A Few Ideas on Addressing a Meaningless Democracy

By Jessica Azulay

All over the world, we spoke. We cried for peace. We demanded truth and an end to the push for aggressive war. We marched, protested, struggled to get our message out. We had sanity and peace on our side and we were strong and powerful because there were millions of us and we were right. We were and are the world majority and we know it. And the Bush Administration and the oil companies know it too.

Our protest most definitely affected the timing and rhetoric of this war, but did not stop it. As a result, more and more people are coming to some hard truths. We live in a country where the people’s voice, when expressed through so-called “legitimate means,” does not affect politics much. Not through electoral efforts, not through unprecedented campaigns of letters, phone calls and faxes to our “representatives,” and not through the expression of free speech or freedom of assembly in the form of massive national demonstrations and thousands of local protests.

Instead, we see all those spaces, where our voices are supposedly welcome, growing smaller and smaller, enclosed by police in riot gear, shriveling up, unsafe, and marginalized. And we hear the government and counter-demonstrators threatening anyone who dares to speak up, dares to criticize decisions that we have no say in anymore, dares suggest that we have a right to question the moral or political authority of those in power or the actions of those who do their bidding.

It’s not like this absence of meaningful democracy is new. But it is becoming increasingly obvious to people who did not have to notice it before. So the questions become... How do we hold those who made this decision to send Americans to kill and be killed accountable for their actions? How do we channel energy to show Bush and all would-be Bushes that perpetrating war will spell political doom and economic losses to those who finance their rises to power? How do we reclaim our public spaces and our ability as members of this society to affect policy that impacts us and others? And most of all, how do we stop the destructive violence that has been unleashed in our name?

A Slight Shift in Focus

In the short term, one answer may be as simple as slightly redefining the goals of our movement. Alongside the antiwar message and demands, we need to demand public accountability from elected (or unelected as the case may be) officials.

We need to point out right now that this war happened against the will of the people in this country; that it happened not because “diplomacy failed,” but because there was a grave failure in our democratic system. Our so-called representatives simply failed to represent us. At the end of the day, when the phone calls, letters, office visits, demonstrators, and opinion polls were counted, most elected officials made a conscious choice to maliciously and cynically manipulate and eventually act against public opinion. We need to talk seriously about how to focus our actions in ways that point out the discrepancies between what most people want and what our government does.

We can do a lot to build on and whip up the massive anti-government energy resulting from this war. We can write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces pointing out massive public opinion against the war and blasting representatives for ignoring it. We can publicly demand town meetings so that people can face those in office and make sure that they are at least being heard, and when we are refused we can use that as more proof of their anti-democratic stance. We can build coalitions with various groups that are being marginalized and work together to demand a reinvigoration of the democratic process. We can sit in or take over offices and demand to be heeded. Through creative publicity, forums, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and direct action we can challenge and discredit those in public office who are anti-democratic.

Dig in for the Long Haul

In the long term, building a pro-democracy movement could facilitate a process where we begin to talk to each other about what it is we want, what democracy should look like, and how to get there. Through dialogue, forums, and movement building we can start to focus that energy in ways that can spark political and social change.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to escalate our protest in ways that are more sustainable and widespread, and to find ways to resist that cannot be absorbed by those in power. Something that is not often seen as escalation or confrontational is alternative institution building. Yet this is probably the most sustainable and substantial organizing we can do at this point. Alternative institutions that embody our visions for change have real potential for challenging and/or replacing current institutions.

Right now politicians can weather our protest because they are the ones with power and authority, and they are embedded in a system that gives them resources and legitimacy. Our ability to impact the world around us is too often decided on their terms. If we want to be free to express ourselves in a meaningful, collective way, if we want to regain control over policy decisions that affect us and others, if we want to participate in a better and truer democracy, then we must reclaim and create public spaces where that can happen. And we must actively use those spaces not only to challenge the legitimacy of those in power but also to engage in a process where we create and practice our own version of “government” that serves our interests and works on our terms.

The work of creating alternatives that make our own and other’s lives better and more fulfilling and that give us power over our work, communities, and society is the constant work of revolution. I use that word now because at this juncture, I am convinced that nothing short of drastic, systemic change will give us the political power and autonomy that we need and want. We must work to replace our current system with a better one that serves and facilitates more community and solidarity and less competition and violence.

We have a window of opportunity right now, one created by increased disillusion with the current war-making system. The more people we can reach with our ideas about how to make things better (or even the belief that things can improve), the more possible co-creators we have. And in turn, the more disillusioned, frustrated, and disempowered people we can give hope to by providing real alternatives, the more chance we have at maintaining and growing our movement. And if our movement continues to grow, not just in numbers of people showing up to demonstrations, but in numbers of people pro-actively working towards institutional change, the more effective our movement will be.

I think this is the time to reach out and spread a message of hope and vision. We need to find time and space to share our own ideas, listen to the ideas of others, and talk to each other about vision and strategy for radical change. Because if not now, when? We are sitting on the edge of a crucial moment when this massive movement that awoke in response to the war on Iraq will either go back to sleep or will continue to rear its head, hold war-makers accountable, and push for lasting change.

Jessica is a commentator for Z Net <www.zmag.org> and a staff person at SPC. She welcomes responses at <jessica@disconnection.org>.