live better knowing that they are there if needed. And although we can’t predict exactly when, the probability is that we will need them, often when we don’t expect it. They serve as a kind of insurance policy.
In the same vein, what if there was a kind of “democracy insurance,” consisting of capabilities that we can support to deter and defend against democratic weakening and authoritarian encroachment? There certainly is a need. We know that according to the organization Freedom House, aggregate freedom scores have fallen in the world for 11 years in a row. Democracies in many countries are backsliding, such as in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, South Africa and the United States.
And some former democracies such as Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and Zimbabwe are now authoritarian states — overthrown through functional coups d’état by once-democratically elected leaders, who subsequently cemented authoritarian rule by rigging the laws and cracking down on civil society and opposition.
What might such an insurance policy against democratic backsliding and usurpation look like? It would contain a number of components, and one of them would be strong investment in the grassroots nonviolent civil resistance capacity of a society. We know that a unified and mobilized population—capable of imposing costs on unaccountable powerholders through nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience — is often essential to protecting and expanding civic space. There is an art and a science to how ordinary people have done this, and nonviolent civil resistance has proven remarkably adaptable at addressing a variety of situations relevant to democratic backsliding, including:
• Driving successful democratic transitions
• Defeating coups d’état (one of the primary means by which authoritarian governments are established)
• Curtailing corruption (a major contributor to democratic backsliding)
• Advancing human rights
• Defending against violent non-state actors
Research further tells us that when nonviolent civil resistance movements succeed, they have an incomparably high chance of leading to democratic outcomes, and that even when nonviolent movements fail to achieve their stated immediate objectives, they nonetheless can set the stage for democratic gains in the coming years. The act of forming and sustaining a movement develops and incubates democratic skills, norms, processes, and associations. Nonviolent movements build democracy where it’s been stamped out, and can revitalize it where it has been broken.
How, then, do we support the nonviolent civil resistance capacity of a society?
We can start by supporting the development of educational infrastructure for grassroots activists and organizers. These brave women and men have one of the hardest jobs in the world — mobilizing societies that are often fearful, disunited, and lacking hope and confidence to challenge entrenched and oppressive powerholders. Any other profession (e.g. doctor, lawyer, engineer, or soldier) has infrastructure and established processes to support the growth and learning of individuals in those professions, alongside the development of related knowledge and skills in the field. We should organize along similar lines for nonviolent civil resisters. Since they are a cornerstone of defending and advancing democratic self-rule, here are some specific ways that we can support them in their learning, their work, and in making strategic choices that are as effective as possible:
1. Support workshops and other educational opportunities (such as online learning) for nonviolent activists and organizers to learn from relevant research, practitioner insights, and case studies of civil resistance movements from around the world.
2. Develop peer-to-peer networks of practitioners and supporters, so that activists across borders can learn from each other’s experiences and mentor each other.
3. Support translations of high quality educational resources on nonviolent civil resistance and grassroots movement organizing. The literature and audiovisual resources in this field have proliferated, and every new language translation can dramatically multiply impact, making knowledge accessible to millions.
4. Support the development of new educational resources (websites, video, books, articles, and curricula) in this field, so that new research, insights, and cases are continually incorporated into new and existing educational materials.
5. Support research in the burgeoning field of civil resistance. You can find a list of some key research issues here. In particular, documenting case studies is important. Civil resistance has occurred everywhere in the world (what country has not had a labor strike?), and people should be able to identify it as part of their heritage. For example, there are many under-documented cases in sub-Saharan Africa. We should be raising the visibility of past cases, reaching out to the people who made those movements happen, and highlighting lessons learned.
These are just some of the ways in which support can be given. Notably, all of these options can be done fairly indirectly so that they create an enabling environment for movements, rather than directly supporting (and possibly disrupting) a particular movement.
We’re at an inflection point in the world. Authoritarian resurgence has become a major problem, and this contagion has spread now for over a decade with severe (though still widely underestimated) consequences. Those who care about rights, freedom, and justice in the world must work together to reverse this trend. We must insure against further backsliding.
Doing so will require a holistic approach. In the field of nonviolent civil resistance, there is no substitute for sustained, multi-faceted support for education, stretching over months and years, recognizing the primacy of grassroots activists and organizers, and enabling their learning and practice in the field. To support this capacity is an inherent good. We don’t know exactly when or how an abusive power will rise, but we know that investing in civil resistance creates a malleable force that can be applied to defend against, deter, and correct threats that, sooner or later, afflict most societies.
Building democracy insurance will also require a proactive mindset—insurance is most important before trouble sets in, and much more expensive after misfortune has struck. For those who engage in work related to democracy and human rights — whether through direct organizing, advocacy, grantmaking, education, media, or otherwise — think of a country that is already experiencing backsliding. You’re likely considering what you can do now to stop and reverse the trend. But equally as important, think also about what you would do if you could go back in time and support an initiative in that country two years before the democratic downturn began. What initiative would you design and support? What resources would you apply to it? What capacities would you aim to build? And what do you wish others had done, if they had known then what we all know now?
The next set of countries facing authoritarian pressure are already out there, and others that are already facing such pressure need attention to help turn the tide as well. Insurance represents a potential that protects against a variety of threats, and helps restore and heal after a loss. An organized and empowered citizenry who know how to create powerful nonviolent pressure against unaccountable rule can do the same in their own country.
Hardy Merriman is President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. This piece was first posted on Minds of the Movement.