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Democracy Can’t Be Reduced to Voting in 2022 — It’s Also About Building the Future We Want

Defending narrowly defined representational democracy is not enough. We need participatory, grassroots democracy.

Workers with the Baltimore City Department of Public Works distribute jugs of water to city residents at the Landsdowne branch of the Baltimore County Library on September 6, 2022, in Baltimore, Maryland.

In a moment of rising living costs, climate emergencies and infrastructure failures in Jackson, Mississippi, Baltimore and Kentucky, two recent polls from NBC News and Quinnipiac found a majority of Americans viewed “threats to democracy” as the top election issue going into the 2022 elections. Looking to bolster the Democratic Party’s position before the midterms, President Joe Biden sought to address the threat of right-wing authoritarianism (or “semi-fascism,” as he called it) to representative democracy.

As constitutional law scholar Leah Litman demonstrated in a recent Twitter thread, curtailing voting rights is not the only strategy authoritarians are willing to pursue on their way to political dominance. On August 31, the two Republicans sitting on the four-person Michigan Board of State Canvassers voted against including an abortion rights initiative on the November ballot after canvassers throughout the state acquired more than 750,000 signatures to do so. In other words, two Republicans blocked the will of more than 750,000 Michiganders, presumably not all of them Democrats, in order to undermine reproductive rights. “But it is part of two larger trends that are worth understanding: (1) the relationship between the attacks on reproductive freedom & voting rights (2) the GOP’s efforts to win by attacking democracy itself, in part by seeking to control all state & local levers of power,” Litman rightfully explained on Twitter. The theft of voting and reproductive rights go hand-in-hand.

Yet, the curtailment of democracy runs deeper than the far-right attacks on the electoral process. President Biden and other Democrats continue to resist calls to defund the police. President Biden recently also laid out his “Safer America Plan,” which seeks to add 100,000 more police. His plan expands policing, which as an institution, along with prisons, has successfully shielded itself from public accountability and calls for radical changes. In addition to acknowledging these aspects of the criminal legal system’s undemocratic nature, political scientists Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver argue that disproportionate contact with police and the legal system suppresses civic participation as police tactics such as “stop and frisk” tend to engender more estrangement from all government institutions, including those administering elections. And, on the economic front, corporations such as Amazon and Starbucks continue to resist unionization campaigns across the country, blocking democracy at the workplace.

However, media conversations about the decline of, or the threat to, representative democracy obscures how participatory democracy in all areas of life has driven change, or at least opened possibilities for transformation. While the protests against police violence of 2014-2015 and the massive uprisings in 2020 might appear to arise spontaneously after police killings of Black Americans, “Black Lives Matter” and “defund the police,” — and the protests that carried these demands – didn’t arise out of nowhere. Calls to defund the Minneapolis Police Department brought the demand into popular discourse after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “We would not have been ready that summer had we not been organizing and educating ourselves for years prior,” Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of Minneapolis’s Black Visions wrote in the Foreword to No More Police: A Case for Abolition.

In another moment illustrating the importance of grassroots democracy, the campaign to abolish student debt led by the debtors’ union, the Debt Collective, won a national victory when they pushed Biden to abolish up to $20,000 in college debt for borrowers. They won this campaign after years of holding meetings, building their membership and organizing protests, including a national student debt strike with students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges, as well as joining progressives Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to push for mass student debt cancellation and free college.

In turn, the Debt Collective’s roots rest in the Occupy Movement, which not only popularized calling the ultra-wealthy the 1% while declaring itself to be the 99%, but also inspired participants to devote themselves to taking back control over privatized and public spaces by developing and practicing forms of direct democracy through popular assemblies. The Debt Collective, as well as the Movement for Black Lives, demonstrate the ways in which democratic social movements can encourage people to engage in what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “freedom dreaming,” or imagining and organizing for a more liberatory future, and to lay the foundation for future movement victories. Participatory democracy encourages us to adopt a long-term perspective in the quest for transformation.

Mainstream conversations about the threat to democracy also miss how contemporary movements flow from a larger tradition of radical democracy that stretches from the abolitionists of the 19th century and through communist and labor organizing of the 1930s to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society and their practices of “participatory democracy” during the 1960s. It is not a coincidence that some participants involved in the Movement for Black Lives in the last decade, such as Alicia Garza, Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie, have drawn lessons from civil rights organizer Ella Baker and point to her commitment to guiding activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a source of inspiration. And the grassroots participatory democratic politics of the 1960s and today provide us three key lessons of transformative organizing: engage in the radical questioning of society, to get to the root of the problem; practice democracy among ourselves, to allow ourselves to experiment with changing institutions and our environments; and allow ourselves to make mistakes.

Ultimately, demands from workers to unionize, as well as efforts to engage in participatory budgeting, and to address the climate crisis, also represent calls for, at the very least, popular control over how our resources are allocated.

Some anti-police-violence activists and organizations such as Action St. Louis have turned to participatory budgeting as a strategy not just to divert money away from law enforcement, but also to further democratize decision-making around public spending. This process ignited a successful campaign to close a local jail known as the Workhouse, an institution that functioned as a debtor’s prison.

Meanwhile, calls to “defund the police,” cut defense spending and abolish college debt in the context of the larger effort to transform policing, law enforcement and higher education highlight the meaning of what W.E.B. DuBois called “abolition-democracy.” DuBois’s illustration of abolition-democracy in his study of Reconstruction entailed not just the dismantling of oppressive institutions but also replacing them with ones that could support a more just and free society.

It is necessary to defeat right-wing extremist authoritarianism wherever and whenever it rears its head, whether in streets in protest, or at the ballot box. However, it is necessary for us to remember that democracy cannot be reduced to participating in elections. For us to build a truly democratic society grounded in economic, racial, climate, reproductive, gender, disability and restorative justice, we must engage in more radical education, organizing and protest. We must support groups working at the front lines of these struggles, such as the Kentucky groups EKY Mutual Aid and Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, which have been extending relief to flood victims. Cooperation Jackson (in Jackson, Mississippi) has also exemplified radical grassroots organizing. In response to the city’s water crisis, the organization is leading a mutual aid campaign for Jackson residents and calling for “Justice4Jackson,” which demands that the federal and state government “completely overhaul and modernize the city’s water filtration and delivery systems” in an environmentally sustainable manner. We will not defeat authoritarianism with neoliberal technocracy. Grassroots organizing and power is the way we will transform public safety, abolish debt, build workers’ power and revolutionize work, and stem the climate crisis.

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