Reclaiming Democracy: Narratives, Civic Space and Action

We are at a critical juncture where the need to ensure just societies is profound

By Eric Friedenwald-Fishman

Photo courtesy of wikimedia

The recent rise of authoritarianism has coincided with, and been bolstered by, powerful narratives that legitimize autocratic actions and efforts to confuse, muddle and co-opt the definition of democracy. We have seen populist, oppressive governments claim the mantle of democracy for their regimes, even while suppressing free speech and independent media, and demonizing civil society leaders and activists as terrorists and agents of foreign influence. Even free and fair elections are no guarantee of democratic reform or progress. In recent months, elections that international observers deemed generally “free,” elected — or nearly elected — proponents of autocratic rule who are intent on dismantling institutions that protect hard-won rights and freedoms.

Rising authoritarianism has also led to increased political polarization and siloing. Autocratic leaders have emphasized the validity of their “democratic” elections, yet used their electoral mandates to prosecute, harass and victimize their political opposition. Recent examples include El Salvador’s Congress declaring a state of exception and Iranian security forces detaining thousands of protestors following the death of Mahsa Amini. In late October 2022, Metropolitan Group convened a panel of practitioners and researchers, over Zoom, for a discussion on how narratives are shaping global and national debates on democracy to promote and secure democratic values. Joined by thought leaders and change agents across disciplines, sectors and countries, the panel engaged in a passionate, insightful and informed conversation on the fluctuating dynamics of democratic and civic spaces in the United States, Mexico and around the world. Each practitioner shared their recent work and research in international contexts, including Tunisia, Turkey, El Salvador, Serbia, Peru, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Indonesia, Sweden, Colombia and the U.S. Click here to watch the full recording of the conversation.

The panel emphasized lessons learned, emerging narrative trends and the importance of organizers, coalitions and power-building movements to advocate for civic space — like the public square — as well as advancing democratic values, which includes increasing voting access and political participation. As moderator, I began by setting the context for what the panel meant by democracy, namely a set of principles and systems of governance that sees universal human rights as fundamental. In a strong democracy, the people value and strive to create systems that advance: freedom of expression and the press, rule of law centered on equity before the law, inclusion and pluralism, checks and balances, sharing and transitions of power, respect for opposition and deliberative decision-making. Other democratic practices that advance more just, equitable and sustainable societies include transparency and accountability.

We are at a critical juncture, where the need for effective approaches to ensure just societies is profound.

Erin Rebecca Bloom, senior director at Metropolitan Group, opened the conversation by stating that democracy should not be conflated with societies simply having elections — even ones considered to be “free and fair.” Worldwide, we are seeing the rise of authoritarianism and in cases where elections are considered to be “legitimate,” political observers are noticing that authoritarian leaders are manipulating the ballot box and other democratic institutions to further their own political gain. In 2016, after an attempted military coup in Turkey, newly appointed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan orchestrated a constitutional nationwide referendum for the Turkish electorate. This vote significantly constricted civil society and civic space and gave an unprecedented amount of power to President Erdoğan and his government. By all accounts this election was legitimate and reflected the “will of the people,” but ultimately resulted in the dismantling of core human rights. The reason we need to move beyond the idea that elections are the sole tool of a democratic state is that there are other rights that also bolster and protect societies, which include: freedom of expression, representation, demonstration and protest. These actions from the community — in the streets and public squares — are often what influence and advance humane policies as well as positions in government. Any nation wanting to uphold democratic values needs to protect minority and oppressed populations from the tyranny of the majority.

Delma Jackson III, senior director at Metropolitan Group, illustrated how reading the works of abolitionist Frederick Douglass has been a salve to his cynicism, in terms of the American political landscape, both historically and now. He paraphrases Douglass and shares that: “In the whole of human history, around the progress of liberty, concessions are born of earnest struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” This perspective leads us to look to other groups within and outside of the United States, whose histories and current systems expand the notion of how “governing” can be practiced — from pre-colonial Ghana and Mali to the over 500 sovereign Indigenous nations who currently have very different ways of approaching governance. Delma is looking at broadening the scope of democratic tools that are available globally and exist beyond the U.S. context. We know that power and oppression coexist across social identities, so how do we engage with pluralistic values? If we want to see progress, we need to do so with one another. Our freedoms are inextricably linked, regardless of our identities. Ultimately, there are more of us who want a pluralistic society than who do not. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” — Audre Lorde, civil rights activist

Alejandro Vélez Salas, senior director at Impacto Social Metropolitan Group, contextualized our conversation around public space and civic engagement. Alejandro is based in Mexico City and teaches, writes and publishes on how victims and survivors of state-sanctioned violence in Mexico are using public space to organize, advocate for human rights and activate their civic voice. Eight years ago, after the forced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, Mexicans filled the streets to protest the disappearance of not only these students, but also the thousands of people who are missing as a result of state-sanctioned violence. Artists, activists, groups of victims and the general population have taken over public spaces and intervened to raise awareness of the violence that has been perpetrated in Mexico for the last 15 years. These activists have installed several “anti-monuments” on prominent avenues in Mexico City to remember the dead and demand justice for the innocent. They have commemorated historic crimes such as the killings of migrants in San Fernando, the ABC Daycare disaster in which 49 children died in a fire, as well as the rampant gender-based violence that exists in the country. On the flipside, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his allies, such as Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor, have co-opted the public square to hold demonstrations and events to further their own political agendas. These demonstrations — often manipulated by the media — portray these gatherings as evidence of López Obrador’s administration working in favor of “the people.” Acts of political theater, propaganda and polarization are also evident on social media, where the government is attempting to control narratives through a number of influencers, bots and trolls that repeat statements from the president’s past press conferences. Alejandro emphasized that the public square is primarily a place for the people, not the state, and has become an important place to convene, grieve, remember the victims of violence, and collectively demand a more just society for current and future generations of Mexicans.

Haim Malka, vice president at Metropolitan Group, reflected on how perceptions and expectations of democracy have changed worldwide over the last several decades, and the impact of those changes. Haim argued that for hundreds of millions of people around the world who had suffered under fascism, communism and oppressive colonial regimes, democracy was the antidote to poverty, genocide, suffering and injustice. While there are numerous contradictions and exceptions to how democracy has been applied, as well as a legacy of U.S. support for abusive nondemocratic regimes, democracy has been a force for stability, order, prosperity and security — all universal, closely held values. Throughout the world people had high expectations of how democracy could transform their lives for the better. Since decolonization in the 1950s-60s; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990–91; transitions from military to civilian regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and the Arab uprisings in 2011; more and more people worldwide have been part of democratic transitions. Yet, in many cases the benefits of democracy were applied unevenly and new regimes and political systems started resembling the old oppressive order. Instead of delivering “justice, dignity and bread,” one of the key slogans of protesters in Tunisia, people in many countries faced economic insecurity, deep political polarization, and in some cases, ethnic or political violence. This has created indifference for many people who have become disappointed with the benefits of democracy, and in some places, nostalgia for a time when strong leaders maintained order and stability through an iron grip. In Tunisia, which experienced a peaceful transition in 2011 after three decades of dictatorship, a common refrain after the revolution was that “at least under the dictator we had jobs and security.” The danger is that growing frustration with democracy creates an environment where demagogues, populists and authoritarian leaders can weaponize narratives that delegitimize democracy while enacting policies and legislation that deny people basic rights and freedoms. Haim concluded that despite this negative trajectory, he believes that democracy remains a powerful force for good. Polling (including from the Pew Research Center and more recently the New York Times/Siena College) consistently shows that majorities believe that democracy is at risk and that basic freedoms are important. This suggests that people still aspire to live in democratic societies and see the potential of democratic systems, even if preserving democracy is not their top priority compared to providing for and protecting themselves and their families. People may be frustrated or ask what “democracy has done for me lately,” but they are not ready to give up on it yet.

While the panel explored the significant threats and challenges to democratic values, they also identified areas of opportunity — the critical places where people are resiliently standing up for values, accountability, and where we can and must take action. As Alejandro illustrated, civil society groups and grassroots activists are defending civic space and using the public square to bolster equitable rule of law and reform of carceral justice systems. In cities around the world, namely San Salvador, Tehran, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., disenfranchised populations are speaking truth to power, building broader coalitions and publicly demonstrating to defend rights and freedoms.

Organizers, community leaders and coalitions are investing in authentic engagement and power-building to shift the dynamics of who is seen and centered, whose voices are amplified and which reforms are being prioritized. We see this approach having positive impacts in the U.S., such as in the work of analyst Steve Phillips, political leaders like Stacey Abrams and organizers who are increasing voter participation in places like Harris County, Texas, and the state of Georgia. While narratives of otherization, replacement theory and threats to democratic institutions were a major part of the narratives in the recent U.S. midterm elections, voter registration, engagement and power-building pushed back. In numerous communities and diverse geographies multiracial majorities rejected many candidates who: denied the legitimacy of the 2022 election, were hostile to democratic institutions and backed reductions of core human rights such as reproductive health. Movement builders and civil society organizations around the world are galvanizing coalitions to advance the delivery of justice. Inspirational examples include EQUIS Justicia para las mujeres, working to realize gender equity in Mexico, and Moldovan President Maia Sandu, centering accountability and corruption reforms.

Advocates for democratic values are recognizing the power of narrative and the need to shift narratives from policies and technical constructs to ones centered on human values. These change agents are addressing disinformation by going upstream to interrogate the metastory that determines what people see (or don’t see) and believe (or don’t believe) as facts. Advocates have a better story to tell than their authoritarian counterparts and need to be able to tell it; they are conveying that participation in democratic institutions works and benefits the greater good. As Anand Giridharadas wrote in his recent editorial for The New York Times, The Uncomfortable Truths That Could Yet Defeat Fascism, “The pro-democracy side can still very much prevail. But it needs to go beyond its present modus operandi, a mix of fatalism and despair and living in perpetual reaction to the right and policy wonkiness and praying for indictments.”

Through our global research and the work of many other researchers, Metropolitan Group is finding that the majority of people want multi-ethnic, multiracial, pluralistic democracies as their form of governance. We recognize that to defeat the encroachment of weaponized narratives we must meet people where they are by listening, empathizing and taking action that meets their fundamental needs. Organized coalitions are holding government and corporate leaders accountable by asking them to be truthful about the state we are in and to fix systemic inequities — for the benefit of all. They are demanding better, more compassionate systems that will advance human rights and create just and sustainable societies. If we can continue to harness and build upon the collective power we are witnessing across the world, we can use this critical moment of tipping point to tip humanity toward the direction of justice.

These were just some of the highlights of the conversation. Check out the full recording to watch this engaging discussion unfold. If you’d like to connect with us, email hello@metgroup.com.

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