by Hardy MerrimanOctober 22, 2019
Imagine you’re in a country in which democracy is under attack. A few years ago a demagogue won an election, packed his administration with loyal supporters, and they’ve broken norms and expectations of governance ever since. They are using the power of government to enrich themselves, entrench their rule, and battle their opposition. What’s more, they seem to be getting away with it.
When you think back on it, you feel like you should have seen this coming. Politicians and political parties over the last several decades allowed corruption to fester, benefited from it, and gradually fell out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Various professional advocacy organizations—using lawyers, campaign strategists, communications specialists, and policy experts—tried for years to play by the rules and push politicians and parties to overcome this trend. They saw themselves as representatives of the population and holders of political wisdom. Their institutional knowledge and access to donors, media, and support networks sometimes yielded a positive impact, but they were ultimately unable to reverse the current of corruption and insularity among the political establishment.
Popular candidates in numerous past elections promised and then failed to fundamentally address issues that were important to their constituents’ lives, such as wealth inequality, unemployment, and rises in the cost of living. Preoccupied with the very problems so woefully ignored, a significant portion of the population concluded that political engagement and voting was a waste of time. Others started to support a demagogue who blamed certain groups, institutions, and norms for the country’s suffering and declining quality of life. The demagogue quickly sought to delegitimize his opponents, making every event and issue a political litmus test, and dividing the country into Us-vs-Them. He said he needed total support from his base to dismantle various aspects of the system and his opponents, and promised that this would make things better.
It didn’t take long for this new administration to prove wrong those who trusted democratic institutions to constrain him. With the support of his own political party, he has:
• Passed legislation to strengthen executive government institutions.
• Strengthened rights and protections for political supporters and economic allies.
• Used vested political and institutional powers to their maximum extent in ways that violate long-standing democratic norms and create recurring constitutional crises.
• Appointed personnel—particularly to the judiciary—based primarily on loyalty to the ruling party rather than competence and objectivity.
• Disabled monitoring bodies and mechanisms—within government, the private sector, and within civil society—to limit oversight of political or economic affairs.
• Used rhetoric to deliberately sow divisions in the population and increase polarization.
• Used the power of the state to threaten and limit independent media.
• Weakened the rights and protections of certain civil society groups that challenge the administration.
• Sought to delegitimize democratic opposition, and threatened to prosecute certain outspoken opponents.
• Changed electoral laws, processes, or practices in ways that limit popular participation and equality in voting.
• Ignored attempts by government bodies to hold his administration accountable.
• Engaged in corruption to accomplish some of the above ends.
Political insiders and some members of the population think the defiance of norms and institutions by the demagogue means that the opposition should respond in a careful and deliberate manner, ensuring that it does not begin flouting other institutions and norms in response. They are concerned that they will be painted as anti-democratic if they move quickly or use the full extent of their institutional powers to hold the demagogue accountable. In their view, the way to meet these challenges is for more resources to be given to the same advocacy organizations and approaches that were used in the past, scaling them to fit current demands. They are concerned about maintaining unity of strategy and messaging, and implore citizens to follow their lead, support political campaigns, contribute money, and vote. However, best intentions aside, their approach has not curtailed the demagogue’s abuse thus far; in fact, the lack of accountability for his actions has empowered him to accelerate attacks on democratic institutions and norms.
Others in society note these failures. Finding the status quo intolerable, they fear that if things continue in this direction, all may be lost, including rights and democracy itself. For them, the urgency of the moment calls for looking beyond professionalized big organizations and political parties. They argue that a wide base of citizens needs to organize, mobilize, and use civil resistance tactics like mass demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, publicly confronting government officials, and myriad other forms of nonviolent extra-institutional pressure. Meanwhile, political insiders are concerned that widespread civil resistance could further polarize society, divide the opposition, and lead to instability, which they fear will further democratic breakdown.
Which direction do you lean? At such a moment, if you had significant funds to distribute, would you rather support:
a) 100 well-paid, experienced, professionalized staff at advocacy organizations in two major cities, trying to mount a mass communications campaign and legal response?
b) 300 skilled community organizers (each paid one third the salary of the professionalized advocacy staff) in 10 regions, who aim to get 300,000 people to engage in targeted boycotts of products and localized, nonviolent civil resistance to exert economic, social, and political leverage on enablers of the demagogue?
How you answer these questions may tell you something about how you conceive of civil society and political change. Just as importantly, it may tell you something about definitions and models that are different than yours, which may be worth revisiting.
One way to think of civil society is that it consists of concentric circles. A small inner ring includes larger organizations and elites that are generally concentrated in major cities. Middle rings include regional and local organizations that are spread more widely around the country. Outer rings include informal and non-registered organizations and associations down to the neighborhood, community, and school district level.
Where does civil society begin and end? If you’re oriented toward institutional means and top-down change, you’re often focused on the inner ring, which might only comprise 1% of a country’s population. On the other hand, if you’re oriented toward non-institutional means and bottom-up change, you’re often focused on all rings, especially the outer ring, which comprises the significant majority of a country.
How you conceive of civil society is going to affect how you think about change. There is real tension between insider and outsider approaches. While both approaches are needed for change to happen, a key insight is that they are not always needed equally at the same time, and sometimes one needs to lead the other.
I think it’s a question of sequencing. To get institutional processes to work again, insiders need leverage. By themselves, 100 advocacy professionals (even if they’re really savvy and well-connected people with a great media plan and legal strategy) are no match for an administration that has decided that democracy and rights can be done away with. But if (to follow our hypothetical example) 300 organizers can organize 300,000 citizens to engage in civil resistance that imposes targeted political, social, and economic costs on the enablers of the administration, that creates leverage. Imposing these costs shifts incentives for individuals and groups, which can foment divisions among the administration’s supporters. When faced with civil resistance, for example, businesses may be forced to prioritize their bottom line over loyalty to the demagogue, and political enablers may have to reevaluate where their personal self-interest lies.
Following this, once 300,000 mobilized people have created leverage, then experienced, professionalized opposition representatives can start to become very important in helping them—in partnership—to convert popular grassroots power into institutional gains. This shows how the outer and inner rings of civil society can work together, and why fears that civil resistance may lead to a democratic breakdown are often unfounded. To the contrary, multiple studies show that civil resistance campaigns are, compared to other means, one of the most powerful drivers of democratic development. Such campaigns are often necessary in order to get weak or corrupted institutions to work again.
Of course, real circumstances are more complex than a model. Civil resistance is not a panacea, and activists can be unskillful or make unwise strategic choices. So too can political insiders. Moreover, if you work at a philanthropy, NGO, or government institution that aims to support civil society, it’s important to recognize that different concepts of civil society and different models of change often require different processes and inputs (I detail some of these in my blog series on movement-centered funding).
So should we support civil society? Absolutely. But particularly in times of democratic backsliding, we need to ask each other which civil society, and what model of change, we are referring to.
This post was updated on November 7, 2019.
Hardy Merriman is President of ICNC. He has worked in the field of civil resistance for nearly 15 years, presenting at workshops for activists and organizers around the world; speaking widely with academics, journalists, and members of international organizations; and developing resources for practitioners and scholars.Read More