The Authoritarian Playbook

At Protect Democracy, we use a combination of tools — including litigation, advocacy, technology, and communications strategies — to combat these “authoritarian playbook” tactics that are escalating threats to democracy in the United States.

Politicizing independent institutions

Healthy democracies have strong independent institutions that operate based on facts and law — not the personal or political preferences of a power-hungry ruler. These institutions are ripe targets for capture by autocratic factions, in whose hands they become weapons towards adversaries, shields against accountability, or, worst of all, levers of large-scale manipulation and corruption. We have seen public officials attempt to infringe upon the independence of agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Public officials have also sought to undermine the independence of nonpartisan election administrators in order to improperly influence elections. Protect Democracy works to prevent would-be autocrats from using these institutions to advance their personal interests over the good of the public.

Spreading disinformation

Our democracy’s supreme power is vested in its people. Stopping the spread of disinformation is crucial for creating a shared sense of reality among a shared community — a prerequisite for the healthy exchange of ideas necessary for any successful democracy. In the U.S. and around the world, autocratic factions have seized on new media ecosystems and social media platforms to spread dangerous quantities of disinformation. These lies have two purposes: first, they are political weapons aimed at crippling opponents and shoring up key constituencies through invented false grievances. And second, they are smokescreens for power grabs and abuses, insulating authoritarians against accountability by sowing doubt and confusion. The goal is not always to sell a lie, but instead to undermine the notion that anything in particular is true. Protect Democracy pursues regulatory and legal solutions to stem the creation and flow of disinformation, as well as remedies that make society more resilient against the spread of disinformation.

Aggrandizing executive power and undermining checks & balances

A strong democracy depends upon the separation of powers within government and on non-governmental institutions to provide additional checks on abuse. When the system works properly, the legislature and courts prevent the executive branch from exercising power in corrupt ways, and the media, private sector, and civil society all act as additional bulwarks against improper behavior. In the U.S., the balance between the branches of government has been shifting in recent decades, with the executive branch aggrandizing power and Congress abdicating its role. Protect Democracy fights to maintain a strong system of checks and balances to prevent the executive branch from successfully engaging in authoritarian actions.

Quashing dissent

Strong democracies have strong oppositions and free presses, who alert the public when those in power are abusing their positions. The U.S. has a long tradition of independent media and vibrant dissent. Autocratic movements and regimes tend to weaken not only freedom of speech and the press, but the influence of any public voices (often media or civil society) that could serve as vocal counterpoints to the autocratic faction. Protect Democracy works to prevent the executive branch and other government officials from being able to bully or punish Americans for voicing their dissent.

Delegitimizing vulnerable communities

Democracy in diverse societies requires protecting the rights of minorities, including political minorities who have lost at the ballot box as well as groups outside the dominant majoritarian racial, ethnic, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity groups. Modern-day autocrats use demographic identity as a way to sow division. Aspiring autocrats have sought to rally populist support by attacking vulnerable communities and seeking to define them as outside the scope of the polity — including, for example, by seeking to nullify their participation in elections. Protect Democracy works to ensure that our democracy is one that is inclusive and fair for all Americans.

Corrupting elections

Free, fair, and regular elections form the cornerstone of our democracy, allowing citizens to exercise their most basic political right: the right to choose who governs. But elections only achieve that goal if they take place on a fair playing field. However, at both the federal and state levels, we are seeing attempts to tilt that playing field. From the efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 election to new legislation being proposed and passed in statehouses around the country to limit access to the ballot, corrupt the vote counting and certification process, and politicize election administration, the integrity of our elections is under siege. Protect Democracy uses legal, advocacy, technological, and communications tools to fight those efforts and seek to ensure a free, fair, and secure electoral landscape for all Americans.

Stoking Violence

Healthy democratic actors always eschew civil violence, while autocrats either deliberately look the other way or even intentionally inflame politically-useful violence. Such outbreaks can offer political cover for restrictions on civil liberties or the expansion of coercive security measures. Stoking violence advances authoritarian efforts in other areas of the playbook, such as quashing dissent, but it also undermines the norms and trust that underpin democratic stability. As feelings of insecurity rise, social divisions become more salient and politicized and political leaders’ incentives shift further towards hardball politics over negotiation and compromise. Protect Democracy works to study political violence and hold perpetrators accountable in order to prevent recurrence.

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