Rachel Kleinfeld's "Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy"

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Newsletter 97 — March 21, 2023


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion


Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

March 10, 2023

This paper, written by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, came out in September, 2022. It is far-reaching, long, and very important, and we have been meaning to write a post on it since September, but keep on getting distracted.  While it is a bit dated now, (most importantly because Kleinfeld didn't know about the pro-democracy outcome of the 2022 U.S. election), most of the key ideas are still very relevant and important, so we wanted to do a summary of it here in an effort to bring her ideas into the discussion.


Kleinfeld begins by saying that "American democracy is at a dangerous inflection point."  Many Americans, she says, assume that U.S. institutions are strong, and will "pull through" despite current challenges.  However she points out that is not at all assured:

since the end of the Cold War, most democratic failure globally has been caused by elected governments using legal methods, such as gerrymandering and technical rule changes, to derail democracy. Their destructions of their own democracies have been supported by pluralities or majorities of their citizenries, whose polarization leads them to back policies that harm democracy to ensure their side prevails. America is on precisely this path.

The community supporting U.S. democracy, she asserts, "needs a better strategy."

Her paper has four parts: The Danger, Five Strategies, Insufficient Tactics, and Three Near-Term Futures.

The Danger:

Kleinfeld starts out this section citing various indices that have documented the U.S. democratic decline. For instance, she points out that Freedom House ranks the U.S. as being on "one of the fastest downward trajectories of any country, now ranking U.S. democratic quality alongside Romania and Croatia.1"  Though we are declining quickly now, she points out that one of the reasons that it isn't noticed, as that this has been a long terms slide.  We were surprised with her assertion that "the terms “swing” and “battleground” states did not exist before the 1990s, because so many states were competitive."  Now, only a few are, and they are being gerrymandered such that they no longer will be. Though the filibuster has been a Senate rule for a very long time, and was altered in the 1970s to make it easier to use, it only started to be routinely used since 2010.  "It has made rule by the majority into rule by the supermajority, creating gridlock, incentivizing further gerrymandering, and frustrating Americans who feel that even voting for a party that wins the majority does not advance their policy goals."

We were glad to see that she acknowledges that the left has contributed to democracy's decline with what she calls "alienating politics," but she still puts most of the blame on the Republican Party, which has become far more extreme in its views over the last 10-15 years and is "far less committed to democratic institutions, practices, and norms." Laws allowing for voter intimidation (by allowing guns in polling places, for example) and allowing for state legislatures to override citizens' votes have been enacted in a number of states (she includes a long, depressing list of examples.) Election officials are being harassed, and in some cases, are being threatened with jail for simply doing their legally required jobs.  The picture she paints is chilling. The only good news is that we now know that a large number of the 2020 election-denying candidates who ran for office in 2022 did not win.  But many of the threats she details are still very much in place.

Kleinfeld concurs with our view of the danger of polarization, saying that "polarization creates vicious cycles that accelerate disintegration."  and that "polarization is allowing authoritarianism to take hold with voter support. She also explains that 

Polarization is based in some misbeliefs about the other side—which are greater among educated, media-consuming partisans on both sides and highest on the left.3 It is exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation. But it is also grounded in justified fears of the other side’s social and policy agendas. The extreme level of U.S. polarization means that when the left describes its concerns about growing authoritarianism, the right has its own examples to list in return.

Support for political violence was shockingly high in the fall of 2021, as was violence itself.  She cited a University of Chicago study that found in the fall of 2021 that nearly 10% of Americans agreed that "force is justified to restore [Trump] to the presidency." (38)  At the same time, another survey in Feb. 2021 found that "11% of Democratic respondents justified assassinating politicians of the other party.What's different in these numbers, Kleinfeld observes, is that the 10% of Republicans advocating violence are strongly supportive of the Republican Party, while the Democrats advocating violence are much less identified with the Democratic Party.  This, Kleinfeld suggests, is because the Republican Party advocates violence itself.

On the right, violence, threats, and intimidation are being directed politically and are used for three goals.

  1. To intimidate pro-democracy Republican politicians and thought leaders, causing them to resign or silence themselves, creating a single Trumpist-Republican-conservative identity.
  2. To eliminate officials who stand in the way of stealing a future election.
  3. To solidify the base by appealing to a shared identity and identifying perceived enemies to unite against.

Five Strategies to Change the Trajectory and Improve American Democracy

Kleifeld argues we cannot just fight the good fight from one election to the next.  We must have a longer-term approach that addresses both electoral and social issues. Her five suggested strategies are:

1. Enabling responsible conservatives to vote for democracy.

So far, Kleinfeld observes, "responsible conservatives" are voting along party lines because they see this as the key to getting re-elected.  Voters need to change that.  They need to start supporting pro-democracy candidates in both the primary and general elections. This will be helped with reforms of primary elections to allow for non-partisan or open primaries, ranked-choice voting, final-four or final-five voting, fusion, voting, or proportional representation.)  "All of these alterations provide a pro-democracy way for conservatives to vote for pro-democracy conservatives", she says. "without serving as spoilers or throwing a vote away." She also suggests that pro-democracy Republicans create a new, positive identity for themselves by collaborating in their efforts, instead of acting alone and being called out by anti-Democratic Republicans for being RINOs (Republican in name only).

2. Reduce social demand from the right for illiberal policies and politicians.

The key to doing this, she argues (and we agree) is to address the "status loss and dignity deficit that is driving some Americans to turn against democracy." 

The prodemocracy community must remain inclusive and liberal—but writing off all members of these groups [whites, Christians, men] as racist or unsaveable simply thrusts them closer together. Instead, the democracy movement must understand how this story brings out the worst in many individuals who also have better selves. Rather than pushing them to bond further with the authoritarian movement, it is crucial to separate allies from within these groups who will support inclusive democracy. That sounds unappealing to many who wish to write off much of America and move forward without them. But if prodemocracy efforts don’t reach people who are feeling their loss of status and seeking explanations, then authoritarian politicians, male-chauvinist Proud Boys, incel chat boards, hypermasculine militia movements, and myriad white nationalist groups are happy to recruit them instead.

She also advocates investing in a positive vision of masculinity.  On the right, she says, this tends to focus on male dominance, while the left focuses on "toxic masculinity."  That doesn't leave any room for a progressive man. Progressives need to "hold space for emotionally and socially healthy men who also like pickup trucks, hunting, physical labor, physical strength, and traditionally masculine pursuits."

Like all human beings, men need to feel that they hold roles that are valued in society, not in spite of but because of who they are. They cannot simply be admonished to refrain from negative actions—they require a positive and aspirational view of manhood that enables their full selves rather than requiring them to stifle parts of their identities. For instance, values that support democracy, such as honor, responsibility, hard work, and sacrifice, are among the virtues associated with masculinity by traditionalists.

She also suggests rethinking how economic structures can be changed to better support democracy, observing that simple government redistribution from the rich to the poor not only alienates the rich, but also the poor and the middle class.  A better approach which she advocates is returning social status and higher wages to "blue collar" jobs that don't require a college degree and working to revitalize the economies of rural areas  

3. Engage the left in defending democracy by making it deliver

Democracy has not provided fundamental human needs for many people: it hasn't provided good education, good jobs, good health care, respect.  "People cannot be rallied around democracy when they are worried that their kids are going to school in trailers, their babies are going hungry, they can’t pay for healthcare, and voting did not change anything." In response Kleinfeld says that democracy needs to be directly connected to real social and economic needs, particularly of underserved communities.  "Core organizations in the prodemocracy universe need to make a much greater effort to reach out across racial and class lines, not just ideological divides, by supporting these communities on concrete needs that matter to them." She doesn't state overtly, but we will, that reaching out across racial and class lines has to mean reaching out to poor and middle class whites, as well as to people of color. She also adds in this section that we need to address police brutality, criminal justice reform and community safety together.  The answer is not simply getting rid of police, as crime then soars.  "To mobilize against criminal violence and ignore state violence, or to protect people from the state only to leave them prey to street violence, solves no one’s actual needs for safety." As we have so often noted--violence, justice, and policing is a complex system. It needs to be addressed as such, not as a simple system of police being good and" criminals" bad, or vice versa.

4. Build a broad-based, multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action

Kleinfeld points out that "serious, positive, prodemocracy work is currently confined to a small circle of people who are disproportionately middle to upper class, White, and talk mainly to each other. We agree with her—that's not enough.  She says "mobilizing major change in polarized democracies requires broad-based constituencies of unlikely allies." We agree—that's exactly what we are talking about when we talk about massively parallel peacebuilding. She goes on to argue that we should focus on local, not national change, as people tend to trust their neighbors and their local governments much more than they trust the national government or citizens on the other side of the country. " trust is a society’s immune system, and it enables communities to unite against threats and come together to solve problems.5 " Ominously, she points out, Black and White's levels of trust in government started diverging in the Obama era, and have continued to do so ever since. This means America's "immune system" is failing, and cannot be repaired without somehow bridging this racial divide. She doesn't say, but we will, that this divide cannot be bridged by making race the focus on our "good-versus-evil" win-lose framing of our problems.  No race is the cause of our problems, nor is a different race the solution.  We must learn to work effectively together and to respect the contributions of all races if we are to repair our broken political system and wider society.

She goes on to make a point about polarization that we haven't touched on in this discussion yet: 

one of the few issues that unites Americans across parties is the widely held view that the system as a whole is rigged toward elites. This “vertical polarization” gets less attention than left-right polarization, but it is just as acute, has enabled populist politicians to gain ground, and causes democracy messaging to fall flat for audiences who feel that the so-called democracy is actually tilted against them.6

For that reason, she says that any successful pro-democracy movement must not only work across parties but also across racial, generational, class, and cultural divides, including many different kinds of organizations: businesses, religious institutions, and the military.  

She also stresses, as have we in various documents, that the "pro-democracy movement must be grounded in a positive vision of what the country could be." I also say that you can't get where you are going if you don't know where it is."  You have to have a positive goal to work for, and it has to be one that works for everyone not just you.  When I do a visioning exercise in my classes, my students invariably come up with an "ideal" vision of the future that corresponds to their own (usually progressive) goals.  "Will conservatives want to live in your 'perfect world'" I ask them?  "Well, probably not," they respond.  So I send them back to the drawing board.  We can't fix democracy if we don't have an image of a better democracy that everyone will want to live in. 

Kleinfeld says the same thing: "A prodemocracy movement must be grounded in a positive vision of what the country could be if everyone could see themselves and their children as benefiting in the future, rather than a zero-sum game to be won."

5. Strengthen accountability to reset norms on what behavior is legal and acceptable.

Kleinfeld starts out this section by saying:

A strategy to support democracy requires sticks as well as carrots. There are red lines that must be upheld for democracy to work. Those who lose elections have to accept defeat. Those who interfere in elections must be denounced and brought to account. Violence can have no place in democratic life. Corruption poisons trust—whether corrupt actions are technically legal or not. Politicians and wealthy elites cannot be above the laws that bind the rest of the people.

She follows with suggestions to reform the Electoral Count Act, use civil impact litigation and criminal lawsuits to deter violent groups, but also bring lawsuits against government bodies and professionals who violate democratic norms or laws and increase accountability for political elites and white collar criminals overall. 

Insufficient Tactics

In this section, Kleinfeld lists many tactics that are being widely pursued to fix democracy that are necessary, but insufficient.  These include, among others:increasing voter turn out, improving the electoral system, increasing economic redistribution, and fixing gerrymandering. Also on her list are helping Democrats to win and getting more minorities to vote.  We take issue with these two suggestions, as they bias her whole otherwise excellent document to be in favor of one side and not the other.  She makes it clear in several other places in the same document that democracy cannot be saved if we continue to pit right against left, and continue to frame our conflict in zero-sum terms. By suggesting that would-be democracy reformers "help Democrats win" and get one particular group of people to vote more than others, this taints the entire rest of the document.  We wish she hadn't gone there.

Three Possible Futures

At the beginning of an early draft of our summer CRQ article, we had written about five dystopian futures that we were hoping the peacebuilding and conflict resolution community would mobilize to prevent: complete political dysfunction (with the associated inability to address critical problems), continued and intensifying oppression of some groups by others, authoritarianism, widespread corruption, or even large-scale civil unrest and violence. These details got cut from the final version, but we were interested to see that Kleinfeld ended her article similarly.  She laid out three related dystopian futures:

  • stable countries run by one political party where voters cannot alter politics,
  • countries run by one political party whose control is upheld by violence, or
  • countries with political stalemates and increased criminal and political violence.

These, Kleinfeld asserts "are not far-off prognostications." Rather, she says, they are almost here, unless we (meaning many, many people from all walks of life, not just the White, middle- and upper-class elites who so far have comprised the vast bulk of the "save democracy" activity) take immediate action. She ends by saying:

The stakes are massive, and each moment deepens the polarization that is making these problems less amenable to change. As Americans, we must start now, at scale, strategically, with a broad, cross-party coalition to save our democracy.


1Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege,” Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege.

Nathaniel Rakich, “Congressional Republicans Left Office in Droves Under Trump. Just How Conservative Are Their Replacements?,” FiveThirtyEight (blog), April 27, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/congressional-republicans-left-office-in-droves-under-trump-just-how-conservative-are-their-replacements.

More in Common, “The Perception Gap,” https://perceptiongap.us.

4 Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy.

5For instance, a large study found trust to be the most important determinative factor for how countries have weathered the coronavirus pandemic. See Qing Hanh, Bang Zheng, Mioara Cristea, Maximilian Agostini, Jocelyn J. Bélanger, Ben Gützkow, Jannis Kreienkamp, PsyCorona Collaboration, and N. Pontus Leander, “Trust in Government Regarding COVID-19 and Its Associations with Preventive Health Behaviour and Prosocial Behaviour during the Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study,” Psychological Medicine, March 26, 2021, 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291721001306.

6Rachel Kleinfeld, Richard Youngs, and Jonah Belser, “Renewing U.S. Political Representation: Lessons from Europe and U.S. History,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2018, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nmopenprimaries/pages/38/attachments/original/1525293758/Carnegie_RK_Renewing_US_Politial_representation.pdf?1525293758.

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