I’ve written two posts recently that I thought I’d tie together. The first was a post about the occasional resurfacing of the “minimalism” or “simple living” trend or meme especially as it exists as phenomenon in the US. The second was a response to a recent article in the Guardian about Trump’s authoritarianism.

The common thread between the two is fairly obvious but still worth calling out in its own post and it is this: in 2023 America finds itself in a deepening crisis of identity as a failed democracy. It’s not new but it is only growing worse because it’s not being addressed. And really, it’s not one crisis but rather several interdependent crises that have been decades in the making. Which is to say, these are crises deeply rooted in multiple generations of Americans, deeply rooted in our culture.

A failed democracy? Really? Has it fallen that far? We’re still having elections after all and though there were efforts to overturn the 2020 election by Trump and many of his supporters and in his party the results were upheld in the face of those efforts. Is that not evidence that democracy in the US continues to exist?

I would argue that democracy in the US, if it can be said to still exist, is weakened by decades corruption. It has been eroded to a thin veneer with little substance because the substance of democracy is the people. And the majority of people of the US stopped caring decades ago. Any sense of civic responsibility, of active citizenship has been eroded by decades of apathy. The truth is, America traded that responsibility for something shiny, something convenient: The American Dream.

Consider that phrase for a moment. What do you picture in your mind?

I was surprised (though perhaps should not have been) that Wikipedia even has a specific page for the American Dream. These two paragraphs are significant to our problem:

The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals including representative democracyrightsliberty, and equality, in which freedom is interpreted as the opportunity for individual prosperity and success, as well as upward social mobility for oneself and their children, achieved through hard work in a capitalist society with few barriers.

The term “American Dream” was popularized by James Truslow Adams in 1931, saying that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.[1]

I’d urge you now to re-read that slowly and carefully. Then, again from that page:

Throughout American history, there have been critics of its national ethos. Some critics point out that American focus on individualism and capital results in materialism, consumerism, and a lack of worker solidarity.[3] In 2015, only 10.5 percent of American workers were members of a labor union.[4] The American Dream has also been criticized as a product of American exceptionalism, as it does not acknowledge the hardships many Americans face, namely in regards to the legacies of American slavery and Native American genocide, as well as other examples of discriminatory violence.[5]

Those paragraphs sum up the problem very well. Any honest look at the America of 2023 would indicate that Americans simply gave up the collective effort to manage their country in favor of the pursuit of prosperity. Though it’s a poor indicator of democracy, participation in the electoral process is one common indicator used and in the US participation has fairly low for decades. Sure, there are years when participation in elections bumps up. For example, in the 2020 presidential elections 66% voted. That’s up from around 56% turnout in 2016. Midterm participation is lower. For example, in 2018, it was 47%. So, not great. Let’s compare to a few others' recent national electoral participation:

  • Sweden, 2018: 82.1%
  • Belgium, 2019: 77.9%
  • Germany, 2017: 69.1%
  • South Korea, 2020: 66.5%
  • Canada, 2019: 65.1%
  • Spain, 2019: 65.1%
  • UK, 2019: 62%
  • US, 2016: 55.7%

So, in general, voter turnout in the US is low. But that’s far from the whole story because democracy is not just about voting for a president, a house or state representative or a senator or even voting locally.

I would argue that a more important measure of democracy is what we do on the hundreds of days a year between elections. Consider a decade. 10 years is 3,650 days (ignoring leap years). Setting aside 10 days of voting that leaves 3,640 days. What’s our job as citizens for those remaining days? Is it nothing? Are we meant to be on vacation on those days? Because that’s certainly the way we seem to be treating the job. Maybe we vote maybe we don’t. And then the remaining days we’re on vacation.

This is why America is a failed or failing democracy. Because its people have allowed capitalism to step in and act in their stead. We stepped out and they stepped in. It’s that simple. When we get all hand wavy, finger pointy and angry about school shootings, climate emergency, outrageously expensive health care, well, my fellow citizens, we should go have a long look at the mirror so that we might face up to the problem.

We need to have that conversation with ourselves and each other. What are we doing about our democracy? If we’re truly going to quit then let’s FUCKING OWN THAT CHOICE. If we don’t want to be bothered with democracy then let’s admit it. We should loudly proclaim it rather than this bullshit moaning and pretending we go on with. It’s a farce we’re all playing along with. Truly, it’s embarrassing.

But I hear you asking. Well, but, but what are we to do? I’m just one person, what do you expect me to do? I can’t change anything. That’s the reasoning we all use. I can’t fix it. We convince ourselves that this is a valid response and then we continue pretending it’ll all be okay.

Stop pretending and start building. As the Wobblies used to say: Don’t mourn, organize! Let me give you a list to help you get started. We all love lists. This is far, far from a complete list. But it’s something to get you started. It’s also not in any kind of order. Some of these are things you can do as an individual, some are better with a group. Some are both. Many are more about building local community culture and capacity. Building democracy is not just about politics - remember that.

  • Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and more history of people’s movements in the United States.
  • Corresponding with the above, make it a specific point to read more about the labor movement, it’s tactics and the general strike
  • If you have a blog or use social media begin using it differently. Think about how a citizen concerned with their country’s future might use social media. Shift the conversation.
  • Take an interest in the goings on in your neighborhood. Get to know neighbors if you don’t know them already. These are your neighbors and some of the most important citizens you can know. Care about them.
  • Identify problems in your neighborhood and consider how they need to be addressed. Talk to neighbors about those problems. Figure out a way to deal with it directly or talk to others who can help.
  • Grow the capacity of your neighborhood to take care of itself. This fits with the above two and is just a continuation of a process of taking more responsibility for ourselves in a space that we can have an immediate, tangible results.
  • Consider creating community and neighborhood institutions like co-ops that can help fill real needs. I’ll list some of these further on in this list.
  • Create study groups! I call them study groups, you could also call the working groups or reading groups or whatever else fits. These might function in a neighborhood context or not. Interested in gardening or community gardening? Form a group to explore it. Interested in fixing up a vacant lot? Form a group. Some groups might be temporary, project specific. Or might start with a task or project but then carry on to something else. The main thing is to get with others to learn as a group and even better, act as a group.
  • Start a community newsletter. It might seem old-fashioned in the internet age. But just consider how your neighborhood communicates with itself. How do neighbors keep up-to-date with the community news?
  • Create a lending library. Some public libraries already loan out more than just books. If yours doesn’t then start your own. The point is to share resources amongst neighbors. Tools, books, bikes, cars, etc. These already exist.
  • Create a community workshop or maker space. This might go well with the above. It’s a space for people to fix things, learn to fix or teach others to fix. It might become a space that specializes like a bike repair/recycling shop or it might be more general.
  • Cultivate a community of mutual aid. It goes with the above suggestions. Look for ways to help one another, to learn from one another. If a community is building ways to help itself it becomes more self reliant, more likely to re-use resources and goods that are not always getting used.
  • As the climate emergency grows, emphasize cycling in your community. Consider group rides for fun. If you’re new to cycling a group ride can help you gain confidence. Experienced cyclists can volunteer to do safety clinics to teach others. Learn and teach one another how to do basic bike repairs. Help refresh old bikes and get them on the road again. If there’s enough interest, start a larger cycling advocacy group to work with local town/city government to improve or add to existing cycling infrastructure.
  • If your community has a library consider how your activities might fit in there. Is there a meeting room available for public events were study groups, workshops, classes could be held? Consider taking on more difficult topics, create longer term study groups that explore more complicated problems. Find speakers to bring in that might help people better understand local, regional issues and problems.
  • Volunteer at your local library.
  • Get in touch with already existing community orgs. Find out who’s nearby or in your city. Consider helping those already doing work.
  • Many cities have groups already functioning that need volunteers in a broad range of mutual aid activities like teaching adults to read, aid to the houseless. Find an organization you can help and volunteer your skills whatever they may be.
  • If you’re an artist or musician you might be a part of a larger local community of creators. Consider working together either for your own community via co-op activities and also for the benefit of others by doing fundraisers.
  • Potlucks! Potlucks! Potlucks! Make these a regular happening in your community. Neighborhood potlucks are essential. Move the location from house to house or consider hosting in other spaces if available. Make the weekly, monthly, or as often as possible.
  • In many of the above projects consider partnering with the small, locally owned businesses around you.
  • Make it a habit to always be on the lookout for new sharing opportunities. Often times personal interests and hobbies can be branched out into valuable community enrichment activities. Have a telescope and knowledge of the night sky? Work with your local library to do a monthly star party. Alone or with other local star gazers, get out and help others see Saturn, Jupiter or the Andromeda Galaxy for the first time. You’re an avid photographer and naturalist? Work with the library to organize a photo walk in the local park or public forest.

Much of the focus with the list above is our shifting our priorities from our individual selves or even from our core family to include the larger community. It’s not politics so much as it is direct participation in the life of our communities. Democracy is not laws, rules, regulations. In its fullest, most meaningful expression democracy is the self management of our lives in community. It’s when we understand that our well being extends outward and includes the well being of those we share the planet with.

This is not to suggest that we should not also be working on and in the larger political processes going on around us We should. Those processes are broke and are in need of our attention. But to do that affectively we also need to remember the strength that comes with shared civic life. That shared civic life can be thought of as an expression of democracy as well as solidarity, a phrase that was in common use in the labor movement of 100 years ago.

In a future post I’m planning to share more about how we might create and build democracy politically. Plenty of people have already written about this. For now I’ll simply say that we have to turn our attention the fact that our political processes currently seem to be in a state of corruption and disfunction. We see it on on all levels and it’s well past the time that America get beyond the notion of cleaning the house. We have to reconsider the foundation. There’s nothing about it that will be easy.