Getting Started: Planning for the Pro-Democracy Movement in the U.S.

For some time now, I have described myself as part of a “pro-democracy movement” here in the U.S. The term often occasions head-scratching; that America is a democracy is, culturally, a truism, a piece of commonsense, questioned mostly by those who don’t understand how good they have it. (Or so I have been told.)

And it is true — we do not live in a dictatorship. Not yet. But we do live in a nation where the tools of force government has at its disposal have been steadily increasing, and where economic and decision-making power have become increasingly concentrated, more and more one and the same. Who better to represent that than our billionaire president-elect?

We do not live under fascism. Not yet. Though we know that many residing in the United States do live under terror; the potential for being on the receiving end of random acts of police violence, are, for some, a daily reality. The encouragement given in recent months to white supremacists with interests in committing open acts of violence heightens that terror, and should these individual local actors find themselves fully backed by neoliberal and corporate powerholders — and surely we see white supremacists and the financial elite mixing together in Trump’s transition team and appointments — then fascism seems a very real threat.

The shift in perception resulting from Trump’s election turns a U.S. pro-democracy movement from a matter of curiosity, requiring explanation, to a matter of necessity, requiring a plan.

Most of us who did not vote for Trump have been stumbling about the last few weeks, trying to understand what the plan is. What are the real threats? What’s truly at stake? What is the most effective course of action? Lots of this is happening piecemeal, through Facebook posts, shared anecdotes, those grieving conversations we’ve all been having with friends. It’s very, very hard to see, through these small glimpses, how we might be effective. For many of us, it will be hard, after the emotional shock has worn, not simply to go back to what we were doing before — after all, lots of us are doing good work: caring for others, teaching, building institutions and organizations that help others. And this work should continue. But there is a great deal more to be done, and much that we need to do differently. That’s why I’m writing.

My head has been spinning with how to apply what I have learned in the many pro-democracy projects of which I have been a part to this new situation. But I think many of the ideas that have been burgeoning in half-baked form these last two weeks have some merit, and can help us think about where to put our energies and time. So I’m going to do something that I have often talked about but shied away from: write routinely about politics and social change on the internet. The internet is a cesspool of less than polite criticism (not to mention death threats) for women who write about these things, which should explain to you why I haven’t done this too frequently before now, and generally only where it will be seen by those I know in person. But now is not the time to be afraid of criticism; there is too much on the line.

And there is too much on the line for us to rely, as we do, on the tools of the compliant. By this I mean the actions with which we have become accustomed to taking to try and create change: petitions, established marches, etc. There is good reason to believe that we will be moving into a time where these tools drop sharply in their efficacy.

Why do I think these actions will become less potent? Well, do you remember how the mass protests agains the Iraq War — millions of people around the globe marching, crowds of tens of thousands routinely coming out in US cities, enough so that the February 15, 2003 marches made the Guinness Book of Records as the largest protest in human history at the time — stopped the Iraq War? No? You don’t because they didn’t. The Bush administration wasn’t interested in listening to public opinion, it was interested in making public opinion. It seems likely that Trump’s administration will be the same. That we have in recent years been able to utilize mass gatherings again as a tool for change came as a surprise to many. (As David Graeber has said about the Occupy movement, it wasn’t supposed to work — that the media covered the action, thereby helping Occupy gain momentum, was an aberration at the time.)

This is not a time to ask for change, this is a time to do change. This is not to say that you shouldn’t sign petitions and go to demonstrations; we must continue to clearly communicate with our alleged representatives about where we stand, and when well done, petitions and marches can do that. But we need to get smart, and get smart quick, about the real work of building and maintaining a democratic society.

My first step to ‘get smart quick’ was to pick up a copy of Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. The book has been used by nonviolent resistance struggles across the globe to fight authoritarianism. You can find a free copy at:

A strategic framework to bring down a dictatorship already in place should certainly be helpful in preventing one from fully coming into being, I would think. So I’m starting with Gene Sharp, and I’ll be using that to think through some of my ideas in the days ahead. But for now, here’s one of the first lessons from FDTD:

“The conclusion is a hard one. When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:
One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
One must create a powerful internal resistance force;
One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.
Against a strong self-reliant force, given wise strategy, disciplined and courageous action, and genuine strength, the dictatorship will eventually crumble. Minimally, however, the above four requirements must be fulfilled.”

“A wise grand strategic plan for liberation.” Almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? Who makes wise, grand strategic plans? Doesn’t someone else do that? Grand leaders from other times in history, surely, but not us?

Yes, us. Because it’s time to take things seriously. Because Trump was “just a joke” and now he is a danger to our friends, family, and future. We cannot be a joke in return — we must be a danger in return, a democratic threat to the authoritarianism he represents. We must be wise and we must be strategic. I’m going to try, in this space, to be as wise as I can, that my actions in the world are as useful as they might be. I hope you’ll help me by reading what I put here, and by being in conversation with me if you think I’m off base, and most of all, by helping me put into action at least a few of these ideas. Because there’s a lot to do, and we’re the ones to do it.

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