Op-Ed: What Can I do?
Seven Rules for Defending Our Democracy
During more than two decades working with those fighting for democracy against many of the world’s most notorious autocrats, I came to recognize there are seven rules for confronting non-democratic actors and forces. Then the need to provide such lessons at home seemed unimaginable. Today learning, applying, and living them is essential to defend America’s democracy.
All democracies — including our own — are forged via faith in each other. Illiberalism is imposed through fear of one another. In healthy liberal societies, a School House Rock of checks and balances drives a system towards consensus even through partisan divides. In autocratic states, a nation’s path is imposed vertically downward through demonstrating the consequences of dissent.
Democracy is a win-win proposition. Autocracy is zero-sum. America’s fate will be determined no differently than all of history’s nations, through faith via the win-win of ballot boxes or through the zero-sum of fear on our streets. To defend our democracy, we must recognize the game we are forced to play and utilize proven tactics for engaging both collectively and individually.
Rule 1 Play the Game You Are In
You are accustomed to the win-win of Democracy and its norms, even the partisan rancor leading to compromise. Yet, when illiberal forces are undertaking zero-sum aims, the two games cannot simultaneously exist. Win-win is impossible when one side’s objective is prevailing by taking and maintaining power at any cost. We who fight for democracy in America must realize there is no common ground, there is no compromise. In the game we are forced to play, either our democracy prevails, or we descend into autocracy.
Rule 2 Always Speak Truth to Power
Democracies die in silence. They unravel as tipping points are reached where those who know better fail to speak — moments when fear prevails over faith. In confronting illiberalism, we must not only seek the truth, but we must speak these truths. Within doing so lies the power of faith in each other through which democracy is forged and ultimately prevails.
Rule 3 Don’t Provide Them Battering Rams.
The game we play isn’t about partisan politics, policy, or ideology. Illiberal forces understand this reality. Thus, we must always be mindful what we say within the norms of the win-win of democracy can be used for zero-sum advantage. We must recognize our rhetoric’s potential for dividing us from our democratic allies or further radicalizing extremists with non-democratic designs. We must be vigilant in never providing the weapons they can use to batter or divide us from those with whom share common cause.
Rule 4 Understand Authoritarians Must Live in the Present
Both the past and future are kryptonite for non-democratic illiberal actors. They must live in the present. The past risks exposing the truths of big lies and tactics used in creating. In the future their grip on power is uncertain even as they attempt to project its certainty. Thus, it is imperative democracy’s allies force them to answer for the past and continuously raise questions regarding their viability going forward.
Rule 5 Practice Zero-Sum Judo
Judo is the autocrat’s favorite political Martial Art. They use the strengths of democracy against itself by leveraging its norms. For example, the essential democratic element of compromise is merely a tactic for strategic retreat when non-democratic actors are called out for their illiberalism. When opportunities arise, allies of democracy must deploy Zero-Sum Judo by utilizing illiberal tactics of marginalization, dependency, and divide and conquer against such autocratic forces.
Rule 6 Live the Stalin Rule
Joseph Stalin was the second most reprehensible person on earth. Nevertheless, we fought together with him to defeat a worse person. Roosevelt and Churchill recognized we could only confront the difference we had with the Soviets if we defeated the Nazis. We must live this wisdom in the battle we face. Even if you share nothing in common beyond a love of democracy and how much you loath the politics of your democratic allies in normal times, you fight side-by-side today so you can disagree tomorrow.
Rule 7 Exposed, Confronted, and Destabilized
Each of us on Team Democracy must wake up every day thinking, what can I do to be on the side of restoring faith in each other. How will I use whatever skills, abilities, or resources at my disposal (big or small) to expose the truths, confront the fear, and destabilize the illiberal side?
The battle America faces is between faith or fear. Today the pendulum is swaying towards the latter. The forces of illiberalism are inside our gates. Time is short for turning the tide. Decisive battles leading to the culmination on January 20, 2025, are now at hand.
Will you choose to utilize faith in each other for confronting the non-democratic forces we face? Or do you surrender to the fear zero-sum illiberalism forces seek to impose?
The choice is one each of us as Americans must make.
– Trygve Olson is the founder of Viking Strategies LLC and a Senior Advisor to the Lincoln Project. He worked at Senior levels of Republican politics and spent over two decades training thousands of activists from over forty countries struggling to build democracies for the International Republican Institute (IRI) which was led by the late Senator John McCain. You can follow him on Twitter @trygveolson