Divided Community Project: Speaking Out to Strengthen the Guardrails of Democracy




Newsletter 120 — June 1, 2023


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In October and December of 2022, the Ohio State University's Divided Community Project convened two meetings with dozens of leaders, scholars, and practitioners, focusing on threats to democracy in America and what to do about them. This is a brief summary of that report. The full report is available here. Thank you to DCP for allowing us to post this summary on our blog and newsletter.


Summary by Heidi Burgess

May 13, 2023

The DCP report begins by observing that leaders from both the left and the right, together with scholars from many disciplines are all "sounding the alarm" about threats to democracy in the U.S.  Polls concur1, as do several international democracy indices which show the U.S. as a threatened or backsliding democracy.2

Strengthening democracy, the report observes, will require a "multi-pronged approach." This focus of this guide, however, is one particular "prong"--"speaking out," by which they mean making public statements (either verbally or in writing) which draw widespread attention to the issue and approaches to addressing it. 

People who speak out effectively can encourage hope and counteract attempts to sow ungrounded fears, speak against and resist normalizing anger politics and hate speech, reinforce the need for checks and balances in government, enhance trust in independent public bodies and professional and civic groups, encourage nonviolence, support the norms that undergird democracy, and more.

These are the steps that they highlight which are needed to block the forces pushing the U.S. towards authoritarianism. The report presents a checklist of * "markers of a slide toward authoritarian rules" together with potential responses:

Markers of Danger Potential Responses
Arousing unnecessary fears Encourage hope, counteract fearmongering
Lying to undermine faith in public institutions Defend institutions on a bipartisan basis. Show connection b/w trust in institutions & democracy
Undercutting checks and balances Connect checks and balances with individual rights; urge voting against anti-democratic candidates
Encouraging/engaging in anger politics & hate speech Speak out against anger and hate speech, explain benefits of all people feeling safe and respected
Interacting with vigilante groups Call attention to what is happening, counsel against meeting violence with more violence
Undermining trust of ethical professionals & civic groups Defend the importance of these groups to democracy, encourage participation in them, urge these groups to speak out to defend democracy.
Violating democratic norms Praise those who follow norms despite challenges; explain how democracy depends on support for these norms.


It goes on to flesh out each of these with examples of each threat, along with actual examples of people and organizations who have taken one or more of the steps listed on the right to counter these threats.

Speaking out about these issues is valuable, the report asserts, because most Americans still "support democracy and its move 'toward a more perfect union'"3

In addition, they point out, most Americans
  • Believe that elections are fair and say that counting every vote  is more important than having their preferred candidate win.4
  • Support building a more fair, multi-racial and multi-ethnic democracy – perhaps the “more perfect union” referenced in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.5
The report also asserts that

many Americans remain persuadable. For example, though most voters believe that political parties reflect different core values, they are more likely to conclude that members of rival parties share common values after having facilitated conversations with a member of a different political party or even after watching members of rival parties having respectful conversations.

Political developments over the last decade, however, continue to convey the perception that our differences are profound and that we are stuck in a zero-sum, win-lose game, where a win for one side is unavoidably a loss for the other. And the distrust that each side has for the other convinces many people that a loss for their side is a personal existential threat. They assume that if the other side wins the next election, their personal identity, security, or well being will be severely damaged. This assumption makes people ultra-competitive, and erodes democratic norms, as both sides are doing whatever it takes to win.

Such developments, the report points out, make people more hesitant to speak out and make it more difficult that counter-speech will be able to reach its intended audiences. 

Ways to counter such pressures and speak out effectively, the report suggests are:

  • Speaking jointly with unlikely allies - members of supposedly opposing sides speaking with one voice strengthens their message.
  • Speaking out as part of a group in order to stay safe and reduce the likelihood of counterattack.
  • Staying positive, offering hope. "Positivity plays an important role in reducing anxiety and anger."
  • Avoiding responding in kind to would-be authoritarians' anti democratic action. That just accelerates the slide toward authoritarianism.
  • Providing credible fact checking, but knoing that people will still resist changing their minds. It may be most persuasive not to disparage an entire political party or political belief system. Rather, the report suggests that people speaking out try to keep their arguments within the intended audience's' moral framework and focus on what negotiators refer to as underlying interests, rather than positions.

I was astounded to read their assertion that "Americans typically spend eleven hours per day interacting with media." The largest chunk of time, four hours, they said, – is spent watching television, two hours is spent on apps on their phones, and almost two hours listening to radio.  I'm noting no time reading newspapers, but I guess most of us do that (if we do it at all) on our phones.  All this media consumption is constantly bombarding us with information, and a distressing amount of that information is carefully designed to make us angry, because anger gets and keeps readers/watchers/listeners.  In addition a significant amount of the posting on social media is coming from outside the U.S., driven by entities that profit from dividing people in the U.S. further apart.

So battling this barrage of negativity is a huge challenge.  The report suggests those who seek to do so:

  • Keep the message simple, clear, and short.
  • Consider humor (unifying rather than targeted at others), such that people want to forward the message
  • to friends.
  • Seek to surprise – perhaps an unusual speaker or new information – so that the message is noticed and
  • remembered.
  • Repeat the message over and over.

Other suggestions they have:

  • Prepare messages, messengers, and media tailored to each audience
  • Humanize the value of democracy — show how it (or its absence) affects real people
  • Reinforce democratic norms through example
  • Speak directly to political leaders about the risks to democracy — some may be so focused on winning that they overlook or don't care about the threats to democracy their strategies might entail.  If they hear that their constituencies do care about those risks, they might start to pay attention and change their behaviors.
  • Support changes in laws that strengthen democracy; oppose changes to laws that weaken it.
  • Warn about the motives of foreign governments, political fundraisers, and media commentators who profit from conspiracy theories, lies, and anger.

The report concludes with a quote from Abraham Lincoln "“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." They go on to say that...

This is a moment when speaking out could matter. When we speak out, we need not do so perfectly to arouse public sentiment to act in support of democracy—but we need to speak out! We offer this guide to encourage and embolden each of us to speak to preserve and strengthen this democracy.

Read the Full Report


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1Political Instability Not U.S. Adversaries, Seen As Bigger Threat, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Nearly 6 In 10 Think
Nation's Democracy Is In Danger Of Collapse, Quinnipiac University Polls (Jan. 12, 2022), https://poll.qu.edu/Poll-Release?
releaseid=3831; Susan Milligan, The Growing Fear for American Democracy, USNews (Oct. 12, 2022) (citing several surveys),
2 Rachel Kleinfeld, Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 3 (Sept. 15, 2022); Steven
Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die 3 (2018).

3 Preamble, U.S. Constitution.
4 Id. (source: Marist Group).
5 Divided Community Project and Mershon Center for International Security Studies, A Practical Guide to Planning Collaborative Initiatives to Advance Racial Equity (2nd ed. 2022), https://go.osu.edu/dcptrc; Lydia Saad, Americans’ Confidence in Racial Fairness Waning, GALLUP (July 30, 2021). https://news.gallup.com/poll/352832/americans-confidence-racial-fairness-waning.aspx (62% favor affirmative action, for example); Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Support for Black Lives Matter Declined after George Floyd Protests, but Has Remained Unchanged Since, Pew Research (Sept. 27, 2021), https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/ 2021/09/27/support-for-black-lives-matter-declined-after-george-floydprotests-but-has-remained-unchanged-since/ (55% of Americans support Black Lives Matter movement); Laura Silver, More people globally see racial, ethnic discrimination as a serious problem in the U.S. than in their own society, Pew Research (Nov. 2, 2021),https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2021/11/02/more-people-globally-see-racial-ethnic-discrimination-as-a-serious-problem-inthe-u-s-than-in-their-own-society/ (74% of Americans think racial/ethnic discrimination is a problem);Laura Silver, More people globally see racial, ethnic discrimination as a serious problem in the U.S. than in their own society, Pew Research (Nov. 2, 2021), https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/ 2021/11/02/more-people-globally-see-racial-ethnicdiscrimination-as-a-serious-problem-in-the-u-s-than-in-their-own-society/ (74% of Americans think racial/ethnic discrimination is a problem); Allliance for Peacebuiding, Assessing the State of U.S. Democracy, Rule of Law, and Social Cohesion (2022).

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