Political Parties and Movements
Defending democracy: Social movements and ‘people power’
Attend the UVA Democracy Biennial
September 24–25, 2021. Online and Charlottesville, VA
About this video
May 23, 2019
Srdja Popovic, Stephen Mull (moderator)
How do we create—and preserve—democracy across the globe? By knowing and understanding what weakens it.
One of democracy’s foes can be populism. Populism is typically defined as a movement that gives voice to those who feel disregarded by political elites. Although challenging to recognize, there is a danger in leaders who rise democratically and then heavily clamp down on institutions once in power. “We are witnessing a direct democracy erosion from above,” said Srdja Popovic, political activist and executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies. “We think [democracies] die in a dramatic way, but basically they erode.”
In recent years, the United States has witnessed the spread of populism, including the 2016 presidential election. Popovic characterized the goal of each side as “Can I scare the hell out of you that if this person wins, you will be doomed?”
Dramatic, non-policy-driven language like this indicates a concerning shift toward populism. “You will never win by being only anti-capitalist. You will never win by being only anti-Trump. Never ever,” he said. “You need to offer an alternative, and this alternative goes into your vision for tomorrow.”
The rise of these hateful fringe parties is not exclusive to the United States. “I have bad news for you guys who were concerned by [the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in] 2017: This is happening not just here. This is happening all over the world. You have the ugly head of extreme groups poking out from the Internet getting into the real world.”
So what can be done? The Internet will not cease to exist, and hateful voices will not be silenced as long as they have a platform. The key, according to Popovic, is to pinpoint what specifically motivates these hate groups.
“They want visibility, recognition, fear. They want anger. They want you to yell at them,” he said. “If they can make you attack them, even better.” It is critical, therefore, that counter protestors change their methods of shutting down hate groups. While it may seem counterproductive or unethical to allow hate speech without attempting to silence it, Popovic explained that “when you confront these people, you’re putting the gasoline on the fire.”
Popovic is a proponent of “laughtivism,” which is the technique of using humor to delegitimize extremist groups. Other nations have already begun implementing laughtivism and have seen remarkable success.
In Germany, for example, activists raised money prior to the arrival of a neo-Nazi protest and marked out on the ground where the march would take place. Every 100 meters that the neo-Nazis marched, the activists would donate a portion of the money they had already raised to a local rehab institution. This meant that the crowd of onlookers would cheer on, rather than fight, the neo-Nazis.
“What do [the neo-Nazis] do?” Popovic asked of the audience. “Cancel a march?... Fight with people who yell at you? Nobody yells at you! They love you… you’re fundraising for them!”
A similar tactic was used in Finland to shut down the Soldiers of Odin, an extreme anti-immigration group. Wherever the soldiers marched, activists dressed up as clowns would dance alongside them. “Now for every Nazi, you have a clown,” Popovic said.
Using tactics like laughtivism denies hate groups the recognition, fear, confrontation, and seriousness that they need. This, in turn, protects democracy from the threat of extremist ideology.
In order for activists to be successful, they must be organized. “The world has no lack of social movements,” Popovic said. “The world has no lack of movements for accountability in democracy. But we need to figure out what is happening and what are the actual dynamics.”
In particular, he referenced the women’s rights movement in the United States following President Trump’s inauguration. Despite its historic size, no immediate, real change came as a result of it. He attributes that to the lack of diversity among the women.
“There were also many groups of conservative women who wanted to join but weren’t allowed in because they were pro-life,” he explained. Only if women from all sides of the political spectrum had united could real change have occurred.
“You want to change your society?” he asked. “You need to talk to the people you disagree with.”
Key quotes from this session
On the gun control protests: “Really interesting movement, very different from previous waves of ‘oh somebody gets shot in school, we start yelling, Democrats want more gun control, Republicans want to arm professors, the thing dies. This happens every time in the United States... But these kids from March for Our Lives were different because they understood the pillars. They understood that the politicians don’t give a damn about them because they don’t vote. But they understood that Walmart and Dicks Sporting Goods would care and Amazon would care because they need our money. So the reason why they were successful in putting restricts from selling assault weapons… they achieved more than all the previous movements combined." —Srdja Popovic
“We are witnessing the new dictator’s playbook for dealing with democracy. It consists of three chapters. Chapter one, make pro-democracy resistance at home impossible. Chapter number two, if there is a fellow autocrat in need, go and save him.… Third, destabilize and disrupt democracy.” —Srdja Popovic