For some, the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and the prosecution of January 6th insurrectionists might suggest that US democracy has remained strong through years of social and political instability. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden claimed that US democracy is “unbowed and unbroken.” However, it would be remiss to believe that the threat of authoritarianism has abated.
While US democracy has always been imperfect, neglecting to defend democratic institutions cedes critical territory to the Far Right, harming efforts to advance justice and belonging (the power to cocreate the society to which you belong). Simply put, this moment calls for renewed concern about the threat of fragmentation and the ways division is being exploited by anti-democratic actors.
How can social justice movements address the threats posed by democratic degradation and populist authoritarianism while advancing their longer-term goals? How can they reorient their work towards an ethos of defragmentation, bridging, and democratic renewal? It is to these questions that we turn.
A Movement Undone by Disinformation and Division
Last September, the New York Times published an in-depth investigation into how the coalition that organized the US Women’s March in January 2017, the largest single-day protest in US history, was undermined as external actors—in particular, Russian government-backed trolls—exploited existing fissures and mistrust between groups working together against racism, sexism, and homophobia. According to the report, “Russian accounts purporting to belong to Black women had been drilling down on racial rifts within American feminism,” posing as “Black women critical of white feminism, conservative women who felt excluded, and men who mocked participants as hairy-legged whiners.” Messages posted included:
“White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend.”
“Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance.”
“Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit.”
“Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support.”
“A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK.”
Coupled with the impact of social media algorithms developed to foment conflict, this interference helped fracture the once-powerful Women’s March movement, imprinting, as the New York Times put it, “lasting scars on the American left.”
We are not suggesting that the racial, class, and other tensions present in the Women’s March movement were entirely manufactured by outsiders. Rather, to fully understand the enormous fragmentation happening today requires understanding both existing tensions, how they are being exploited, and how our movements may be playing into this exploitation by breaking further.
Indeed, although fragmentation is at some level organic—with understandable and inevitable tensions between groups with varying concerns, access to resources, positionalities, and points of view—what is happening now between and within groups should not be confused with typical infighting. The weaponizing of division, fueled by traditional media and social media corporations that profit from outrage, is an alarming threat—one to which those working to advance social justice and belonging are inadequately prepared to respond.
Too often, as in the case of the US Women’s March, groups respond to the exploitation by external actors of existing internal divisions by turning inward towards perceived safety, or “bonding,” and “breaking” with those outside their in-group, rather than bridging outwards to expand the “we,” or the coalition united against a shared threat. This breaking into smaller and often more purist “we’s” is helping those who seek to dismantle democratic structures and enact more unequal ones. As Maria J. Stephens and Julia Roig of the Horizons Project write, “Authoritarianism, like any oppressive system, thrives on divisions and disorientation.”
Fragmentation’s Threat to Democracy and Belonging
While concerns around democracy and political fragmentation, on one hand, and those related to social, racial, and economic justice, on the other, are often framed as separate challenges, they are in fact interconnected. The issues around which the global Far Right is stoking division (such as gender identity, demographic change, and migration) are part of a larger strategy to advance anti-democratic ideologies globally. As the scholar Judith Butler has written, movements like the anti-gender backlash “are not just reactionary but fascist trends, the kind that support increasingly authoritarian governments.”
The strategy of maximizing fear and mistrust of perceived others serves to cultivate sympathy for anti-democratic alternatives at work around the world. Authoritarian populist parties in numerous countries have developed from minor, even “fringe,” opposition actors into powerful political players, often by deftly exploiting tensions in the democratic majority and stoking fear-based “us versus them” thinking that suggests minority and marginalized groups are to blame for social and economic woes. Perhaps most concerning, as increasingly intertwined relationships on the authoritarian Right strengthen globally, strategists in Europe, the US, and elsewhere are developing and resourcing this approach.
Today, the US holds the dubious honor of being the only advanced Western democracy to have experienced extreme levels of “polarization” for such an extended period, putting it “in uncharted and very dangerous territory,” according to Jennifer McCoy and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. McCoy and Press define polarization as the degree to which society is split into antagonistic political camps and use survey data to support their US findings. The fragmentation that their research documents not only increases mistrust between groups—hindering their ability to work together in diverse coalitions—but also endangers democratic norms and structures.
While it would be naive to say that actors on the Left do not engage in tactics that exploit division, all indications suggest that this is a much more fundamental and well-funded anchoring strategy of the Far Right. The result is a clear asymmetric polarization driven by increasing extremism on the Right.
Inoculating Movements against Toxic Fragmentation
The solution to othering is bridging, not more othering. This is also the case with fragmentation. While many social justice activists may view “breaking” as a way of protecting themselves from external forces who seek to blame, injure, or divide, this response harms movements’ ability to build power. As we know, there is power in diversity, numbers, and transformation—all of which require cross-group engagement, not merely in-group bonding.
Breaking tactics can be strategic and are often successful in the short term. For example, motivation for collective action often requires strong bonds of in-group trust paired with frustration and outrage directed toward a “common enemy.” However, bridging is required to achieve real and lasting social transformation, particularly in moments like today, where populations are highly polarized and mistrustful. An orientation towards bridging, conflict mediation, and repair also helps protect movements against the weaponization of internal tensions by bad-faith actors, like the Russian troll farms referenced above.
The success of Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive (albeit deeply flawed and exclusionary) New Deal programs in the 1930s, for example, hinged not only on support from groups like labor unions, who advocated progressive economic policies, but also a portion of the business community. Such support was made possible by ongoing and sometimes difficult communication between groups that disagreed on many things.
In a recent keynote address to the Stuart Hall Foundation, the writer, Arundhati Roy, powerfully explored authoritarianism and othering in India and around the world, arguing that “sealing in communities, reducing and flattening their identities into silos” only makes it harder to oppose oppression. Ironically, that is the goal of India’s caste system—“divide a people into a hierarchy of unbreachable silos, and no one community will be able to feel the pain of another because they are in constant conflict,” she said. This bonding inward, or as Roy calls it, “siloization,” is not unique to India, however, and indeed has benefited Far-Right populists in many countries who seek to dismantle democratic institutions.
The Challenges of Bridging
Yet, while democratic degradation, heightened fragmentation, and the pernicious othering of out-groups are all alarmingly intertwined, we have found a disconnect between actors working to advance social justice and belonging and those working to strengthen democracy by countering fragmentation.
In the case of some social justice activists, we have found a diminished commitment to democratic ideals. Indeed, a response we’ve heard when talking with social justice advocates about the urgent need to counter toxic fragmentation in order to strengthen democracy is that democracy is simply not an orienting priority in their work. This is because US democracy, such as it is, comes with disillusioning asterisks of exclusion, which is to say that it reinforces structural racism and economic inequality. While this critique is not inaccurate, it ignores the dangerous reality that the Far Right is advancing a clear anti-democratic vision.
In a 2022 interview with Vox Media, Far Right thinker Curtis Yarvin, who is influential with figures like Senator JD Vance (R-Ohio) and billionaire financier Peter Thiel, explained his strategy for dismantling US democracy. He discussed sowing doubt and division in democratic institutions among those on the Left: “He wants to convince elite liberals and leftists to lose faith in the system, believing that when enough of them no longer want to defend it, it will be easier to topple,” the author writes.
We believe that democracy, when rightly conceived and practiced, moves us closer to our aspirational liberatory goals. Of course, many, if not most, justice advocates likewise appreciate the centrality of a functioning democracy to efforts to advance belonging. Nonetheless, we have found real discomfort when engaging with de-fragmentation strategies to counter authoritarianism, as a concern for de-fragmentation and cross-group coalition building may force advocates to consider how their approaches may inadvertently be contributing to exclusion, identity-based breaking, and democratic degradation.
Recently, in NPQ, longtime organizer Maurice Mitchell offered an excellent look at the ways that progressive-Left organizations often fall into these breaking dynamics via behaviors like neoliberal identity politics (“using one’s identity or personal experience as a justification for a political position”), idealistic maximalism (including a “righteous refusal to engage with people who do not already share our views and values”), and disproportionate responses to discomfort (for example, claiming that disagreement or criticism is “violence”). Although Mitchell did not speak to the role of bad-faith external actors in magnifying these conflicts, the breaking he describes heightens the Left’s vulnerability to those who seek to dismantle democratic structures.
A second point of breakage we find is around conceptualizations of “depolarization.” Social justice actors often interpret this to be “a call to the middle”—to cede to majority concerns for the sake of political harmony. Social justice actors resist this frame, as popular responses to polarization misleadingly suggest that the poles are the problem and that the solution is to move to the center. US history is replete with examples, such as the Civil Rights movement, which remind us that this is hardly the case.
Bridging, to be clear, is not about moving to the middle, but about seeing one another’s humanity and being open to learning, connection, and transformation. It does entail some risk, including the risk of one’s own transformation and of engaging with people who may disagree with you—or have more power than you.
We often hear from social justice activists that calls to bridge and depolarize ignore power, and that bridging cannot be possible until power is made equal. One of us (powell) in a recent article acknowledged that extreme power imbalances can indeed distort bridging. Considerations of power are important, but often bridging is politically advantageous, especially when the ideological distance is small (what we have called “short” bridging) and the potential gains from coalition building are large. Too often, preconditions to bridging are piled on to justify breaking, preserving in-group purity at the expense of movement progress.
To be clear, bridging is not appropriate in all circumstances, nor will bridging solve all the Left’s problems. And bridging is not predicated on agreeing or giving up one’s identity or values. But differences, such as those between social justice and democracy advocates, do not mean we should not cross a bridge. To return to the case of the Women’s March movement discussed above, the breaking occurred between groups where the bridge was, or should have been, short and functioned to the detriment of the larger movement—and to the benefit of anti-democratic actors.
Growing Our Bridging Muscle
There are several tensions in the call for bridging and belonging. Some people are sympathetic to bridging only insofar as it is a technique of persuasion, or for “winning.” Bridging is much more than that: when done properly, it amplifies the voices and situatedness of everyone, especially marginalized groups.
This work is complicated. People carry multiple identities and shifting social and structural situatedness. One must be careful to not exaggerate either our individuality on one hand, or the essential nature of our groupness on the other. People are not just one thing. The central goal of bridging should never be to ignore any person’s identities or experiences.
More broadly, bridging often means moving beyond either/or binaries—in this case, beyond focusing either on strengthening democracy and de-fragmentation or on advancing belonging for marginalized groups. Instead, those of us who are serious about social justice and belonging must bridge lines of difference (political, ideological, cultural, and geographic) to highlight our collective stakes. In this way, movements can build a future that defends the rights of those most vulnerable to attack from anti-democratic actors, while strengthening our democracies and continuing the perpetual work of making social structures more inclusive and just.