Voting? Done. Democracy? Just Begun.
by Erin Niemela
Election night is finally over. Television can resume its originally broadcast programs and Facebook can return to cat memes and photos of our dinner. We can go back to talking about our personal lives at work and our work lives at home. Relatives can begin to pick up the pieces of their divided relationships, while children can find some relief from the incessant blaring of talk radio on the drive to school. The people have spoken, they are tired, and they want at least a couple of years to nap, politically.
We may think our work here is done, at least for another two-four years, yet civic duty does not cease the moment you turn in your ballot. Voting every couple of years in the mass-distributed reality TV show we call “the election” neither constitutes a democracy nor mandates genuine change. Direct action by an engaged citizenry creates and sustains democracy, and such direct democracy must be performed year-round. While our elected officials seem keen on exporting democracy around the world, we should be developing democracy at home, as well.
On Election Day, the editorial board of the Minnesota Daily published an opinion piece, “Fulfill Your Civic Duty,” encouraging Minnesotan youth to vote. “We understand that students are busy,” the editorial remarks read, “but on one day of the year it’s important that you put your civic life above all else.” Oklahoma’s Tulsa World editorial staff wrote a similar piece on Tuesday titled, “Vote Today; It’s the Most Important Civic Duty.” The editorial chastised non-voters as unthankful for the ultimate price paid by American service men and women: “These people showed up when it counted. Please return the favor Tuesday and vote.” Election Day sure gets a lot of civic duty-oriented attention, but what about the other 1,459 days of the four-year cycle?
Voting once every two or four years is not exercising civic duty, it is imaginative play that supports a particularly hollow concept of democracy embraced in America. As author and philosopher Howard Zinn movingly stated in a 2008 opinion-editorial for The Progressive, “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”
Placing increased importance on the four-year voting cycle serves to accomplish two tasks. First, such importance serves to over-emphasize the power of representatives in government. When so much emphasis is placed on the selection of worthy leaders, those elected are given license to exercise whichever decisions they feel are best, without ongoing accountability. The people no longer need to engage with politics or keep track of the important issues, they have elected others to do that additional civic duty for them. We must be mindful, now more than ever, that accountability is the difference between another 10 years in Afghanistan or a complete withdrawal in 2014, as promised. Accountability is also the difference between another billion dollars spent on the 2016 presidential campaigns and serious campaign finance reform.
Second, calling voting our only and most important civic duty serves to undermine other legitimate forms of civic duty. Gene Sharp, American political icon and author of the 1973 manual The Methods of Nonviolent Action, offers a colossal list of direct actions that constitute a more genuine and holistic civic duty. Every citizen who is unsatisfied with the political, cultural, and societal landscape should memorize this list—or. Among the 200 or so different types of directly democratic actions, here are 10 starter suggestions:
- Letters of opposition or support (to politicians, officials, editors).
- Group of mass petitions.
- Picketing and/or pamphleting.
- Delivering symbolic objects.
- Humorous skits and pranks.
- Political mourning.
- Teach-ins (or independent public hearings).
- Walk-outs (or sick-outs, or slow-downs).
For voters who feel unsatisfied with the local, state and national results, or voters who would like to simply hold our representatives accountable in office, let us expose ourselves to the wide range of possible ways to communicate our interests to our elected officials. We vote with our nonviolent actions, not just our pens.
We needn’t subscribe to her politics to recognize a semblance of validity in famed anarchist Emma Goldman’s quote: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” While voting creates some change in certain settings, it is not our only and most important civic duty. Direct democracy is the work of enlightened, engaged citizens. Without the direct and intentional participation of an informed citizenry, American democracy is but a hollow shell filled with television advertisements and witty political memes. Let’s pledge to make the next four years as important to democracy as yesterday’s election. Let’s pledge to create a dynamic American democratic process that doesn’t simply evaporate after Election Day.
Erin Niemela is a graduate student in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University and a PeaceVoice syndicated journalist.