Democracy is a Learned Skill

We’re getting close to a federal election here in Canada (election season here only lasts for a couple of months, so we’ll be all done by the end of October, American friends–whereas you’re already in the thick of it and still have a year to go, which is just mind-boggling to me). It’s the perfect time for me to harp on one of my favourite subjects:

Democracy means rule by the people, not checkmarking by the people.

Voting, as important as it is, is the bare minimum for citizenship in a democracy (and yes, I know a lot of people can’t even manage to do that much).

You’ve got to show up between elections. Politicians do what large numbers of their constituents vocally ask them to do.

In the house I grew up in, people voted, and that was it. Political activities otherwise involved people venting about decisions they didn’t like at the dinner table with immediate family, and otherwise never bringing it up. That’s probably typical. My mother being who she is, even venting with immediate family sometimes brought about several months of shunning, which I hope isn’t typical; but in either case, my family practiced democracy by voting, and then complaining when elected officials didn’t do what we wanted them to without ever taking any trouble to tell the elected officials what that might be.

That’s what my daughter gets at her Dad’s house, but it’s not what she gets at mine: I’ve been dragging her to protests and public meetings and community events since she was a little kid.

And as a result, at 15, she’s confident about attending them and voicing her opinions, she knows what she thinks, and she’s got better knowledge about how government works than most 40 year olds.

Democracy and citizenship are, I think, like housework. You learn how to cook and mow the lawn and get the groceries and do laundry from watching your parents cook and mow the lawn and get the groceries and do laundry, starting when you’re much too young to participate, but learning even then that this is a routine part of living. Then as they get older, seeing and participating more, and taking more ownership.

But how did I learn it? How do you? If you didn’t grow up in that kind of house, how do you figure it out so you can make it NBD for your kids? I mean, I didn’t go to a protest or public meeting until after I started university, and lots of people never have.

Speaking as an adult-learner in the practice of democracy: you just show up.

You just GO.

You don’t need to go with a posse or even a buddy. You don’t need to know the people who are there. No one’s going to make you speak if you don’t want to. Even if it’s a protest, you don’t have to chant or shout, you can just walk quietly, even without a sign–it helps just to have more people. You can sign the sign-in sheet, or not; you can ask questions, or not; you can pick up the brochures and read them at home and then email your questions in, if you have them. It’s not just for experts or professionals or activists.

If it helps, tell yourself you’re going for 15 minutes, just to see what it’s about, just to poke your head in. Make up your mind about staying after you take the lay of the land. It’s fine! You’re not marrying the protest or the public meeting. At this point it’s not even a coffee date. You’re just showing up so you can figure out if you want to swipe right or left.

I remember some of my early meetings and protests like that: just a peak! Just to see what was going on. Just to take it in. And it got easier, gradually. Like showing up for a book club or a dance social or a community art class: every one gets more familiar until one day you’re going to every one and you know all the regulars.

A really great public meeting or town hall or protest is magic. For a few hours, with good people and great ideas, you see for a little while what the world could be like, and it sticks. You take it with you. You bring it to the next one; it builds. I still remember the Occupy Toronto camp, the signs and the tents and the sharing and the marches. That camp ended, but the ideas are still there, and the people who were there bring those ideas into every other movement they join; Occupy principles are in the bedrock of the Green New Deal. And no, the American federal GND resolution didn’t pass, but thanks to the proposal there are GND movements all over the world. There have been two town halls on GND principles and priorities in Hamilton in the last few months. A couple of weeks ago at work, a community group called me up to ask if we’d be interested in participating in a GND-inspired project, with elements from those town halls built right in.

Democracy is rule by the people, not check-marking by the people. And when the people show up, in public, in numbers, they can rule. People who stay home and complain at the TV or on FaceBook have abdicated the throne.

Here’s the other thing: the people organizing those town halls and protests and public meetings? They so desperately want you there. It’s not a secret club with an exam you have to pass in order to have your say. It’s more like a brand new local store waiting for its first fifty customers so they can pay the bills and keep the doors open. Even if you’re not going to buy anything, even if you’re just checking things out, they’ll be happy to see you!

And when it gets easier for you, your kids see you doing it, and they begin to believe that this is just a thing that adults do to make the world work. They’re right about that, too. Because it’s the adults who show up who push politicians to act in one way or another, and if it’s only the angry and hateful adults who have protests and public meetings and delegate at Council, then that’s what’ll happen.

Growing up in a family where no one did anything beyond voting, if that, is kind of like growing up in a family where they all eat take-out all the time. No one knows how to cook! Cooking looks weird and mysterious and hard. What’s a cup measure, anyway? How does a carrot get chopped? Where do you get cashews? If you get the amount of baking soda wrong, will the oven explode?

You can either live with those fears as normal and natural and raise kids who also don’t know how to cook and eat take-out all the time.

Or you can figure out how to cook and teach your kids.

So–I mean, obviously, first of all, vote.

But show up to town halls too. Go to protests. Write letters and make phone calls. Start awkward political conversations about issues that matter to you. Go to public meetings on projects you support. Call your representatives–not about Major Issue Of The Day necessarily, but just to tell them what’s important to you, what you want to see them accomplish.

Participating in democracy in this way is also work. I know. TV is easier and more fun, just like take-out is easier and more fun than cooking. And just like it’s ok to eat take-out sometimes but as a regular thing it’s terrible for your health and your budget, sitting out on democracy is ok sometimes but as a constant thing is terrible for your mental health and your community.

Believe me, it wears on you and takes a toll to live as if you are powerless, to pretend as if the only voice you have is a tick you put in a box once every couple of years.

Also, just like cooking gets better when you find the recipes that work for your schedule and taste buds and budget, participating in democracy gets a whole lot more fun when you figure out whether you’re more the “come to the town halls a few times a year, clap politely, maybe ask a question” type or the “show up at the protest with a sign and yell” type or the “make the powerpoint slides for the community group to delegate at Council” type. Speaking for myself, I don’t love cooking; I cook because I love eating and I’ve found recipes that are fairly quick and we like eating and don’t get tired of. I also much prefer attending town halls and community meetings to knocking on doors during elections. That’s easier to figure out when you’ve tried a bunch of things.

Make participating in democracy as normal as vacuuming. Make it so your kids never have to feel awkward and uncertain about it. Show up, and bring your kids with you.

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