In reading excerpts from James Morone’s “The Democratic Wish” this week in APT, we examined an American government where a constant theme throughout the ages has been political stalemate. Morone depicts a people who are simultaneously afraid of government and frustrated by how ineffective it is. Every now and then we cycle through the stages of the Democratic Wish only to return to our starting point of status quo. If little change does occur, it only serves to make our government even more convoluted than it previously was.
Yet, my biggest takeaway from Morone’s piece was more than just the inability to create change in America through our traditional political mechanisms and institutions, such as the ballot or our Congress. I found Morone’s diagnosis of political stalemate a bit too pessimistic, and perhaps indicative of America’s narrow conception of how Americans can have a political impact. Do we really need conventional political institutions to change American politics? Can we make a difference without Congress or either of the two major parties? I believe we can, and American politics is rich in history when it comes to politics beyond the Capitol.
As American political elections become increasingly expensive, and outcomes more reliant on who raised more money, it seems our politicians are spending more time at fundraisers and less time engaging with their constituents. Just last year, Congressman Steve Israel of New York turned heads as he announced his retirement from Congress, citing the grueling demands of constant fundraising for re-election campaigns as a major reason for his decision.
Today many Americans are dissatisfied with Congress, whose approval ratings languish today in the teens. A constant complaint of the public is dissatisfaction with how divided we are as Americans, and yet even policy proposals that register high favorable polling numbers such as universal background checks for gun purchases fail to pass in either chamber of Congress. Our government designed to protect us from a tyrannical government instead leaves us with what one could call a “tyranny of the minority”.
As much as it may feel like we have a do-nothing Congress, it ought not to condemn us to politics as usual. Yes, Politicians clearly have an important role to play in our politics as they craft our laws, but the 20th Century left us with plenty of political leaders who never served a day in public office. Would Lyndon Johnson have ever signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had Martin Luther King and groups like SNCC not marched the streets? Was it politicians who helped secure the weekend and safe working conditions, or was the heavy lifting done by the labor movement comprised of trade unions, radicals and anarchists? Would the ails of the ghettos in America’s inner cities gone noticed by politicians had the N.W.A. not sold millions of copies of Straight Outta Compton? While Martin Luther King never served a day in office, and rappers like Eazy-E never chaired any Senate committees, they played an indelible role in shaping the political agendas, priorities and victories of 20th Century American politics.
Perhaps iconic political leaders of the 20th Century like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez emerged because these leaders were unrestrained by the chains inherent within our traditional corridors of power, nor explicitly tied to either major political party. Colin Kaepernick said he didn’t vote in last November’s election, but can anyone say he isn’t exercising his political voice? Just tuning into football on Sundays, we see the power sports and athletes can have in shaping the political discussions that happen on CNN, Fox News, and even the President’s Twitter account. Democracies are not guaranteed, and if we don’t use it, we might just lose it. But our conception of democracy and politics in America must be more than just casting ballots.