Multi-Racial Democracy, or Authoritarianism?

About Tarso Luís Ramos

Remarks presented at the Facing Race conference closing plenary on November 10, 2018 (Video starting at 1:15:00)

Much respect to Race Forward for pulling together this amazing event, and this important conversation. This crowd is a beautiful sight to behold.

I’m a pastor’s kid and I was raised to believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring assertion that the arc of history may be long, but it bends towards justice.

And, I was raised in a family that had to flee our country when Brazilian democracy collapsed into military dictatorship. So I know from bitter experience that democracies – however undemocratic they may be in practice – can and do fail.

In fact, we are right now living in a global period of democratic decline and the rise of authoritarianism. We see it in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Brazil (again), and so many other states. From Milan, Italy to Manila, Philippines, and from Warsaw, Poland to Washington, DC authoritarian leaders, parties, and movements are on the rise.

According to the Human Rights Foundation, today more than half of the people on earth are governed by anti-democratic rulers.1 We should not make the mistake of thinking that what’s happening in the United States is unconnected to these global trends.

Different from the past, in recent decades the descent from democracy into authoritarianism is more likely to occur through the slow corruption and erosion of democratic institutions than from a sudden event such as a military coup. Authoritarians are often elected, before dismantling democracy from within.

No country is the same, yet we can identify some common elements that are driving liberal democracies towards authoritarianism. I’ll name three factors:

  • Severe economic inequality. That is, the transfer and concentration of wealth upwards into fewer and fewer hands, creating hardship and resentment, and bending politics to the will of corporate oligarchies;
  • The rise of theocratic religious movements – with all their misogyny, homophobia/transphobia, and religious intolerance – into culture and politics. Whether it’s the Hindu right in India, the evangelical right in Brazil or the United States, or the Christian Orthodox right in Russia, these movements provide a mass base for repressive governance; and,
  • The rise of racial and ethnic nationalist movements and parties that define the nation – “the people” – in racist and other exclusionary ways.

If it seems like I just described the basic outlines of Trump’s coalition, that’s no accident.

In the United States, where racial hierarchy has always been a central organizing principle for society and politics, demographic change is an especially powerful lever for would-be authoritarians. Consider that in the short history of the modern nation state, it hard to find an example of a democracy that has survived a transition in which the dominant racial/ethnic/religious group became a numerical minority. Democracy can be, and often is, sacrificed in order to maintain the cultural, economic, and political power of the dominant group. Just look at our own post-Civil War history. Rather than accept the multi-racial democracy of Reconstruction, we got racial terrorism and the creation of a one-party racial dictatorship across the South. That’s not to exceptionalize the South; structural racism permeates every corner of this country.

In these not-so United States, we are experiencing these same three global forces pushing us towards authoritarianism, plus the racial anxiety of White people losing their numerical majority. I would say Trump and Trumpism is a symptom of these underlying trends.

Looking at all of this, I have a confession to make. I no longer believe that the arc of history bends towards justice. I’ve come to believe it bends towards those pulling the hardest. So, we’d better build our anti-authoritarian, racial justice, and democratic pulling muscles.

So, how do we get from here, perhaps the brink of authoritarianism, to the just, inclusive, multi-racial democracy that we seek? The one that lives in our hearts and our imaginations? That lives in the longings of our ancestors and in our dreams for our children?

I believe the first step is to admit that these are actually the stakes. If we behave as if the crisis is only Trump deep, we’re not going to make the right strategic choices. As important as voting is, the course correction we need is much larger than can be accomplished in one or two electoral cycles.

A second step is to realize – and to convince others – that the question of saving our democracy and the question of winning a just, inclusive, multi-racial democracy are basically the same question. They have always been the same question and are so now more than ever. The movement for racial justice is among other things a democracy movement and any democracy movement that doesn’t center racial justice will not carry us through these trials and is simply on the wrong side of history.

I’d like to propose three broad priorities that I believe hold promise for averting authoritarianism and building real, inclusive democracy.

The first has to do with the battle for the imagination and for culture. We are in a fight over who gets to be an American. To win in the arena of politics, we need also to win an enduring majority in this country we believe in an inclusive, multiracial understanding of “We, the people.” We must replace the wrong and cynical idea that for some groups to thrive, others must be dominated or be expelled altogether with our conviction that we all rise or fall together. And we must offer a powerful vision of the multi-racial democratic society we want to live in – one in which people of all cultures, races, and religions can see themselves thriving.

Second, we need to block the Right Wing – whether White nationalists or theocrats or corporate oligarchs – from the further capture and consolidation of their power over democratic institutions: the vote, the courts, media and communications, and government in general. We have to shore up institutions of democracy – even though they weren’t designed with our freedom in mind – so that we have the space to build.

Third, we have to build the practice of solidarity and multiracial democracy into all of our work. That means building relationships, strategies, and campaigns of deep solidarity and shared power across the communities that together will build real multi-racial democracy. We can start, as some are doing, with the communities targeted by White nationalism: Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, immigrant, LGBTQ, feminist, and White people who reject White supremacy and long for racial justice. We have to build the practice of multiracial democracy in our movements and our workplaces, if we have any hope of building and governing the society of our dreams.

To summarize:

1) Win the battle for imagination and culture and who’s “the We”

2) Block the right wing

3) Build the practice of solidarity and multiracial democracy into everything we do.

This is our watch, people. It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. Venceremos!




Tarso Luís Ramos is Executive Director of Political Research Associates (PRA), a nonprofit organization that monitors right-wing groups and advances inclusive, multiracial democracy in partnership with social justice movements. He has been researching and challenging the U.S. Right Wing for more than 25 years. At PRA, Ramos has launched major initiatives on antisemitism, misogyny, authoritarianism, White nationalism, and other threats to democracy. Ramos is a sought-after public speaker and his work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Time Magazine, among other outlets. Before joining PRA in 2006, Ramos served as founding director of Western States Center’s racial justice program, and exposed and challenged corporate anti-environmental campaigns as director of the Wise Use Public Exposure Project. Ramos recently served as an activist in residence at the Barnard Center for the Study of Women and a Rockwood Leadership Institute National Yearlong Fellow for 2017-2018.