In light of the election of President Trump there has been an increase in participation in civil society groups that resist the president’s agenda. This expansion of participation has been met with more media attention allotted to these organizations. Media coverage of the Women’s March and focus on the impending March for Our Lives, provides a light of hope for those who desire to resist President Trump’s agenda. Additionally, there is political engagement on the local level as neighborhood groups bring together political activists rising up in light of the president’ election and subsequent first year in office.
In response to this depiction, it can be easy to place gun control advocates, feminist groups, black empowerment activists and LGBTQ+ community engagement under an umbrella term of civil society. Furthermore, it is then easy to see the increased excitement of these individual causes as proof of healthy behavior in American democracy that can thus resist democratic backslide. This comes from the opinions of scholars such as Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, who identify a healthy civil society as an impediment to democratic backslide. However, this increase civic participation is not necessarily at resistance movement level yet. An increase in political engagement may be sign of a healthy democracy, but it is not necessarily equitable to a profound resistance movement to anti-democratic forces that these scholars speak of. While this surge in activism is exciting, evaluating increased political commitment as proof of prolonged democratic stability is premature.
Instead, this activism should be seen as building blocks for the formation of a greater movement wholly focused on resisting democratic erosion in America. Because if we are evaluating civil society engagement as a possible resister to American democratic backslide, a more cohesive movement than what currently exists may be necessary.
While it is important to have political organizations fighting for independent and important causes, conflating political activism with a greater movement that will save American democracy could be vastly overestimating the current capabilities of these diversified groups. If Americans are going to rely on civil society organization to not only protest the president, but actively protect American democracy, the work of grassroots political organizations is important, but simply a starting point.
For instance, Erica Chenoweth evaluates how protests can be most effective in her Washington Post piece. Chenoweth identifies the size and diversity of mass movements to be crucial in order to achieve their goals. In the Chenoweth framework of the Washington Post article, a greater cohesiveness is needed among the multitude of current civic engagement groups to create the sort of mass movement necessary to protect American democracy. While there is a plethora of movements with intended goals, this is not synonymous with some larger force with a list of priorities including the explicit protection of American democracy.
While attending a Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) meeting, I found myself inspired by the passion of citizens who believe in the fight for racial equality. However, I also felt simultaneously insecure that their passion for their cause- as important and noble as it is- was capable of singularly translating into a larger social resistance to President Trump’s democratically erosive capabilities.
It was in this thought, that I realized civil society groups serve a myriad of purposes, without necessarily acting as collective resisters to democratic erosion. While the members of Columbus SURJ were empowering, empathetic and passionate about working toward racial equity through civic engagement, I do not think I would consider them as directly impacting a resistance movement to the backsliding of American democracy. Instead, I would propose that SURJ and many other civil society actors are providing a foundational catalyst for a possible resistance movement. In order to have a civil society capable of truly resisting democratic erosion, a more deliberate resistance framework seems necessary.
This is to say that citizens who are passionate about individual issues, must also advocate for the resistance to anti-democratic forces in America in order to be a true mass movement capable of affecting the level of change Chenoweth discusses.
None of this is to say that political engagement of a greater representation of American citizens is not exciting, because it is. However, it is important not to equate the inspirational actions of civic engagement with a direct movement of resistance to democratic erosion. While the increased political activity most definitely has the capability of laying a foundation for greater resistance to democratic erosion, this political activeness cannot stop with achieving goals of individual causes. If these individual entities can unite their power into a translated collective goal of protecting American democracy, then they may be capable of the effectiveness Chenoweth speaks of civil disobedience having.
We are definitely not in a hopeless position in which the erosion of democracy is inevitable in America. Quite to the contrary, Chenoweth reminds us that, when done in an organized and collective fashion, civil disobedience and political engagement have the possibility to save lives, or in this case, possibly American democracy. But in order to get to this point, the surge of political activism following President Trump’s election must translate into an organized resistance of anti-democratic forces, not just the issues each group is most passionate about.