Where does a new coalition come from? Not, I think, from the habits and narratives that got us where we are now. Not, I think, from blame, accusation, or concession to some “new normal” where ignoring evidence, suborning prejudice, and inciting fear are acceptable forms of leadership. Not even from the recognition and naming of oppression, which is both necessary and insufficient.
We live in a representative democracy, which means that we elect well- or poorly-chosen individuals to take care of governance on our behalf. Yet somehow, we have begun equating governance with responsibility, and now we begin to think the only way to solve a problem is through those self-same representatives, however ill-qualified they may be for the job. And thus, we look at congress at declaim partisan gridlock, but we take no responsibility for it ourselves.
So let’s. Politics is, in theory, of the people. It is, in theory, for the people. Why do we make ineffectual choices, and then express surprise when they ask for our votes and our money, but not our ideas? The one thing we agree on across party lines is that our government regularly fails to meet our needs. Thus, I think it is time for a politics of service.
Recently Jon Shwarz observed that:
“While it has almost passed out of Americans’ living memory, parties used to have regular, local meetings where everyone got together, yammered about politics for a while, and then drank beer. Elections were the culmination of what parties did, not the starting point. A healthy political party would foster community and provide people with concrete things to do between elections.”
He also suggested some things about how parties should encourage members to do some work, and have a good reputation for the party, and so on. Good suggestions! I like them a lot!
But, I’m not sitting around waiting for the Democratic party to get itself together to encourage local chapters to do some work. That’s top down, and I don’t think change happens much that way. I’m not even a member of the Democratic party, so they certainly wouldn’t call me first anyway.
But I do think we need politics to be part of our lives in a way that is positive and functional, now more than ever.
So I think its time for the bottom-up version: service politics. Get together and do something to serve your community. Then get together after and talk about what needs doing next. Don’t just do the things you think need doing, ask people. Be humble. Make space where anyone is welcome, and who they vote for matters less than whether they’re in need. Don’t do it just as party outreach—do it to break down the party lines. Do it so you spend time listening to, and helping, the people you don’t completely agree with.
In theory, this is what politicians are supposed to do. They are supposed to listen to and help the people. They are supposed to represent us. The trouble is, they DO. We’re between a rock and a hard place, and there’s no denying this election is a hard place. But our habits of politics are the rock.
Well you know what I do when I’m between a rock and hard place? I break the rock.
If politicians aren’t going to do their jobs well, that’s on us. Whatever our habits, patriotism doesn’t mean asking other people to do our work for us and then complaining when they don’t. I don’t think the solution is to call on outsiders—it’s to go to the insiders, the members of our own communities, and see how we can help.
We don’t need to take this country back. It’s ours. We’re Americans, and we’re responsible for what happens here. Instead of shirking that responsibility, let’s embrace it.
Image Credit: US Navy