Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835 that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Tocqueville’s observation, broadly accurate over the past two centuries, is facing perhaps its most severe test today.
In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy.” In 2018, Freedom House offered a more dire assessment: “[D]emocratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
Declining participation and confidence in government are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics and institutions. During his campaign and first year in office, Trump’s core constituency cheered him on as he attacked fundamental elements of liberal democracy, including media freedom, judicial independence, and a pluralist civil society.
Human rights are entitlements that all people have by virtue of their humanity. Gun violence puts a number of human rights at risk. Most obviously, it threatens Article 6 of the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Every human being has the inherent right to life.” Studies show that the mere presence of guns increases the probability of crime, suicide, and accidents.
Ethics asks us to promote the good and to prevent harm to others, especially when we can do so with little inconvenience to ourselves. Individuals are not alone in having moral responsibilities. In the eyes of the law, corporations are persons; they also have moral responsibilities. Businesses that manufacture guns have a moral responsibility to ensure that their products are not used in acts of violence. Businesses are also subject to the far more demanding obligations of international human rights.
On July 19th, we celebrated the 170th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering that launched a global movement to secure the right to vote for women. As people in the US and around the world lament the state of our democracy, now is a good time to reflect on an anniversary that reminds us of how democratic change occurs.
Women’s suffrage was the most radical demand that Elizabeth Cady Stanton included in the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. When Stanton first suggested a suffrage resolution at the Seneca Falls Convention, even her most resolute supporters were afraid that it might make the women’s movement look ridiculous and compromise their other goals. Voting was considered the quintessential male domain of action. Resolutions on other issues at Seneca Falls, such as equal access to jobs and education for women, passed unanimously, while the suffrage resolution carried by a small majority and only after eloquent speeches by Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It would take decades of struggle, including parades, protests, arrests, hunger strikes, and force feeding, before the US acknowledged women’s right to vote in 1920. The struggle to secure the vote for African Americans is an even longer story that can be traced from the Civil War to current voter suppression in states like North Carolina.
Our appreciation of voting as a radical demand secured through decades of struggle has been lost in US politics today, as reflected in low voter registration and turnout. At Harvard, where I teach, 59% of eligible students voted in the 2016 presidential election and only 24% in the 2014 midterm elections. This spring, I did a small set of focus groups with Harvard undergraduates to gauge their attitudes toward voting in an attempt to understand these low numbers. In every group, at least one person clearly articulated the belief that voting is a privilege and duty of citizenship. A small number argued that there was no duty whatsoever to vote and that there might be good reasons not to vote. Most students, however, fell in between these two positions. They argued that voting is the right thing to do, but that it is optional and that there are many reasons why it is acceptable not to vote. These reasons include lack of compelling candidates, lack of information, lack of interest, and lack of a personal stake in the matter.
“All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote”
These students revealed disillusionment with the political system, saying their vote would not make a difference. Voting was one option for participation in a democratic society, but for many of the students it held little meaning or impact. The passion of Seneca Falls was missing. One student mused, “I wish that there was a way … to make people more enthusiastic about voting. … apathy is a huge problem…”
People often assume college students don’t need advice or help to vote, especially Ivy League students. But many of the students found the US voting system genuinely complicated, and antiquated, especially in the case of absentee voting. At times, what the students described reached the level of voter suppression.
We need to continue the struggles launched by the activists in Seneca Falls to expand voting. If some of the smartest and most motivated young people in America today find voting difficult, we have a responsibility to help them and many others as they navigate the often complicated and sometimes hostile terrain of the US voting system. Voter suppression has been a conscious and well-orchestrated set of policies in many states; voter encouragement must be no less conscious or collective. Ensuring that US citizens enjoy the right to vote is very much the work of our government and political parties, but should not be left only to them. All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote.
Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe
Guest edited by Timothy McCarthy, the issue asks us, 'What still needs to be done?'
- Read all of the essays.
- Read Timothy Mccarthy's framing essay, Reclaiming Stonewall: Welcome to the Celebration—and the Struggle.
"Anniversaries are occasions for remembrance, even pride and celebration, but they should also be moments of reckoning, which offer us the opportunity to reflect critically on where we come from, where we are, and where we go from here.
To help us reckon with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, The Nation invited a remarkable group of LGBTQ activists, artists, and academics to reflect on its many legacies. Ranging in age from 23 to 88 years old, the participants in “Reclaiming Stonewall” represent the stunning diversity of our community across generations. Combining the personal and the political, this collection of living queer histories is something of an archive of our moment, when many of us are grappling with what might be called the paradox of progress: the coexistence of important changes—in courtrooms and legislatures, hearts and minds—with seemingly intractable challenges.
As we reckon with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, let us heed all these voices and ask, “What still needs to be done?” If the legacy and inheritance of Stonewall mean anything, it’s that our fight is far from over and that our collective struggle for liberation—for everyone—must continue."
—Timothy Patrick McCarthy
It is so tempting to believe that U.S. military intervention offers a quick solution to the Venezuela crisis. And by military intervention, we don’t just mean a full-fledged invasion, but any action that involves U.S. military forcefully crossing an international border. We understand why some in the Venezuelan opposition urge the use of military force. It seems simple to have the U.S. intervene and stop the killing, the incompetence, the corruption that is today’s Venezuela.
As unarmed civilians attempt to bring needed food and medicine into the country, the Maduro government responded with blockades of international bridges and violence, beginning the killing that now headlines American news. U.S. officials warn that Maduro’s days are numbered and flash threats that the U.S. might intervene militarily, a move that would seem welcome to many Venezuelans, both at home and exile. Is that a good idea?
This should give us pause — at the very time that the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan, perhaps ending 18 years of armed intervention and the forlorn hope of building a stable democracy. The equally destructive example of Iraq and its spillover into Syria is another warning that American intervention can stimulate the creation of new enemies.
But isn’t Venezuela different? There is a long tradition of democracy, eroded by a corrupt regime held in power by a small but powerful military. We now have an active leader of the opposition and massive numbers of citizens in the streets every day. Surely this is a time when American troops will be welcomed as liberators. And what about the examples of Grenada and Panama? Didn’t military intervention “work” there? But these small states have virtually no similarities to the political and geographic situation in Venezuela.
Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, fearing the history of invasion and U.S. supported coups, consciously armed and trained tens of thousands of their supporters into militias precisely to prepare for armed attacks against their governments. We should understand that the traditions of “going into the mountains” hold a fascination and moral example in Latin America. Better armed and trained than ever the FARC was in Colombia, would we wish a 50-year civil war on our southern neighbor?
Only one course of action will forestall this scenario: The Venezuelan military must render itself to its own people, not to a foreign power.
The political campaigns and pressures already underway offer very promising avenues for change. A campaign of non-recognition of the Maduro government has led to 50 countries recognizing Juan Guaido as president. This campaign is completely in line with Latin American and Venezuelan traditions. In 1907, an Ecuadoran Foreign Minister issued the Tobar Doctrine, calling for non-recognition of any government that came to power by non-constitutional means. In the 1950s, the democratically elected Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt, followed with his “Betancourt Doctrine,” saying that Venezuela would deny diplomatic recognition to any government that came to power by unconstitutional means. At the time, not many Latin American countries followed suit, but since that time, the OAS has elaborated a legal and political framework to address governments that come to power illegally, as Maduro’s second term would be.
American intervention has a long history in Latin America; likewise, this has been a source of distrust and opposition throughout the Americas, one that Chavez & Maduro, Castro and others have nurtured and used to create political power. Perversely, the threat of American intervention strengthens Maduro’s core support, rather that weakens it.
Although this conflict may extend itself even longer and more unarmed civilians may be killed and more children may die from malnutrition and disease, there is hope that change will happen. And there is good evidence that this hope is the strategically best option for all.
Compelling evidence from Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their book “Why Civil Resistance Works” demonstrates that disciplined nonviolent movements are more effective overall, and generally quicker to good effect, than violent conflicts. Using an original data set of all known major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, they show that nonviolent campaigns are more likely to win legitimacy and attract widespread support than violent movements. There are lessons to be learned from this evidence, and the Venezuelan opposition now seems to be heeding those lessons. Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent conflict is much more likely than violent efforts to lead to a democratic outcome. That is what we and what the Venezuelan people want. A U.S. military intervention would derail that success.
The Venezuelan movements against Maduro have been prolonged and often numerous with civilian participation, but the opposition parties were disunited, unable to create an inclusive vision to unite the population. It was easy for Maduro to dismiss the opposition as right-wing conservatives opposed to the inclusive vision promised by Chavez.
With the compelling leadership of Juan Guaido, that has changed. The opposition is united, not just under a charismatic leader, but with a broadening vision that has consciously reached out to the poor and other constituents of the Maduro regime, shifting their loyalties as only a nonviolent campaign can.
Chenoweth and Stephan identify what they call the “participation advantage” of nonviolent movements. Everyone can participate at levels of risk they are willing to undertake, publicly and privately creating resistance to the regime and raising its costs of repression. A wider demographic of participants brings in new tactics to keep the regime off balance; it brings in new networks of family, friendship, and influence that increase the likelihood of recruitment of military and security forces; and it brings legitimacy to an alternative vision for society.
These will be dangerous times for many activists, but it is their risks and sacrifices that can bring about a truly democratic change. Let us do nothing to rob them of their moments of courage and victory.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to update the number of countries recognizing Juan Guaido as president to 50.
Dr. Kathryn Sikkink (@kathryn_sikkink) is the Ryan Family Chair of Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Douglas A. Johnson is a Lecturer in Public Policy and the former Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (@CarrCenter) at the Harvard Kennedy School.
It’s been more than seventy years since, following the atrocities of World War II, the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, multiple human rights treaties and conventions have been drafted, and most countries have ratified one or more of them—including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and treaties focused on torture, race- and sex-based discrimination, and the rights of children. Human rights organizations have proliferated at the domestic and global levels, and international institutions dedicated to the monitoring and enforcement of human rights, including commissions, special rapporteurs, and courts, are well established.
Paths to Resistance: Professor Erica Chenoweth’s research shows the value of nonviolent resistance in societal conflicts, making her a resource for activists opposing oppressive regimes worldwide.
THEY REACH OUT TO ERICA CHENOWETH ALMOST DAILY—from Africa, South America, the Middle East, Europe, even the United States. They hail from places where authoritarian officials are tightening their grip, where repression is on the rise, and where citizens are mobilizing against governments they want to unseat. Their inquiries usually boil down to one key question: How can we win without resorting to violence?
Chenoweth’s painstaking research, unprecedented in its scope and historical breadth, has shed new light on the understanding of civil resistance, political change, and the surprising effectiveness of nonviolent action.
It has made Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one of an elite group of global experts on civil resistance. She is sought out both for her remarkable chronicling of nonviolent movements and for her understanding of what can potentially make or break them.
Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change.
"In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.
In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands."
Many view civil wars as violent contests between armed combatants. But history shows that community groups, businesses, NGOs, local governments, and even armed groups can respond to war by engaging in civil action. Characterized by a reluctance to resort to violence and a willingness to show enough respect to engage with others, civil action can slow, delay, or prevent violent escalations. This volume explores how people in conflict environments engage in civil action, and the ways such action has affected violence dynamics in Syria, Peru, Kenya, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Spain, and Colombia. These cases highlight the critical and often neglected role that civil action plays in conflicts around the world.