What Next? Gearing Up for the Long Fight for an Inclusive, Equitable Democracy

  • By K. Sabeel Rahman, December 14, 2020

As the dust settles from November 3 and the anxieties of a contested election week start to give way, we find ourselves poised between cautious optimism for democracy defended and the weight of what’s left to accomplish in the fight for an inclusive democracy. There are strong signs of hope: a decisive victory for President-Elect Joe Biden repudiating the worst excesses of Trumpism; ballot measure victories for minimum wage increases and powerful new assertions of Black, brown, and indigenous voters in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. But there are deeply troubling signs as well. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on, its physical and economic toll devastating the country, particularly for Black, brown and working-class communities. And despite the catastrophic failures of Washington to respond to this crisis, the fact is that over 70 million Americans doubled down on a vote for four more years of Trumpism. Ballot measures like Prop 22 in California further exacerbate the precarity and danger faced by millions of gig economy and subcontractor workers. The far-right takeover of the judiciary starting with the Supreme Court continues unabated.

The reality is that 2020 underscores what many of us in the social change field have been arguing for some time: the fight for a truly inclusive, equitable democracy and economy is a long one. While we made important progress this year, the social change sector must redouble its efforts and sharpen its strategies for the long 20-year fight ahead. We are poised between two equally possible, radically different futures. Down one path, the forces of racial backlash and wealth-hoarding succeed in reasserting their control, dominance and privilege, as working families struggle to regain their safety and security following the pandemic and the joint crises of climate change, economic collapse, and racial violence. Down another path, we build on the successes of the last few years to accelerate the emergence of a multiracial democracy, where the power and wellbeing of communities of color and working families are centered and secured.

Philanthropy, like the rest of the social change sector, must take this moment to pause, reflect and ask itself what must be done in the years ahead to ensure that, 20 years from now, we look back at 2020 and see it as the moment where we came together and turned the tide in the fight for a true democracy.

First, this requires a clear commitment from the philanthropic community on a core value: the end goal of philanthropy should be the consolidation and deepening of democracy itself—even if that means the eventual obsolescence of philanthropy itself. On this vision, philanthropy must be in service to the movements, reforms and institutions needed to advance a vision of democracy and equity.

Second, we need to be clear on what we mean by “democracy”. There can be no democracy without racial equity. The historic push to perpetuate hierarchies of race, class and gender have been one of the central drivers of anti-democratic politics. But to combat these deeper barriers to democracy, we need a social change sector to operate differently.

Too often, our social change sector operates in sharp silos. Some of us work in “civic engagement” and help support get out the vote efforts every few years when election season rolls around. Some of us focus on direct services to communities in need and we may not even consider ourselves to be in the business of democracy reform. But what the experience of these last few years highlights is that all of us must be in the business of democracy reform. Democracy, ultimately, must be about more than getting out the vote. It requires long-term, sustained investment in grassroots community organizing. It also requires structural changes to the laws, policies, and private practices that hoard political power—suppressing the vote, gerrymandering districts, facilitating the spread of misinformation in our public discourse. It also requires that we transform our social and economic order: a democracy that perpetuates the deep disparities in safety, security and wellbeing along lines of race, gender and class is not truly a democracy.

What then do we in the social change sector need to do in the years ahead? First, we need to consider how our work can be reimagined to fuel long-term civic, movement infrastructure, investing in durable grassroots organizing. Whether we work in direct services or civic engagement, we must prioritize infrastructure and relational organizing, particularly in frontline communities and the most affected constituencies in our era of crisis. Second, philanthropy needs to continue to push towards a focus on general operating support and on fueling the expertise and innovation of leaders on the ground, rather than top-down metrics and benchmarks of “success”. And third, philanthropy needs to consider how its strategies help shift power towards frontline communities and shift the deeper narratives and ideas that continue to constrain our politics. Too often, the self-interest of wealthy constituencies and the persistence of old ideologies block transformative, democratizing reforms. Overcoming these barriers will take time and ecosystem-wide strategies.

The next few years will bring continued hardship in frontline communities and pitched battles over public policy. It will be critical that social change actors—donors in particular—approach these issues with any eye towards the longer-term fight for democracy.

K. Sabeel Rahman


K. Sabeel Rahman is the President of Demos, a dynamic think-and-do tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Through cutting-edge policy research, inspiring litigation, and deep relationships with grassroots organizations, Demos champions solutions that will create a democracy and economy rooted in racial equity.