Participating in democracy

I can’t vote. Although I am a permanent resident of the United States, I am not a citizen, which means I do not have the right/privilege of voting. It’s kinda like taxation without representation…

Because I cannot vote I have been feeling like I have no control over what happens today. Given that Illinois is strongly Democratic, it is extremely unlikely that my one vote would change things here. However, the same cannot be said of other places in the country. I will still not be glued to TV/web coverage of the election, though. Partly because of my inability to participate, partly because of my concerns over the two-party system, and partly because I cannot stand the media coverage for the reasons eloquently parodied in this xkcd comic:

So far so cynical. But something Greta Christina posted this morning made me perk up and feel a little more empowered:

I’m writing today to ask you to write and/or email your Senator, your Congressperson, your President. Your governor. Your mayor. Your city council. Your school board. If you don’t live in the U.S.: Your Prime Minister, your Premiere, your MP, your Assemblymember, your Deputy, whatever.

Not on any particular issue. Just in general. On whatever issue you care about.

And I want to argue that this is not a waste of time. I want to argue that this is one of the single most effective political actions we can take: not just to change this policy or that policy, but to change the entire way our government works, and the amount of power we have in it.

As I read this, I thought: I do this. Not as often as I should, but still. Over the last year I have sent many letters to local/state representatives on issues such as funding Planned Parenthood, gay rights, gender identity rights, violence against women, sex education, the environment, and health insurance coverage for contraception.

Why is this important? Back to Greta:

When very few people get involved in politics — when very few people even bother to vote, and even fewer bother to call or email their elected representatives — then the few people who do bother are the ones who get listened to. The hard-line crazies get to set the terms of the debate. Them, and the people with money.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

And if we want to be making the decisions, we have to show up.

Government is — in theory, and at least some of the time in practice — the way a society pools some of its resources, to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and that promote the common good. And it’s the way a society decides how those pooled resources should be used. It’s one of the main ways that a society shares, cooperates, works together, takes care of each other — all those great ideals we learned in kindergarten. Government is roads, parks, fire departments, street sweepers, public health educators, emergency services, sewers, schools. Government is not Them. Government — democratic government, anyway — is Us.

But for government to do all this and be all this, not just in theory but in practice, we need to start seeing government as Us.

And calling/ emailing your President, your Senators, your Congressperson, your governor and your mayor and your dogcatcher, is one of the most powerful things we can do to turn government from Them into Us. It reminds our elected officials that they work for Us, that they’re there to represent Us. And maybe just as importantly, it reminds us of that, too.

If you want to look at it idealistically: Many elected officials get into politics because they want to make a difference, and want to represent the will of their voters. And those officials are desperately wishing for citizens to kick up a stink on important issues: it makes it easier for them to fight special interests, and it lets them know that we’ve got their back. (It’s a whole lot easier to tell your big campaign contributors, “No,” when you can say, “I’m really sorry, but my phone is ringing off the hook about this one, and if I don’t support/ oppose it my voters will have my head.”)

So, regardless of how it all plays out today, the fights for rights are not won or lost. We the people can and should exercise our ability to participate in democracy on every issue, at local, state, and national levels. Our voices can be continuously informing the shape of the future, not just once every four years.


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