Wait Until We Vote? No; Organize
this is the second piece in a series that aims at redefining how we think of democracy in the United States and beyond
This is the second piece in a series that aims at redefining how we think of democracy in the United States and beyond. If we are to truly bring change to these dark days, we cannot simply wait until we vote. There is time to act in the 437 days until the presidential election. For an introduction to this piece, you can read part one here.
In my spare time, I spend my weekends and nights organizing and working with the Sunrise Movement. As a youth-led movement, we are working to bring together millions of people to recognize both the severity of the climate crisis, and that there are readily available solutions to deploy if only we could gather the political will. Before I became involved with Sunrise, I was passionate about working to address the climate crisis, but hopelessly despondent, frequently returning to the question, “But, what can I do?”
This question is no doubt on the minds of countless U.S. citizens — not just in regards to the climate crisis, but to any issue we passionately want to address. When we become immobilized by an individualistic model of change, and perhaps count down the days until the voting process — our glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak political landscape — the emotional impact can be devastating. If we simply wait to vote, we have to passively observe horror after horror while we see no alternative other than becoming tragically numb to the pain.
One of the most common things I hear from new Sunrise Movement members is exactly this phenomenon: “I was feeling so discouraged and hopeless before I found healing and strength in others through the movement.” This is exactly how I have felt after becoming organized and empowered by the strength of solidarity. Meeting others who are willing to stand up alongside you; willing to risk arrest for a cause you all believe in; willing to listen to your fears and share theirs in turn, is an incredibly meaningful and reality-changing experience. My life has been forever changed by the realization of our power in numbers and our capacity to change minds. If we are to have any hope of becoming a truly democratic citizenry, the necessity of organizing must be brought back to the forefront of our politics.
Organizing is incredibly important. We are not taught about the tremendous strength we have when we become organized; rather, that our politics changes when important men in important positions bestow upon us divine legislation that changes the nation. This abridged, schoolroom history that many of us have internalized from childhood pervades our culture’s sense of what is possible, and who can enact change. It is a view of history and of the present that is dangerously fallacious, but difficult for many to see as so. We do not typically learn of the struggles behind the scenes that led to enormous civil rights gains in the 1960’s; rather of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a notable figure in the movement. We rarely dive into the coordinated efforts of those fighting for LGBTQ recognition and rights; rather of President Obama’s support and eventual role in helping dismantle the Defense of Marriage Act in 2015.
Often our vision of politics is so pervasively top-down that we forget how the politicians at the top of the power structure obtain their opinions in the first place. President Obama was a community organizer before he became a politician, and no doubt learned many progressive views from those with whom he organized. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was heavily involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was inspired in turn by the acts of satyagraha practiced by Gandhi while struggling for Indian independence.
A top-down view of present and history makes it too easy to construct a vision of change that is, so to speak, going it solo. Our culture of radical individualism leads us to become incredibly discouraged after concluding that you, yourself, do not have the power to do anything to change the system as it exists today. If you cannot become the President of the United States, you may as well give up on hoping to improve the way things are. Our politicians frequently encourage those who are dissatisfied with the status quo to, “…run for the Senate. And then you can do it your way.” Voting is absolutely contorted to fit into this pernicious view that we can only act in solitude in order better our politics. To re-engage with our political democracy, this deep-seated mindset of individualism must be deconstructed and shown as misguided.
To contribute to the political consensus, and change the way people think, is an exercise of much more power than a top-down, legislative decree that could be undone by the next partisan opposite who replaces you.
When we work together, we lean on each other, amplify each others’ voices, share tremendous workloads, and encourage each other to continue the struggle. When we engage with each other collectively, all of our opinions and beliefs change and become more solidified in truth. Our perspectives change when we start to work with others from different backgrounds than ours. Through the collective victories of others, we can begin to see that we too can change minds if only we are able to move and work as a cohesive unit. The power of solidarity is something that, for a long time, has been sorely missing from the politics of the U.S. — relegated to obscurity by big power who fear relinquishing control. We as a culture need to find our strength as a collective, and realize that organizing is essential to any serious notion of democracy.
Organizing is tremendously effective because working together collects power through coordinated consensus at the bottom. Power is incredibly strong as a bottom-up phenomenon. To contribute to the political common-sense, and change the way people think, is an exercise of much more power than a top-down, legislative decree that could be undone by the next partisan opposite who replaces you. Our politicians legislate based on the common-sense. They are people just like us who happen to have ascended to positions of influence. They form their opinions from their life experiences, and reform their views as they hear thoughts and facts from others. If we recognize that this bottom-up organizational power is what truly makes change, then policies that follow will be hailed as the work of many people; rather than messianic gifts from benevolent rulers.
We need only take a more honest look back at U.S. history to observe plenty of examples of this organizational power being brandished to advocate for rights that we all enjoy today. The labor movement helped win us the 40-hour work week, and Saturday as a day off. Socialist and workers’ alliances attempted to stave off intervention in World War I as long as possible, ultimately failing when solidarity was fractured. However, the torch was reignited when student organizing against the war in Vietnam brought the moral, anti-war voice back to the fore of politics. These notions of workers’ rights, and the tragedy of unjustified war, are now widely accepted as the common-sense view of how a society should work. Politicians would be laughed out of office if they opposed these notions. Our present day would not be what it is without the struggles and collective efforts of those who recognized the power of organized numbers to change minds.
This moment in history urges us to work hard to come together despite being guided towards individualism by the so-called powers-that-be.
The story does not end in our past. Today, countless movements and organizations are bringing people together to collectively change the common-sense and bring about bottom-up change. Movements like Black Lives Matter, Movimiento Cosecha, If Not Now, the Sunrise Movement, and countless others work every day to organize people and help us realize that we can effect change if we work together. We do not have to labor alone, or despair in thinking that we cannot do anything to change the way things are. The world does not only change at the whim of those who hold positions of influence. We can find strength and healing in each other.
These movements have already brought about enormous change without having to wait until the sanctioned day at the ballot box. Black Lives Matter has changed the public discourse about police brutality and the effect of racism and racial bias in our daily lives. The Sunrise Movement has put the Green New Deal on the map, bringing the climate crisis to people’s minds while also encouraging more to recognize the skewed nature of its effects, and the need for sweeping change. The #MeToo movement has led to a culture where victims feel more empowered to speak out about their experiences. While changing the common-sense surrounding their respective issues, these movements also bring healing and community to those involved as they find the power lying dormant inside of them.
Democracy demands that the demos become an organized, collective people. Without organization, the power of the people becomes fractured, weakened, and our politics becomes distorted. This moment in history urges us to work hard to come together despite being guided towards individualism by the so-called powers-that-be. Each day until the election is an opportunity to step out of the oppressive burden of being alone, and into the liberating power of the many. We simply have to be brave enough to reach out. My experience, and history itself, shows that if we can be courageous together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
Despite the enormity of its importance, organizing is still only part of the equation of democracy. While the work is crucial, there is much more that many of us could do. Once our voices are gathered, there is really no point unless we speak directly at those who hold the keys to power. We must be resounding in our calls for change. We must be targeted and intentional by aiming our voices at our politicians, and making it clear that they are in positions of power in order to serve the will of the people.
We will explore the necessity of speaking truth to power in the next piece in this series as we aim to redefine what it truly means to be democratic in our society.