Over the past year, I’ve found myself struggling to put into words the thrill of life in a democracy. I can find no combination of letters and spaces to capture the fuzzy feelings that are orbiting my thoughts. The truth is, I desperately want to express what it feels like to be on a journey for change through collective action. It’s been one of the most captivating, animating experiences of my life. And it’s the idea I’m most interested in that I’m most uncomfortable talking about.
As luck would have it, I’m a part of the longest-running experiment in self-government. It’ one of my greatest privileges: citizenship in the oldest representative democracy on Earth. Mine is an imperfect government, founded on the loftiest ideals, perpetually evolving for better or worse. In a league all to its own, no other country has had greater political and cultural influence, economic power, or military might than the one to which I belong. And through no effort of my own, here I am, living in a tried-and-true, robust and mature, liberal democracy—engaging it, trying to wrap my head around its complexity.
Despite the political moment we’re in, American democracy today is much more democratic, much more liberal, much more decent than it was five or six decades ago. Ezra Klein, who writes thoughtfully about American politics says, “There is a strange comfort in recognizing that for all Trump’s illiberal antics, it was the very architecture of American politics, not just the president, that was deeply illiberal and undemocratic in living memory.” Indeed, many folks still around today can hearken back to a time when the “we” in “We the people” applied only to a certain kind of person.
If you were not that, you were essentially told You don’t matter.
It raises the question of just how long, exactly, has America been a democracy? Not just in name and spirit, but in practice — a democracy where everyone has the franchise. Not all that long; since the ’70’s, more or less. Still, people who are convicted of felonies can’t vote while they’re incarcerated. America, the country, has rarely kept pace with America, the idea.
The nature of American politics today is an improvement on the regimes that ruled in the not so distant past. For that, I am grateful—though I am still unsatisfied.
My first breath of air came in a small town in Iowa. But the first 16 years of my life were spent living under different shades of monarchy. First, theological and intolerant. Then, permissive, almost liberal. Looking back, that stretch gave me a sense of perspective. It gave me an awareness that most people around the world get no say in their government. It helped me recognize that, in many places around the world, to so much as question your government is tantamount to treason.
Think about that for a second. No witty SNL skits or late-night comedy bits to numb the heartache of reality. No space to march safely in solidarity with a cause you believe in. No room to showcase a poignant or funny poster you made with a sharpie and some cardboard. No Senator’s office to call or Representative to write. No election to patiently await.
I feel remarkably lucky to have been born here, and perhaps all Americans should. Or else we might forget that to have been born x miles east, west, or south of here would have made a world of a difference on our individual agency.
Yet my sense is that a large number of Americans fail to appreciate the full scope of our privilege. 235 years after the American Revolution, it has become far too easy to take for granted the profound ability to mold and shape our government every other year. Why has it become so normal to neglect this power to challenge our government—to insist that it do better?
I was, until recently, a community organizer in West Philadelphia with the youth-engagement arm of the Environmental Defense Fund. My job was to operate on Drexel’s campus, coordinating persistent and methodical climate advocacy efforts directed at all levels of government. It was in this role where I developed my keen sense of citizenship and a proclivity for social change.
These days, many folks in America place their hopes for the future in the Millennial generation. I regret to report, however, that there was, and likely still is, a deep-rooted apathy radiating from the Drexel student body. There was a general lack of interest in both the political process and civic engagement more broadly that I don’t think is unique to our campus. If the political theorist, Axel Honneth, is correct (and I suspect he is) — that the health of democracy is tied to the everyday relationships and practices of ordinary citizens—then it would seem that American democracy is in more trouble than even our national politics suggest.
Drawing from my interactions on campus, the indifference stems from a feeling that political participation is too trivial on the individual level to actually make a “difference.” There is a notion that “politics” is a nuisance one can choose to avoid. There is a hunch that participation demands an unreasonable amount of time and attention from the participator relative to the weight of an individual’s contribution.
But it’s not as if people are content with the status quo. In fact, the contrary is often more so the case. Most people will tell you that our government is obviously corrupt, but they just can’t put their finger on what exactly to do about it. Folks are consistently lacking a vision of how to exercise control over the decisions that shape their daily lives. And so people are quick to resort to the excuse that they don’t know enough about the issues or the institutions to get involved.
In almost every case, folks who say they want to make a difference forget to appreciate the need for interpersonal relationships as the vehicle for change. Instead, we tend to fetishize a superficial understanding of political affairs courtesy of the non-stop, up-to-the-minute news cycle. Yet individual political knowledge can only take you so far.
Democracy demands that people view themselves not as individual agents acting in isolation, but as an indispensable part of a collective whole, fused together by the strength of ordinary relationships, driven by the hope of a common good, however this may be defined.
The students whom I recruited discovered how to exercise more control over the decisions shaping the struggle against climate change. Together, we gradually discovered that the value in this work was to witness the power and beauty of ordinary, everyday relationships serving as a vehicle for change and collective action. With a common love for planet and a dogged perseverance, 40 volunteers and myself convinced thousands of young adults to call the office of U.S. Senator Bob Casey for over nine months until we managed to successfully defend the EPA from every proposed budget cut in fiscal year 2018.
The specifics of any particular policy question were overshadowed by the transformation of the people that this movement touched. I witnessed folks change from disempowered individuals into outspoken citizens, voters, and activists — agents of change. We registered over 1,000 new voters in a span of three months. Later, I found out that voter turnout in the 2018 Primary Election in Philadelphia increased among the Millennial cohort by 29% relative to the 2014 Primary, with a pronounced surge in West Philadelphia specifically, according to data released by the Office of City Commissioner Al Schmidt.
This was a transformative experience for me, and one that provided a completely new understanding of what a community is—an understanding that distinguishes it from what a neighborhood is. While the latter is a geographical term useful for conveying rigid political divisions, the former can be much more fluid. Communities are performed. They’re an emergent social phenomena that result from particular habits, norms, and practices being shared between individuals living among one another.
A neighborhood will remain a neighborhood regardless of how its residents behave, but a community will cease to exist if its members fail to actively create and recreate the threads that bind it together. I’ve found that this framing is useful in the context of organizing for communicating the shared kinship that arises out of shared responsibility.
It’s worth noting that my intent here is not to romanticize community organizing as a cure for all of our political ills. Political scientists David McIvor and James Hale have written that, “local communities and local reservoirs of social capital can obscure disagreement and domination with and between spaces.” Which is to say, community organizing does not take place within a vacuum. It’s prone to reflect the broader tendencies and biases that are ingrained in our society.
In any case, let us be deliberate about the need to relentlessly revise our understanding of the structural disorders around us, and let us address them chiefly, as opposed to merely alleviating their symptoms alone.