Democracy Can’t Be Reduced to Voting in 2022 — We Must Build the Future We Want

In an era of rising living costs and climate emergencies, infrastructure failures in Jackson (Mississippi) are all part of the present. BaltimoreAnd KentuckyTwo polls were conducted recently by NBC NewsAnd 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,”It is a form of representative democracy, as he called them.

Leah Litman (constitutional law scholar) demonstrated this in a recent Twitter post threadAuthoritarians are not content to curtail voting rights. The two Republicans who make up the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, a four-person group, voted against putting an initiative to legalize abortion on the November ballot. This was after canvassers from across the state had collected more than 750,000 signatures. Two Republicans blocked the will to more than 750,000 Michiganders (presumably not all of whom were Democrats) in order to undermine reproductive freedoms. “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 the violation of reproductive rights go hand-in–hand.

But the suppression of democracy goes deeper than far-right attacks against the electoral process. President Biden and others DemocratsKeep resisting calls to defund police. President Biden recently also laid out his “Safer America Plan,” which seeks to add 100,000 more police. His plan expands police, which, as an institution, has been able to shield itself from public accountability. 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. On the economic front, corporations like AmazonAnd StarbucksContinue to resist unionization campaigns in the country, which is blocking democracy at work.

Media conversations about the decline or threat to representative democracy can obscure the fact that participatory democracy in all areas has led to change or opened up 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. After the murders by George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, calls for defunding the Minneapolis Police Department were popularized. “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 debtFor borrowers. After years of holding meetings and building their membership, they won the campaign. 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 MovementThe, which popularized the term “ultra-wealthy” while calling itself the 1%, but also inspired participants and others to dedicate themselves to reclaiming control of public and privatized spaces through direct democracy. Both the Debt Collective as well as Movement for Black Lives show how democratic social movement can encourage people to participate in 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 adopt a long-term outlook in the pursuit of 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 no coincidence that many of the Movement for Black Lives participants in the past decade, such Alicia Garza (Mariam Kaba), and Andrea Ritchie, draw inspiration from Ella Baker, a civil right organizer. They also point to Baker’s commitment to guiding activists within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The grassroots participatory democracy politics of the 1960s and today offer three key lessons in transformative organizing: Engage in radical questioning of society to get to the root problem; practice democracy within ourselves to allow us to experiment with changing environments and institutions; and be open to making mistakes.

The demands of workers to organize, as well as efforts by them to engage in participatory bugeting and to address climate crisis, are all calls for, at minimum, popular control over the allocation of our resources.

Some anti-police violence activists and organizations, such as Action St. LouisParticipatory budgeting has been used by law enforcement agencies to divert money from them, and also to democratize the decision-making process around public spending. This led to a successful campaign for the closure of a local jail. 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 essential to defeat right-wing extremist authoritarianism wherever it appears, at the ballot box or in protest marches. But, democracy is not limited to participation in elections. To build a truly democratic society that is based on economic, racial and climate, reproductive, gender and disability justice, we must engage more radical education, organizing, and protest. We must support the groups at the forefront of these struggles, like the Kentucky groups. EKY Mutual AidAnd Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, who have been providing assistance to flood victims. Cooperation Jackson (in Jackson Mississippi), has also demonstrated 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 won’t defeat authoritarianism by 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.