Movements for Democracy
Key Lessons on defending democracy from Momentum’s International Resistance Forum
Momentum recently brought movement leaders from around the world together with organizers and funders based in the U.S.
The purpose of the gathering was to underscore the pivotal role of popular movements in contexts where democracy is threatened and to share best practices for making movements for democracy successful.
The U.S. is at a crossroads. The longer we wait to build a popular movement for democracy, the more of an uphill battle it may be for us to win back civil rights and liberties in the future.
— Isaac Luria, Nathan Cummings Foundation
Key takeaways covered below include:
- Why popular movements, here and now?
- How do we build powerful movements?
- Use a Hybrid Model to sustain mass participation
- Train new members at scale
- Develop a strategic narrative
- Where do funders come in?
Why popular movements, here and now?
Isaac Luria of the Nathan Cummings Foundation proposed that our collective failure to articulate a progressive multiracial populism has created ample space for the opposition to advance its own agenda. All of the international organizers concurred that the U.S. is at a crossroads, and that the longer we wait to build a popular movement for democracy, the more of an uphill battle it may be for us to win back civil rights and liberties in the future.
Ivan Marovic warned that “politics is too serious a business to be left to politicians -- but the American people are leaving the politics to the politicians.” As Magodonga Mahlangu reflected on her own experience in Zimbabwe: “It is important to defend your rights while you have them, because once you lose them, the road is rough.”
Nonviolent resistance, Jamila Raqib emphasized, is a technique of collective action that is not about lobbying or changing the minds of decision-makers but instead about people seizing their own power in accordance with a wise strategy. From a global and historical perspective, she noted, repression of democratic institutions and norms is not new, and US organizers have much to learn from grassroots strategies around the world also facing devastating conditions.
Jamila pointed to the recent revolution in Armenia, where soldiers defected from the army and joined the nonviolent movement, and to the mobilizations of young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan demanding their right to safety. Jamila suggested that we have much to learn from those contexts because, in the words of Timothy Snyder, “Our democracy is not self-correcting: the assumption that our democracy and our institutions are going to be okay is the very thing that will make them not okay.”
Politics is too serious a business to be left to politicians. ...Successful movements reinvent politics by changing people’s perception of power.
— Ivan Marovic, Otpor
Johnson Yeung underscored that popular movements will happen wherever government is not responsive to its citizens. The real question is whether these movements will be successful or not, and whether, in turn, those movements will leave participants discouraged or empowered. Discouragement can demobilize civil society for decades, a pitfall which movements must take steps to avoid.
When popular movements do succeed, however, they can shape the entire political terrain and strengthen democracy across a range of institutions. Successful movements “reinvent politics by changing people’s perception of power,” as Ivan Marovic said.
Johnson underscored that without planning, no movement can succeed. But even with planning, movement leadership must be responsive to new participants, and equipped with tools to uplift and accommodate their fresh ideas. This requires opportunities for new participants to step into leadership, clear paths for communication, and other infrastructure to distribute influence across a movement. Without this dynamic relationship between new and old leadership, the movement cannot grow nor build trust within its ranks.
Nonviolent resistance is a technique of collective action that is not about lobbying or changing the minds of decision-makers but instead about people seizing their own power.
— Jamila Raqib, Albert Einstein Institute
How do we build powerful movements?
(1) Use a Hybrid Model to Sustain Mass Participation
In the 1990s, students who wanted to respond to election fraud in Serbia could either mobilize in the streets or join the youth wing of the political parties. Ivan Marovic recounted how the youth wing was frustrated by low participation in their campaigns and saw that, by contrast, street protests attracted huge numbers. The protesters, however, were frustrated that their mobilizations couldn’t be sustained like political organizations.
The student-led movement Otpor was born from the realization that a successful effort to overthrow the Serbian dictator would have to be a hybrid, enabling mass participation like a protest but sustaining it like an organization.
Otpor’s hybrid model reshaped the purpose of direct action. Action was not simply a means of expressing discontent in public, or drawing out the dictator’s violent repression before the media -- it was first and foremost a means of recruitment, and humor was an essential tool for getting people engaged.
“Previously we’d mobilize to get people to an action, seeing the action as the climax. But in Otpor we used actions for recruitment. Instead of mobilizing people to occupy a public square, we went to where there were ordinary people -- places like markets and movie theaters -- and did small, funny actions to get them involved. Action was the first step of a cycle: act, recruit, train.”
(2) Train New Members at Scale
Having the capacity to absorb new members into trainings means that the movement doesn’t end when activists are arrested or evicted from public spaces.
Magodonga Mahlangu shared lessons from building Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a pro-democracy organization with 110,000 members and 67,000 active leaders. WOZA spends 95% of time and resources on training and only 5% on direct action to ensure that all members are skilled to deal with all aspects of movement-building, including how to face repression.
“Every time we are in the streets and the police are in riot gear, we will all sit down and start praying. One time the police started beating us, and when the public saw it, they said, ‘You can't beat women who are sitting and praying.’ So the police stopped doing that. We took the momentum that we had, and kept going to the streets in greater numbers.”
(3) Develop a Strategic Narrative
Arab Spring strategist Iyad el Baghdadi urged U.S. movements to develop narratives that re-shape the terms of public debate. He described the dynamics of narrative in the Middle East, where the competing stories of terrorists, dictators, and Western interventionists form “a stable triangle”: “This is a symbiotic system of oppression, where there are three forces that look like they are opposing each other but are actually helping each other out.” Effective movements advance popular narratives that are being excluded by this triangle.
“The narrative of the Arab Spring, the most important element, was: We are not powerless. We don’t need violence because violence makes things worse for us by empowering the opposition. Dictators have failed us and the wind in our sails is history itself. There is a new generation that has come and we need to live in dignity.”
Iyad agitated organizers: What is the triangle of narratives being sold to the American public? He urged us to track the constraints on public debate and cut through them by introducing narratives that truly serve and speak to the American people.
Where do funders come in?
Just like any other kind of struggle—whether in politics, business, the military or otherwise—nonviolent movements to achieve rights, freedom, and justice increase their odds of success through training and investing in the skills and knowledge of their participants.
— Hardy Merriman, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict
Hardy Merriman shared his insights from working with movements internationally for over a decade.
“I think one of the most effective ways to support movements is through supporting educational infrastructure. This means supporting work that develops and shares knowledge about how to organize movements and struggle effectively through nonviolent action.
"Supporting educational infrastructure is versatile—it can directly support a particular movement with a particular goal, or it can be indirect, supporting groups who specialize in sharing this knowledge with a wide range of people, and thus create an enabling environment for diverse movements to emerge and grow.
"Just like any other kind of struggle—whether in politics, business, the military or otherwise—nonviolent movements to achieve rights, freedom, and justice increase their odds of success through training and investing in the skills and knowledge of their participants.
"Accordingly, our grantmaking and programs are focused on research (to help identify knowledge that can be helpful to practitioners), field education (training), and the development of educational resources and infrastructure.”