In the face of increasing polarization and myriad crises — from COVID-19 to climate change to social unrest — trust in the United States government and institutions is diminishing. The country is at a critical, pivotal moment, and the need for an inclusive, representative democracy is urgent.
Reos Partners has led a number of initiatives to restore democracy in conflicted areas around the world. This work includes supporting a project in 2020 with the Piper Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting democracy. Together, Reos Partners and Piper Fund identified potential futures for democracy in the United States to understand the limitations on progress and build strategic alignment on how to move forward.
In the following video, Reos Partners’ Adam Kahane is joined by Melissa Spatz, former Director of Piper Fund and current co-Executive Director at Trusted Elections Fund, and Estevan Muñoz-Howard, Interim Co-Director of Piper Fund and Senior Director at Ktisis Capital. Watch the video or read highlights of their conversation exploring the outlook of democracy and the impact citizens’ actions can have on the country’s future.
Host: Adam Kahane, Reos Partners
- Melissa Spatz, former Director of Piper Fund and current co-Executive Director at Trusted Elections Fund
- Estevan Muñoz-Howard, Interim Co-Director of Piper Fund and Senior Director at Ktisis Capital
On the most important challenges facing U.S. democracy right now:
MS: U.S. democracy is at a critical moment, and I think that you could use several different lenses to understand the moment that we’re in. Unfortunately, a really good starting point is to look at the rise of authoritarianism. In a global context, that is playing out in the U.S. just as it is elsewhere around the world. On top of that is the U.S. context of white Christian nationalism. Those two combined are giving us a very volatile situation.
As an overarching challenge, the threats to U.S. democracy have become increasingly diffuse. It is not that there’s one bad actor that is pulling the strings or that we can look at one national body. It’s not the U.S. Senate or the president that’s doing it. The challenges are playing out at all different levels of government and primarily at the state and local levels. The threats really vary, therefore, by state. That makes it harder for someone reading the news to understand the scope of the threats that we’re facing, and it makes it harder for the field to contain those threats.
EH: For a lot of communities, American democracy has never worked great. As these threats continue to grow and evolve, for those communities for whom this was not already working, it has gotten worse. For a lot larger part of the population, we are now grappling with the very real possibility that this is so far out of hands that it is, best case scenario, difficult to reign back in, and worst case scenario, it is too far gone.
A lot of the dynamics that have allowed this to emerge have existed for a long time. Fundamentally, what has allowed this to proceed is the link between the accumulation of wealth and the accumulation of political power. Ultimately, the worst atrocities that have ever been committed and perpetrated by our government within our borders also just happen to be both legal policy decisions that were also the greatest opportunities for white families to build intergenerational wealth. These are examples of genocide of indigenous populations, slavery, redlining, and the prison industrial complex, which were all policy decisions that had been set by folks in positions of power.
I think one of the problems is that when wealth equals power, that power will always be used on a macro scale to further consolidate wealth by those who have it. The threats we’re experiencing today are driven by the same effort to preserve wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
On hope and how to enact a better future:
MS: There’s increasingly interesting work being done to get at the root causes of what is unfolding in the U.S. right now. For example, groups coming together across differences to understand and figure out how to address the rise of white Christian nationalism. How do we talk about this? How do we combat it? What needs to happen within our communities? When the Dobbs ruling came down, it was encouraging that reproductive rights groups and democracy groups came together around that ruling and stood together. I’m seeing a real understanding that women’s rights, trans rights, and the rights of communities of color are not just something we pursue once we’ve figured out democracy. They are part and parcel of a functioning democracy. You cannot have one without the other. That kind of developing understanding and those kinds of alliances are cause for great hope.
EH: When we are constantly segmenting funding and efforts and communities, the power that is built is so diffused, it’s so spread out and disjointed that we aren’t able to see the full results of what is actually happening. But what gives me hope is that we’re seeing a lot more development of state-based organizing infrastructure that spans issues and communities.
I think one thing that continues to play out, and I think is critical for foundations, for philanthropy to pay attention to, is how to redefine winning, redefine what it means to be successful. To not just include getting that policy across the finish line, but to be inclusive of how you’re actually building that power, how you’re organizing, and how the coalition’s being resourced. How you win is really as critical as if you win at all.
We have to make sure that we are reinforcing people’s ability to have a voice. [The] shift toward longer-term, more inclusive thinking of the means of victory that give me hope. I see that happening across the country and hope to see more of it in the future.
The Piper Fund’s Future Scenarios for United States Democracy
With the support of Reos Partners, Piper Fund convened dozens of experts with varied perspectives — scholars, activists, community leaders, and more — to construct a set of possible future scenarios for U.S. democracy. By identifying possible futures, the group could better identify which challenges must be addressed and what changes are needed today to manifest the future we hope to see. The four scenarios are:
- Polarization: The extreme polarization of races, parties, and regions has led to a series of intense conflicts fueled by resentment, information siloes, and the misinformation and conspiracy theories that proliferate on social media leading to a non-stop culture war.
- Corporatism: The central threat is the power of corporations and oligarchs over U.S. democracy. Economic institutions and moneyed interests have helped build systems that give them more power than voters to influence government policy so that the rich are benefiting at the expense of the poor.
- Reform: The key struggle is between incremental reformers at the state and national level who are working through courts and legislatures to strengthen U.S. democracy versus anti-democratic forces that have built state and national infrastructure to stifle the will of the majority.
- Transformation: In this scenario, the key issue of U.S. democracy in our time is building an inclusive democracy.
Reflecting on the scenarios today:
MS: All of the pieces we talked about, both good and bad, are actually starting to happen. The thing that really jumps out at me is we had a shared understanding throughout the whole process that a lot of this exercise was about not operating in silos anymore, that we were not going to get where we needed to get if we stayed in our very narrow silos. I think that that is really unfolding now, groups are increasingly understanding that if they want to stave off the very worst-case scenarios ahead, they’re going to need to step out of their comfort zones. They’re going to need to form new and unexpected partnerships.
EH: As we better understand the dynamics and the nuances of these scenarios and better learn to recognize elements of these scenarios, we can start to build offramps to steer us toward a more hopeful feature. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive — these are things that we can experience simultaneously.
Explore Reos Partners’ Resources on Peace & Democracy
For 30 years, Reos Partners has been forging innovative approaches to peace, democracy, and good governance in deeply conflicted places. Even in complex and severe circumstances, real progress toward reconciliation and renewal is achievable. Explore examples of our work and resources designed to foster reflection and support change-making.