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RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Making Democracy Work is Our Job

On the eve of the election, we’re hearing that this may (or may not) be the most important of our short term on this planet. It may (or may not) define the Obama years and it may (or may not) determine the future of democracy and it may (or may not) lead us to the cures for global climate change ... or clean energy ... or food in the schools ... or ebola.

So it feels important, even if we don’t know what the definition of the Obama years is or should be. Does it mean endless war or the beginning of carbon neutral energy? Does it mean a fair health system or the beginning of the drone industry?

We’re even less clear on the future of democracy, climate change, energy future, food and diseases. And the morning after, we’ll be scratching our heads and asking — what went wrong with the vote?

Because if we voted in the same ways that we march and pundit, voters would give a mandate and politicians would follow. Something, clearly, has gone wrong.

There’s a pattern here, and it fits the histories of social demands from Egypt to Missouri. First, there’s a vague discomfort with the way things are going. Next, somebody puts the discomfort into words. Years pass. The words are said, resonate with a mass or people, are painted onto placards and bumper stickers and, finally, people march in the boulevard. The opposition challenges, then falters. Great celebration and applause.

But creating change is hard. It turns out that the marchers go home and take care of their works, leaving the handful of dedicated representatives who — surprise! — may have not marched themselves.

This is a global problem, by the way. Freedom House, American thinkers, estimated that between 1980 and 2000, democracy was on the rise. By 2000, they counted 120 countries, representing 63% of the world’s population, as able to vote their wishes. Now, they reckon that the trend has been reversed. 2013 was, according to their count, the eighth consecutive year that democracy has declined. The Economist opines, “The two main reasons are the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the rise of China.”

In truth, those two “reasons” should have pumped up democracy, especially here in the United States. The financial crisis, with its cynical, mean-spirited plunder of savings accounts, its pillage of poor homeowners, its rewards to the looters, should have created permanent change. But, with the foxy representatives guarding the henhouse of D.C., and with us tending to works at home, ho hum, we’re back to business as usual. Next bubble, we hear, people will lose their cars, which have been sold with unfair, interminable loans. Warn your kids — stay away from those deceptive auto deals. Teach them to put off the purchase, save up, buy used.

But I digress.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an “environmental summit” of groups from around the state. Most of them were 350.org and Sierra Club types, but with a myriad of different organizational names and budgets. We were all loaded with facts. I had a head full of CAFO facts and they had satchels full of brochures and newsletters on carbon, coal ash, rivers.

We fired these facts back and forth like folks with shotguns. Some of them hit the targets and some of them fell to the ground. But when I said, about two hours into the meeting, something about calling our representatives, a co-marcher countered with, “Since you bring up politics ...”

I was surprised, because, to me, politics is the point of having facts. I became more surprised when the discussion revealed that some of the 60 or so people in the room hadn’t gone to the capitol, didn’t know how to talk to their representatives, were leaving the reins in the hands of the elected. They might have signed petitions, especially on-line petitions, and their organizations had collaborated to write letters, but they hadn’t walked the marbled halls of the capitols and intoned their passions.

Believe me, dear reader, the lobbyists representing the corporate powers are in the capitols every day, walking, schmoozing, buying lunch, meeting in taverns. We need to be there also.

I don’t know what your issues are, but I know you have the vague feeling that things just ain’t right. You must begin by defining the political action you want, writing it down, maybe posting it on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror. Put it on the list: Phone Nancy, buy eggs at the farmers’ market, sweep the garage, call the Senator about the pipeline ... or Medicaid ... or whatever.

Whether you look at this next election as nationally important, locally important or globally important, you can change the outcome. You may hate what you have to do — raising your hand and speaking your issue at meetings, going door-to-door for your candidate, phoning neighbors, giving rides, standing at the poll with a sign — but it will make a difference.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: margotmcmillen@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2014


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