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Democracy: It’s really weird if you think about it February 21, 2009

Posted by obnoxioususername in Uncategorized.
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I have a new job for the project: get the names and contacts of Minnesota State representatives and senators, for the purpose of bothering them until they agree to fund the Minnesota Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which will provide funds for shelters (there are so many homeless youth on the streets that shelters cannot provide them all with shelter-in December 2007, 156 young people were turned away from shelters). This won’t be an easy fight-Pawlenty is a “fiscally responsible” republican who consistently refuses to raise taxes, no matter what. Unfortunately, given that Minnesota currently has a deficit, and the economic problems, it’s unlikely that Pawlenty will sign it-but if we bug enough senators and representatives, we may yet get the Act funded.

However, there’s something about this process that’s far more interesting than Minnesota state politics-it’s the fact that, as part of a school project, we are going to bug, harass, annoy, and flood political leaders with phone calls and letters, asking them to vote our way, based not on our influence or kinship with the senators, but on the fact that we are voters in their constituencies and they owe it to us to represent us. This is completely amazing.

I suppose that people who’ve lived all their lives in the US may fail to appreciate what a bizarre and rare situation a working democracy like this is. But I assure you, it is. When I “signed” an e-mail created by STAND to President Bush requesting him to do something about Darfur, I got a form e-mail in return-I was ignored, in other words. But when my family first moved to Kenya, about 10 years, and I had done something similar to President Moi (the president of Kenya at the time), my family may have been harassed by the police-and that would be getting off lightly, due to our status as foreigners. We came to Kenya during the twilight years of Moi’s rule, but only a short time earlier, during the early 1990’s, people had been arrested and tortured for speaking out against the regime-some people had even been killed. People who annoyed powerful people were in danger in those days in Kenya.

But in the US, we can do this-we can annoy the powerful, and get away with it. There are laws protecting us. The powerful aren’t even particularly annoyed or threatened by us asking a lot of questions. It’s routine. And although the members of the Federal government hold the most power on earth, they give it up easily every election cycle or two. This is rare-America is in a small minority of countries in this regard.

A democratic government makes activism a lot easier and more pleasant, really. Groups looking for political change can work through elected representatives who given the right incentives (i.e. votes) will gladly work to pass the laws the activists want passed. Of course, there are limits-working with politicians means that you have to obey political rules, which some activists find constraining. And getting laws changed isn’t the same as changing societal attitudes, as we’ve seen in California with Proposition 8. Despite the shortcomings it does have, however, democracy opens up many avenues for political activists, and gives many social movements a great opportunity to succeed.




1. DG - February 23, 2009

Great post. I agree wholeheartedly about the ways in which regime type really matters a great deal in terms of how much and in what form activism takes shape. At the same time, it makes me wonder whether there can be too much of a good thing — where openness makes it so easy to take part, that groups mushroom and compete for scarce resources and support. That’s still a better world to live in than one in which you have to constantly worry that your actions will cause harm to you and those close to you — no question — but the costs of openness are not zero, either.

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