Reanimating the American Experiment
How we can and should transform our culture of civic engagement
Following the election and inauguration of Donald Trump to the presidency, much of America has been up in arms. On January 20th, as Trump was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts, thousands mobilized in cities like New York, D.C., Seattle, Dallas, and Chicago to protest our new incumbent. The following day, an estimated 3.5 million Americans participated in the Women’s March, making it the largest protest in U.S. history. In response to many of President Trump’s cabinet picks, his travel ban, and Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Senator Chuck Schumer’s technical staff reported last week that the Senate received 1.5 million calls each day from Americans expressing fear, anger, and profound doubt about the direction of our country.
Worcester has been no exception to this national trend of mobilization and protest. On Tuesday January 31st, hundreds of people flooded City Hall during a rally for solidarity with immigrants and refugees. According to Holy Cross’s Student Government Association, as many as 172 Holy Cross students participated in the rally—not a bad number for a campus generally loathe to demonstrate.
As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, however, in our digital age, a protest’s size is no longer a reliable indicator of a movement’s strength. In the past, pulling off a protest required months, if not years, of planning. Planning for the 1963 March on Washington, for instance, began nine months before that August day when Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed with musical force, “I have a dream.” Today, Tufekci argues, “protests should not be seen as the culmination of an organizing effort, but as a first, potential step…. More than ever before, the significance of a protest depends on what happens after.” Counterintuitively, by assaulting American values (i.e. charity, hospitality, civility), traditions (i.e. firm commitment to our allies), and institutions (see: Trump’s attack on Judge James Robart, the Bush appointee who halted his travel ban), President Donald Trump seems to be galvanizing Americans to take the next step, to go beyond mere protest and engage with politics at the local level.
In the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency, and in response to his stance on a range of issues from climate change to vaccines, 400 scientists have signed up to run for elected office. Working with 314 Action—a new political action committee dedicated to supporting scientists running for office by providing them with the money and seasoned mentors they need to succeed in their campaigns—these 400 men and women decided not just to lobby our government but to work from the inside to change the policies and institutional culture that shape our national discussion about science. Similarly, in response to Trump’s dangerous sexist comments throughout the campaign, his inflammatory anti-abortion rhetoric, and his commitment to defund Planned Parenthood, more than 4,500 women have registered to run for office through the organization She Should Run—a nonprofit that aids women running for elected office. On top of this, Emily’s List (an organization which focuses on getting Democratic, pro-choice women into office) has witnessed an enormous uptick in the number of women who want to run. As a result, the organization has begun to work with women to challenge the overwhelmingly male gubernatorial candidate pool of 2018. To add to this growing queue of Americans seeking to enter local and state government, a mere two days after the proclamation of Trump’s executive order targeting immigrants and refugees, another 1,000 progressives signed up to run for office through the grassroots organization Run For Something, which seeks to help young Democrats run for local and state office.
To further ensure the place of liberals in all levels of our government, citizens across the country have contributed unprecedented amounts of funding to Democrats in down ballot races. Two weeks ago, little-known Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Georgia running in the state’s special election for a seat in the House of Representatives, received $400,000 from the liberal Daily Kos website. The reason for this upsurge in funding? Since the election, the Daily Kos’s email list has jumped from 2 to 3 million, and people are giving generously. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has had the same experience. Since the beginning of January, the DCCC’s newsletter has gained 675,000 more subscribers, and it has raised $4.1 million. After taking it more than ten years to reach its $1 billion funding-mark last March, ActBlue (a widely used digital fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and causes) took less than a year to raise the next half-billion dollars. If donations continue to flood in at this rate, ActBlue could raise more than $5 billion in the next ten years.
What this increase in both physical and monetary participation in our democracy shows is that the American people have been jolted out of their complacency; they now see what Dr. King pointed out so many years ago. That time is not neutral, that it can be used either destructively or constructively, for “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men and women willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
According to a poll by The Washington Post, 25% of all adults plan to become more involved in political causes over the course of the next year. Even more encouraging than this: 43% of Democrats ages 18-49 plan to become more involved in our politics. It is because of this energy, this frothing wave of democratic participation, interest, and grassroots funding, that I feel enlivened and hopeful today.
We live in a truly fortuitous time. Given the political will of the present—the millions who mobilized for the Women’s March, who phoned their representatives incessantly, who protested in airports across the country, signed up to run for office, or started paying attention to down ballot races—we have the opportunity to change the very culture of civic engagement in America. This is the persistent work we must collectively take part in, for there will be no quick fixes moving forward.
During the general election and in its aftermath, many like President Trump and Senator Sanders have advocated for quick fixes to the problems our communities, states, and country face. They have called for a revolution, for an overhaul of the system. They will probably continue to do so. Today I tell you that we need not start a new revolution but fully and unconditionally embrace the one which began in 1776. If there is going to be any revolution let it be the fulfillment of the American Revolution—that great experiment in self-government which commenced when our Founding Fathers organized, struck pen to paper, and declared themselves to the world independent.
After fighting for their freedom and ours and ratifying the Constitution in 1788, our founders gave us the tools to succeed. In recent years, however, we have not used them. In the past election, only 55% of the voting eligible population (VEP) turned out. During the 2014 Congressional midterm elections, VEP voter turnout was 41.9%. As of 2011, average VEP voter turnout for municipal elections in 144 of America’s largest cities was 20.9%. For a country that claims to be the model of democracy for the rest of the world, these numbers are embarrassing. They should outrage us.
Voting should be expected of every single citizen. Throughout the past 241 years of our history, countless men and women have sacrificed their lives defending our freedom. We dishonor their memory and prove ourselves undeserving of the gift we have been given by not exercising our right to vote. And yet, voting is but a first step in the right direction. If we truly endeavor to prevent the rise of more people like Trump and to secure the brightest possible future for America, we need to change how we engage with our communities and all levels of our government by banding cohesively together and calculatedly amplifying our voices. As always, history can aid us in this process.
Despite one’s feelings about the issues they support, the cases of both the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party display the awesome power of deliberate grassroots organizing. By beginning their lobbying at the state and local level, the NRA and the Tea Party built a base of power from which they were later able to wield formidable strength on the national stage. By enlisting the help of the academy and financially supporting scholarship that backed their political and Constitutional views, these movements gradually changed what many thought was possible, just, and prudent. By utilizing these well-documented blueprints in political, social, and civil rights movements across the country, Democrats and Republicans alike can make the tenacity, power, and success of the NRA and the Tea Party not the exception but the norm—simply how we operate in this democracy. That favorite rhetorical adage, creating government of the people, by the people, for the people, has long been nothing but a political talking point. We have a chance to make it reality now.
As we advance with the work of holding our elected officials accountable, new and young parents have a particular duty to model this heightened political engagement for their children. By demonstrating their commitment to local activism through working with town and city officials, attending town hall events, participating in political campaigns, suggesting policies and ballot issues, and bringing their children with them when they vote in elections for positions in all levels of government, parents can mold our youngest generation into the politically conscious, deeply engaged, and citizen-oriented leaders our country needs. By so normalizing the practice of community service and participation—to the point where children come to see it as but another aspect of their day or their week, another way to spend time with their friends, their family, and their neighbors—we can not only cultivate new habits and instill in our society new traditions, but also repair the sundered bonds of our communities and bring people of all creeds together. By doing this, we can also rehabilitate our faith and trust in each other, all the while reaffirming what it means to be truly American—to be for and with our fellow citizens as we collectively discern how we might perfect our union and lift each other up.
What I propose here, this next step that I envision us taking, asks a lot of every one of us. And I am aware that not everyone has the time or the money that would enable this level of engagement. But this is what our democracy demands.
If we seize upon the momentum building in town halls, community centers, and homes across our country, we can embed in our collective psyche the importance of democratic participation and local engagement to the point where it becomes inseparable from our notions of duty to country, community, and family. This is what we are tasked with today. The creation of a new civic culture that worships political involvement, in which children learn to fight for the betterment of everyday people and their nation from the shining example of their parents and their elders. This is what we must strive to achieve.
It is an exceptional privilege that we should have this opportunity. Our reanimation of the American experiment and revitalization of its decaying civic backbone has already begun. Will you stand and join this great movement?
(Overhead photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)