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Are people "pro-democracy"?
In the battle to defend/reform/reinvigorate/stabilize/resilient-ize American democracy, we may be relying on a narrative that only resonates with the folks doing the work.
The “pro-democracy” movement needs a new story. Authoritarians don’t accept “anti-democratic” frames. They don’t stand up and rail against democracy. They embrace the language of patriotism (nativist and narrowly defined), freedom and fairness (for some), self-determination (for few), all wrapped in a fear and failure story meant to point at “other” people to blame for dysfunction and frustration and toward themselves as the only solution. They make grand, disingenuous claims about being the true freedom fighters, claiming to be the ones who really believe in freedom all the while minimizing the power of individual participation and investing deeply in the most anti-democratic features of government.
These strategies are effective expressly because those fighting for democracy are too dependent on a story about “defending democracy” and invest too much narrative effort into systems-policy talk rather than claiming the moral high ground on patriotism and reclaiming the definition of what it means to be an American. Those concepts must be expanded so that being patriotic means standing firmly for freedom for everyone and demanding a representative self-government empowered by full participation as the benchmark of liberty, equality, and self-determination. Our republic is not a system of self-determination or self-government for everyone if everyone is not included, if everyone is not at a minimum enabled/allowed to and at best encouraged to participate — it represents those for whom power is captured who then govern (read: dictate to) everyone else.
We often cede the cultural ground of patriotism because we are (often rightly) ashamed of how patriotism has been used to justify all sorts of abuse and oppression and a narrow, exclusionary definition of “American”. But it will always mean those things if we we do not change the story. If “self” does not equate to “everyone,” we are failing by allowing a small, narrow definition of “American” to persist. And authoritarians will always confidently claim the ground of freedom unchallenged if we continue to live in the policy-centric realm of pro-democracy reform movements. Those conversations are nerdy, wonky spaces, necessary for defining and building consensus around solutions that will always be driven by the nerdy, wonky experts and lawyers trying to shift systemic norms, policies, and institutions. To be clear, I love these conversations, and these servant leaders doing that work should be celebrated and supported, but this narrative may not be our answer and this audience may not be sufficient for the deeply needed broader cultural transformation.
What we need in order to renew and reclaim our democratic institutions is a broad, cultural transformation that demands the kind of freedom, equity, and justice that is alive in a vibrant, resilient democracy. One that is rooted in the borrowed power of every citizen, every participant, every person standing behind institutions that they trust and believe represent them because they are invited and encouraged to be active civic participants in systems of shared power rather than complicit in partisan power capture from one group of elites over another — none of whom feel much like that really care about, much less speak for everyone. Healthy systems of democratic governance are built on consistent, predictable application of the rule of law, equal access to justice, genuine representation, healthy checks on state power — principles at work that we might think “democracy” is shorthand for but are, in fact, the things we need to say out loud and loudly advocate for. We know what this story needs to be: we just need to step into reclaiming it. And full participation is the necessary standard; more participation suggests that we are doing ok and need to do better. Without at least the genuine intention of full participation, we are always complicit in the intentional or accidental disenfranchising of some of our own friends and neighbors. That kind of cultural movement demands truly democratic institutions and demands power centered on people who lack power: a pro-democracy movement that might never need to use the word “democracy.”