MORRIS – “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I’ve been using the phrase for years and I apologize because can’t remember where I originally stole it from. I usually only use it around election time, but I could say it any day of the year and it is just as true.
Next Tuesday will be the General Primary election in Illinois. For some offices, it’s a chance to have an impact on who gets to actually run for the big race in November. I’ve always thought of it as the first round of a tournament, but in all honesty it makes for a lousy event. Maybe it’s better to think of democracy in terms of academia.
If democracy were a class in high school, voting in every election would garner you a C- at best. While voting is a great way to have your voice heard, you’re also quiet and infrequent. Simply voting means you still leave the decision-making to someone else. (This is usually the point where someone chimes in that the United States is not a democracy but a republic, and they’re not wrong, but shouting to Washington, D.C., from Illinois is, well, mostly pointless.)
If you want to do more than the bare minimum as a citizen, you need to show up at the meetings. City council, county board, school board, police and fire commissions, library boards – all of these bodies have a much larger say in your taxes and your daily lives than anyone in Washington does.
As someone who goes to a lot of those meetings, I usually see them sparsely attended. Which is a shame because these meetings are your chance. Most will have a space for public comment and, in my experience, sometimes you can chime in during the meeting, too. Most elected officials want to hear from their constituents. You won’t literally have a seat at the table, but you can be in the room when it happens and 3 feet from the action.
Even going to the meetings and speaking at public would garner you a lowly B- in our hypothetical Democracy 101. This is the United States, after all, one-time Arsenal of Democracy and Shining City on a Hill, and being just a little better than average shouldn’t cut it. To participate, you need to engage your fellow citizens in conversation – civil conversation, mind you – and posting a meme on Facebook doesn’t count. The people who lump politics in with religion and sex as topics inappropriate for polite society forget that an informed conversation makes politics a much less hazardous minefield. You needn’t pound your shoe on the table to get your point across.
Read the news, local and national. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Go to the meetings of civic organizations in your community. If you find a political candidate you support, volunteer for their campaign and canvass your community for them and have conversations with your neighbors – real, in-depth conversations about topics that concern your community and seek out solutions to its unique problems.
But if I’m teaching the course, even doing all that gets you only an A-. If you want summa cum laude, you have to run for office. I’m not saying run for governor or president right out of the gate – there are more than a few cautionary tales of amateurs taking the chief executive spot and being really, really bad at the job – but work your way up to it. Run for school board or city council. Get on the board of a local charity or community group. Learn how it all works and enjoy what it feels like having a say.
Just once, I want to talk to a county clerk for an election and write a story about how big the ballot is with so many candidates running for office. I want to go into the voting booth and it look like I’m flipping through a phone book to make my selection.
Because in democracy, you can’t forgo the ownership of your leaders or their actions. You have a say in what happens, whether you choose to exercise it or not. You can’t pick and choose which leaders are yours – your action or inaction within the system are the reason they have power, and you are the check on how they wield it.
So, on Tuesday, be sure to vote.
It’s the bare minimum and it earns you a seat on the bench. But after that, get out there and throw some elbows.