democracy
Unfortunately, THIS is what democracy usually looks like.

I hate writing about topics that everyone else is writing about, and there is quite enough townsfolk-mumblings about the impact of Bernie Sanders on progressivism in America blah blah blah. My friends are on Facebook drawing parallels to Nixon/McGovern and so on, referring to images that are no longer resonant. They have been washed away by the ahistoricity of 21st century America; even my comparisons to the Dean campaign, a few years before, fall equally flat.

Of course the Sandersistas cannot understand what we oldheads mean when we say “well you should have seen 2002, that was really something,” because politics has a cyclical rhythm of ignorance and education that you learn of, with extreme discomfort and embarrassment, when it’s too late to do you any good.

For the last half-century, Democratic American politics has depended upon the ethical impulse of the young. It is unfortunate and unfair that this falls on them, and since they don’t have any models, you get movements like you see now – making the critique that is vital to progress, but also ignorant that politics is not worthless but rather a fascinating discipline and worthy field of study and work.

The impulse to make the system fairer is an powerful, early motivating force for many young activists. It was for me, and it still is, as a buried substrate. Making the process of government decision-making fairer and more democratic was something that I attempted to do in a number of ways, from election monitoring to campaign finance reform to preventing voter suppression to widening access to media infrastructure. All these issue campaigns were process changes that I felt were essential to progressive outcomes in a number of areas.

I also worked on electoral campaigns, which are actually closer to a process reform than policy work. Fighting for Democrats to be in power is less about having blind ideological faith in a party than it is about setting the basic limits of the debate.

But now I am working on the superstorm-drought-famine-extinction thing, and I’m not really sure how much the system being fairer would help this cause. Even in the best case scenario, even if we overturned Citizens United and had automatic voter registration and other wide-scale rapid democratization of the political system, we would probably only be able to achieve the central climate-change goals 2 to 10 percent more quickly.

That’s not negligible. When it comes to causes like resilience or health care, that margin touches thousands of lives.

But it’s not the system that’s the problem. It’s us.

For years, I believed that institutional unfairness kept people from being a part of “the system” or making their voices heard.

But Americans aren’t exactly jostling to be a part of changing the world. The vast majority just really can’t be bothered. When you have a populace as apathetic, overworked, self-indulgent and depressed as our own, it doesn’t matter how open or fair the system is. Politics is a hobby practiced by an expert few.

I loved being an organizer, and I will be an organizer forever. A central belief of this profession is to imagine the best about Americans as a people, not necessarily who we are but who we could be. This faith has to persist even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such as half of this country voting for a bag of scum in a red baseball cap.

But being an organizer can sometimes be characterized at its most cynical level, as I would describe it while down: “My job is to make people give a shit.”

I’d feel bad after saying this, and backtrack, like how one makes excuses for a relative: “of course, Americans are all depressed and spend too much time in their cars so it’s really hard for people to participate.”

But in reality, it’s not that difficult to participate in politics. It’s actually painfully easy. There are a thousand ways to get involved and a thousand things you can do. The Internet has opened up vast swaths of possibilities for participation, but we’re just too busy watching Netflix to be bothered.

I don’t think America needs a fairer process. I think America needs creative cures for apathy. America needs structures, spaces, and cultural norms that encourage participation in the political process. That would be a real revolution, not some party bylaws change that let two or three more people slump through the already wide-open doors of politics.

The structures that support and sustain community responsibility have disintegrated almost beyond recognition or even memory. I’m not going to go into it here – the sociologists have already written about the waning bowling leagues – but it is high time that we invent new structures to replace them.

In Philadelphia, where I live, these structures still exist, held together by virtue of our neighborhood density, historical tradition, and identity. So we keep these roles alive: block captains, committeepeople, volunteer crossing guards, friends associations that watch over every park and library in the city. Community service is literally everywhere you look, and it is embedded in physical space. I don’t have any solutions here, and I am writing this in the hopes that someone else will have answers for how to invent these things for America’s washed -out suburban spaces. Political action in virtual space is less effectual every year, and the professionalization of activism has let everyone else off the hook. Short of a natural disaster or catastrophe, the only way I can imagine a higher percentage of Americans participating in progressive political change is by weaving political action back into the parts of our lives that sustain us – combining it with things we are already doing.

I don’t know what that is. It may be drive-time conference calls. It may be someone in the dollar-store parking lot with a table. It may be political karaoke. It may be political canning or gardening or crocheting. Bake sales to pay off student loans and fight the big banks. Day care centers could make sure everyone is registered to vote. Hospitals could help patients participate in the healthcare reform process.

I am not sure what this looks like, but what it will mean that previously apolitical spaces have to become politicized (or “civic-ized”, a less laden term.)

There is a groundswell waiting for it.

But the Left needs new ideas, new spaces, and new places to plant community.