One of the most remarkable things about the United States is how rarely its citizens experience democracy. We do have a right to vote, and, within limits, assemble with others and speak freely. We have other rights as well, but in our daily lives – in our families, jobs, schools and other institutions – there is often a lack of democratic participation. For much of our lives, decisions are made by others. We are rarely consulted, and we are expected to do what we are told.
Question the prevailing way of thinking at home, work, school, even in church, and there can be serious consequences. Over time, we become accustomed to believing in the authorities, of following, of allowing others to make decisions for us. Having been deprived of democracy, over time, we begin to forget what it looks and sounds like. However, the idea that each of us should have a voice in the decisions that affect our lives is a powerful concept. That concept gave birth to this country, and it has been the central idea that encouraged struggles to create social, political and economic institutions that are responsive to human needs. Moreover, participatory democracy is alive and well in the Occupy movement.
Over the past month, I've had an opportunity to visit the occupations in New York (with my youngest son), in Washington DC, and in Lexington, Kentucky, where I live. In addition, I've spent considerable time reading about the occupation movement and discussing it with students and others. What is so encouraging about the occupations is how sharply they contrast with the dominant institutions and practices that have brought so much pain to so many of our fellow citizens.
It is not surprising that what is happening seems so foreign to many of us. Accustomed as we are to rely on “leaders” and media pundits to explain current events, the Occupy movement is difficult to comprehend. Who are the leaders? What is the platform? What is the solution? What is so important about the Occupy movement is that it is asking fundamental questions – questions about the kind of country we want for ourselves and for our children and the opportunities that should exist for all Americans. What the Occupy movement makes evident, as most of us are painfully aware, is that the current political economy does not work for most Americans, nor does it work for our brothers and sisters around the world. Yet, it does not tell us what to think. Instead, it encourages us to think and to learn through the countless discussions that take place each day at occupation sites around the country and abroad.
It also does not tell us to follow, but to learn and lead; that our voices are valuable and deserve to be heard. It does not promise solutions, but it reminds us that, together, we can do better, much better, not only in meeting the needs of our fellow citizens, but also in being a real leader in the world – one that is respected because of its ability to live up to its ideals, rather than feared for its ability to terrorize and destroy our enemies. Moreover, it reminds us that it is we, the people, who are capable of standing up to the power and corruption of those at the top. And it connects us in a very human way to all of those who came before us who struggled to achieve a better world and unites us with all of those who struggle now around the world. It joins us with those who believe, as Ghandi said, that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.”
It short, the Occupy movement is a process by which we are able to develop knowledge, teach one another and take action to transform our world. If you were politically active during the 60s and 70s, you know the feeling. If you have been involved in actions designed, in some way, to help others, not because of the material reward, but because you understood it to be the right thing to do, you know the feeling. Indeed, what is so exhilarating about the Occupy movement is that it allows us to experience something that so many of us rarely experience: the right to practice democratic decisionmaking.
I encourage you to visit a nearby occupation or go to New York. And if you are a parent or educator, take your children or your students. Know in advance, however, that real democracy takes time and practice. Be patient, but be willing to engage with others, be open to differing ideas and perspectives, and consider getting involved.