On the Fourth of July, we celebrated Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison and all the other great men who created our democracy, right?
Not exactly. The founders did create the framework for a democratic republic, but they didn’t create much democracy. Indeed, in America’s first presidential election, only 4 percent of the people were even eligible to vote.
The founders created the possibility for democracy, but it took the struggle (often bloody and always hard) of ordinary people over the years to create the substance. In some decades, we’ve made advances; in others, we’ve fallen back — including in the past three decades, when the power of America’s workaday majority has steadily been usurped by corporate elites. So now, We the People must put America back on its historic path toward economic and political democracy.
“Fine,” you might say, “but how? I’m just one person. What can I do?”
1) Start by considering what’s reasonable for you. Few of us can be full-time activists, and the list of issues and problems is intimidating, long and complex. So just take one bite, choosing an issue that interests you most, then start contributing what you can (time, skills, contacts, money, enthusiasm, etc.) to making progress. No contribution is too small. If you can only devote half a day a week, or an hour a day or even minutes a day — it all adds up. As a young Oregon woman said of her half-day-a-week volunteer door-knocking in a legislative race: “I was only drop in the bucket, but I was one drop. And without all of us, the bucket would not have filled up.”
2) Inform yourself. A little effort can quickly connect you to accessible, usable information and insights on any given topic, allowing you to gain a “citizen’s level” of expertise so you can talk to others about it. Read progressive periodicals, tune in to progressive broadcasts, get information from public-interest groups and plug into good websites and blogs.
Don’t know how to go online? Nearly all public libraries not only have computers, but also librarians and volunteers who’ll assist you in finding the info you want and teach you how to use the machines. Or find a youngster (maybe your grandchildren or someone at church) who’ll help you. Yes, you can do this!
3) Democracy belongs to those who show up. Join with others. Everyone feels better when they’re part of a group, a movement, a community (whether real or virtual). In your own town or neighborhood, many others are either already working together or willing to help form a group — seek them out, maybe at bookstores, book clubs, coffee shops, events, churches, blogs, websites and other meeting places.
4) A community is more than a collection of issues and endless meetings. Combine the serious with the social, and remember the Yugoslavian proverb, “You can fight the gods and still have fun!” So discuss your issues and strategies at potluck suppers (bring the kids, have some music, pour a little wine), throw an annual festival of politics, create weekly sessions of beer-mug democracy at local taverns, set aside one day a week for Big Talk (rather than small talk) at the coffeeshop, etc.
5) Become the media. Create a local newsletter, blog, bulletin board (on the wall or online), Internet radio broadcast, etc. Just as importantly, enlist high school or community college speech and journalism teachers to help you learn how to do radio and TV interviews and how to get local media to cover your issues. Also, get them to train you and others in pubic speaking, so you can have your own speakers’ bureau to address clubs, churches, schools, etc.
6) Hold your own “what to do” sessions in your community. Don’t wait for national progressive groups, which haven’t figured out a cohesive strategy for focusing on people’s anger about the meekness of Washington’s Democratic leaders. Instead, have your own discussions about what should be done nationally — if anything — and start zapping those ideas to other communities, heads of national groups, progressive media outlets and so forth. Let the ideas percolate up from a thousand localities!
That’s what democracy is. Some assembly required.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.