Enemies of democracy are using the benefits of an open, democratic society such as free speech to undermine social cohesion, but democracies who use undemocratic means to defend themselves are at risk of undermining their own ideals.
That was among the takeaways from a discussion about the domestic threat to democracy led by Center for Homeland Defense and Security instructor and thesis advisor Dr. Anders Strindberg at the Washington D.C. National Capital Region regional alumni chapter meeting at the House of Sweden in the nation’s capitol on Dec. 14.
Swedish Embassy Chief of Mission Ingrid Ask, Swedish Embassy Homeland Security Senior Advisor and CHDS Executive Leaders Program alum Ella Carlberg (ELP cohort 2001) arranged for the event and hosted local CHDS alumni, and CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Hollingsworth introduced Strindberg.
The Stockholm resident spearheaded the hybrid event held both in-person and online. The event drew 60 in-person attendees and 43 online.
Using his own study subject, the Sweden-based national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement, Strindberg pointed out that the organization’s leaders acknowledged using democratic rights such as the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to get out their anti-democratic message and recruit followers, and then when and if they get shut down they argue that it proves democracy is a “sham.”
He argued that restricting access to democratic rights creates a problem for democratic cohesion, and a lack of democratic buy-in is a challenge to the social fabric of democracies. That, in turn, is a homeland security challenge, he said.
Institutions and ideals of democracy are under attack, Strindberg said, including by nation states, citing fellow CHDS instructor Seth Jones’ new book, “Three Dangerous Men,” about shadowy figures in Russia, China, and Iran who are committed to challenging the U.S. through “irregular warfare” including election interference and social media misinformation in an attempt to “chip away” at democracies.
At the same time, Strindberg argued that foreign terrorist organizations are not real threats to democratic institutions themselves just because they disagree with them, but the real danger is within democracies.
We don’t need extremists to undermine our democracies, he said, because we do quite well at that ourselves.
Strindberg also explored the phenomenon of “social identity” and efforts to weaponize it in an attempt to undermine individuals’ willingness and interest in defending and preserving democracy.
He said “political tribalism” values “group identity” over “democratic unity” and the resulting “tribal conflict” tears at the “social fabric and tears us apart,” threatening national cohesion and leaving people “less willing to fight for what the nation is supposed to represent.”
Political debates, he said, more often turn into “knock-down, bare-knuckle fights over identity and not the issues.” And there are large numbers of people who feel disenfranchised.
Strindberg said he has no idea how to deal with such a conundrum, balancing the “free marketplace of ideas” where people have the right to form whatever opinions they want using whatever sources of information they want and that can be exploited by enemies against the existential need for social cohesion in a democracy.
However, asked whether social media restrictions are needed or justified, he said restrictions on free speech are “problematic.”
And he said, unequivocally, during the subsequent discussion among event participants that the threat to democracy posed by political tribalism, a decrease in social cohesion, and the dangers of losing constitutional rights in trying to fight anti-democratic forces is a homeland security issue.
Although Strindberg also argued that directly addressing specific issues would stretch the homeland security enterprise too far.
One participant suggested the antidote requires civics “re-education,” noting that well over half of all U.S. citizens who grew up in the nation would be unable to pass a citizenship test, and a return to respect and civility for others including those with which we disagree. We need to understand that others see things differently, he said, and to stop yelling at each other, and to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.