“What they’re most scared of is mass noncooperation. And when mass noncooperation is organized and strategic and targeted well, it has shown again and again that it can protect democracy and challenge authoritarianism.” ~Hardy Merriman
This is an excerpt from our upcoming episode of Nonviolence Radio. Please join us on October 23rd for the entire interview.
Hardy: So, my name is Hardy Merriman and I recently co-authored with Ankur Asthana, Marium Navid, and Kifah Shah, an online guide called, “Hold the Line, A Guide to Defending Democracy.”
My work focuses on nonviolent civil resistance movements around the world, fighting for human rights and democracy. These are movements that use tactics like strikes and boycotts and civil disobedience, and many other forms of noncooperation, often against authoritarian governments. And what’s interesting, and I wish this was more widely known, is that these movements actually win. These nonviolent movements win a surprising amount of the time.
Throughout the Trump administration, the parallels between what he’s been doing in the United States and what I’ve seen in other countries is pretty remarkable and disturbing. And so, on June 1st, 2020 after President Trump ordered members of the military to repress nonviolent demonstrators in Washington D.C., I decided I had to do something more. And that led the four of us to get together and write Hold the Line.
My work on Hold the Line I should note, was done independently and on a voluntary basis, so it’s outside of my employer. And so, I’m also speaking to you today just independently and on a personal basis, not trying to represent the views of my organization.
This document gives a kind of strategy for what people have been calling, “A potential November surprise” or, “A political coup,” that could take place with the Trump administration. Can you speak to what this strategy entails?
Hardy: The first thing we want to make sure people know is that all the normal rules apply in this election in one sense. It’s important to vote. It’s important to get out the vote. So, those haven’t changed at all.
Any efforts to tell you your vote doesn’t matter or to discourage you from voting, do not listen to them. It’s incredibly important to vote and do all the things we normally do during elections. And then in addition, COVID has created a real challenge with regards to poll workers. And fewer poll workers means fewer polling places will be open. And few polling places means likely to press turnout, particularly in a densely populate areas. And history, that has affected communities of color even more.
We also tell people right up front in the guide if you feel safe and comfortable being a poll worker, please volunteer to do that because these are all aspects of just making us have a successful effective election. Then the rest of the guide really focuses on what could happen afterwards that could be really challenging if attempts are made to subvert the election.
One of our contributions that we offer is a four-step process to forming an election protection group in your community. It’s our view that the infrastructure for mass mobilization, sort of centralized infrastructure doesn’t exist. There are lots of community groups and state and sometimes regional groups that focus on mobilization.
But mobilization around a contested election and attempted subversion of democracy is slightly different. We try to sort of directly speak to that question about, you know, by saying, “Look, the infrastructure doesn’t exist in your community to tap into on this, you can actually create your own. You can create your own election protection group.” And people may actually start to tap into you. You may become the infrastructure.
We go into a lot of detail on that because we think everyone has a role to play, even people who don’t consider themselves activists. We provide detailed meeting agendas for people to start forming their groups. We layout principles around which groups can organize. We really try to make it possible for anyone to say, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” Because that’s what very well may be needed.
Then the last part is just about bringing in a sort of civil resistance perspective in terms of models of change and talking about the critical importance of remaining nonviolent. Certainly, being disruptive through strikes, boycotts, protests, and many other acts of noncooperation to resist subversion attempts, but remaining nonviolent for all the reasons we know. Particularly, based on international cases where authoritarians often prefer violent opposition. They will attempt to provoke violent opposition because they know that gives them lots of advantages.
What they’re most scared of is mass noncooperation. And when mass noncooperation is organized and strategic and targeted well, it has shown again and again that it can protect democracy and challenge authoritarianism.
Would you like to give an example from somewhere else around the world that you drew inspiration from for this guide?
Hardy: Sure. Some of the thinking for this guide came from reading about how nonviolent civil resistance had stopped coups – like military coups, which there’s been a few notable publications on that. And then some of the thinking came from just looking at movements against authoritarianism in general. Perhaps one of the best known is the Serbian movement, Otpor, against Slobodan Milosevic, which actually I think is a really poignant comparison right now because, you know, NATO bombed Serbia in 1998, if I recall correctly.
And during that bombing period, there was a strong opposition movement to Milosevic that just sort of went underground. Suddenly, people couldn’t be activists anymore and their country was being bombed. It was really unclear what was going to happen and it was really unclear what this meant for dissent. I kind of liken that period to COVID, right? Where six months ago people were like, “What do we do? And like how do we protest? What does this mean? We’re angry at our government but also depending on it for guidance and to protect us from this disease.”
And so, it was this really disorienting time. You never would have thought from that period of extreme disorientation that a movement would have risen up, and within a year and a half ended a decade long dictatorship, but that’s exactly what happened. And so, you know, how did they do it? Well, it started with Serbian youth who did decentralized organizing, basically saying, “We’re going to start groups based on a shared set of principles. We’re going to invest heavily in training people. We’re going to spread so that instead of having a top-down command and control structure. Everyone has been trained and everyone has some orientation to our principles.” And that’s going to allow us to spread really quickly, but also be strategic at the same time.
And that’s a good chunk of what moved things there. And once the movement picked up steam, of course, the politicians join in and, you know, they play their role and things start moving as a whole, and Milosevic fell. And, you know, I just want to be clear, in the United States, we are not a comparable authoritarian government compared to Serbia in the 1990s. Of course, our democracy has been incomplete and imperfect for a long time and there are certainly people who experience this sort of functional tyranny in this society of functional authoritarianism.
The benefits of democracy are not distributed equally at all. At the same time, we still have enough democracy that it’s certainly worth defending. We’re not an authoritarian government, but we do have an authoritarian-style president. And one thing we know about authoritarian-style personalities is that they don’t constrain themselves. They tend to actually become emboldened when they get what they want and they keep pushing.
The question of what do we think Trump will do, I don’t know the answer. You know, do I think he’s going to – based on precedent, if past is prologue, then likely he’s going to push things, right? And even if you think he doesn’t, even if you’re like, “Well, there’s only a 20% chance he’ll really do something outlandish and try to do a power grab and steal the election,” I’m not comfortable with a 20% chance. We need an insurance plan. We need an insurance policy. That insurance policy around the world is organized people mobilizing when institutions fail.
When institutions fail to constrain an out-of-control leader, it’s ordinary people who do that job if you’re nonviolent organizing. That’s what the research tells us. That’s what the case accounts tell us. That’s what our own history in this United States tells us. So, I’m absolutely confident that we can do it again. But it’s also important to prepare.
You talked about the importance of ordinary citizens acting in Serbia, which then encouraged the politicians to get involved. Can you talk a little bit more about that line between citizens versus politicians? Isn’t that the politician’s job in the first place to defend the democracy in the role that they’re in? And why wouldn’t they stop him if he tried to grab power?
Hardy: Yeah. I mean it’s a great question. And, you know, institutions, they’re not inherently strong. They can degrade. They can be corrupted. They can erode. They can weaken. And so, the U.S. system is designed for Institutions to be strong enough to constrain an out of control executive. But there’s no guarantee, right? In fact, what we’ve seen is institutions in this country weaken.
There’s supposed to be tension between the legislative and executive branches of government, but we really haven’t seen that from the Republican senate. Just the opposite, which is very concerning. There’s supposed to be a check, and they’re not, right? There’s some other roles that are also not applying that normally you would expect would.
The conventional view of U.S. politics is that if a politician does things that lower their approval rating, that that should be self-correcting, right? So, if a politician is holding at 40% around re-election, you would think they would want to do something to bring that number up because that’s generally been the rules of the game. That’s also not operative right now, particularly.
When you have a politician who’s basically saying, you know, “I’m going to be under 50%. I’m not going to commit to accepting an election result,” in a party that hasn’t really held it accountable. And regular attacks on the press and numerous other attacks on institutions through the years, it’s incredibly concerning.
We’ve seen no shortage of media articles documenting all the things that could go wrong, from disputes about the legitimacy of the election leading to alternate slates of electors being sent to congress, to the risk of violence, to what happens if the Department of Justice gets involved and tries to get a court injunction to stop ballot counting in a certain state? I mean there’s lots of scenarios we can spin out. We really don’t know what’s going to happen.
But it’s concerning enough that, again, the people need to think about backstopping here. It’s really on all of us. What I’m telling people is that, you know, when we think about what might Trump do or what might his allies do, that’s speculation. The real question in the next 20 days is what can we do, right?
He’s going to do what he’s going to do. The question is how are we going to respond? Are we going to be ready?
Could he attempt to subvert the election? The answer probably depends more on us in our capacity to stop that from happening if that’s what he wants to do. And that’s something that we can – in a weird way, that’s actually good news because we can focus on the things we can control. We don’t have to be distracted by every outrageous thing on the Internet, every distracting news story, every outrageous news story. We can follow them, but we can say our time is precious.
There are things that people in other societies have done to defend democracy. We too can do those. One of the things we say in Hold the Line is, “Start by mapping the power holders in your community.” From your governor all the way down to your county clerk and try to figure out, like are they really committed to a free and fair election, to making voting accessible, counting every vote, and investigating irregularities and attempts at suppression.
And if they’re not, let them know now, right? You don’t have to wait until November. You can start in October. Likewise, if your police have not really protected people’s First Amendment rights to protest, start demanding now that they do. You don’t have to wait until November. Actually, on this point, Hold the Line and several other collaborators and individuals developed a plan called, “The Commitment to Uphold Democracy Campaign.” And it’s a plan that anyone can download in their community and it’s designed to guide them to identify and then put pressure on power-holders such as elected officials and police, and even members of the national guard or military to try to get them to reaffirm their commitment to democracy now.
How can people find Hold the Line and get involved?
Hardy: They can go to HoldtheLineGuide.com. And that will have all the information that they need. They’re welcome to also follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Our handle is @TheRedLineGuide for both of those. They’re also welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t know why our email address is .org, but actually when you go to our website, go dot com. This is one of things about an all-volunteer effort. There’s a lot of things we should do. We can think of 100 ways to make our website better, do this or that. But like these are four people who volunteered and did this and we’re really proud of what we did and the response has been amazing.
We’re really actually depending on people to go and share it. We don’t have some big social media plan or a lot of people working for us to do this. The way Hold the Line has spread has been based on attraction. And a lot of people have said really great things. We’ve got 22 days [Less now]. Let’s keep pushing it. So, HoldtheLineGuide.com. And if you like it, please feel free to share. Thanks.