Civil Obedience

Voting and activism together *are* the democratic process.

"1 week of rioting has done more than 10 years of voting” 

I saw some version of this on instagram or somewhere and it stopped me to square it with my beliefs for a minute. 

Because in an important way this is right. We’re seeing real discussion (and some action) towards reform and reinvention on a lot of issues that voting alone hasn’t gotten us. 

As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience: “Even voting for the right [thing] is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to [elected] men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

This rings true; simply raising your hand to approve or disapprove, or posting a black square does nothing for the thing you support other than signal you want it. But this isn’t the whole picture of democracy, and engaged citizens do more than raise their hands.

It’s important to put the current action in context. Yes, sustained protest pushed the Minneapolis city council to vote–with a veto proof majority–to disband and rebuild their police department, but that veto proof majority came from people voting. 

Without voting there can be no sympathetic representatives to enact this real change, anymore than without taking to the the streets there can be no sustained voice of the people to push those sympathetic representatives to act. Protest and activism are a form of expressing our will, but voting is how we actually enact it. 

Voting and activism *together* are the democratic process.

Sure, politicians will always eventually bend to the will of a large enough group of enraged people, but at some point you have to replace that politician with someone that doesn’t require millions of people in the streets to create every new policy.

Civic engagement is not just raising your hand every 4 years and voting. It is constant action and engagement with our communities, paying attention, voting, and yes, often times getting in the street and making noise. 

I get that lots of people are turned off by those who suggest that this can all be solved by voting. We’ve voted-in many who should have helped fix things yet the problems persisted. But that’s because most people just “feebly” expressed their opinion and then didn’t fight to make sure it happened. Politicians have short memories, and even allies need to be reminded to act sometimes. 

And of course some of the rage here comes from the fact that voting doesn’t work for everyone, its hard to vote, and whole swaths of the populace are kept from voting. That is worth being enraged about, but if it’s worth being mad about, then it means voting matters.

We chronically over-focus on national politics; we voted for a good (or bad) president and the world didn’t really get better. But so many of the changes that we are fighting for right now happen at city council meetings, at county commission meetings, and in state legislatures. Some of these people are put in office by a handful of votes. 

Yeah, racism isn’t decided by your local politicians, and only through dedicated and tireless activism can we become more anti-racist, but racism that is engrained into laws, *can* be changed by local politics.

Ultimately, I know there will always be people like Thoreau who will sit outside of the system, and those people are part of a long tradition of direct action over passive voting. But I hope the last 4 years have shown a generation of people that no one should just be a passive voter and not everything is politics. If you want to live in a better world, you can’t just vote every 4 years and expect things to get better. You have to fight, and listen, and shout, and work, and run, and vote.