By Nora Howe & Scott Warren
June 15, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
After closer-than-expected special congressional races in the Republican strongholds of Kansas and Montana, Democrats are placing endless energy and financial resources into electing Jon Ossoff in the upcoming Georgia 6th District race against Republican Karen Handel. With Democrats hoping to channel national momentum against President Donald Trump into a win in a Republican stronghold, the race is poised to cost over $30 million — the most expensive House race. Ever.
The fact that so many are donating and volunteering in a local congressional race represents a promising sign that Democrats are organizing in an unprecedented political moment. Digging deeper, though, the intense focus on the Georgia 6th and the upcoming 2018 midterm elections illustrates a familiar and troubling pattern: progressives placing hopes, dreams, and resources into individual races, rather than focusing on the broader challenges facing our American democracy.
We understand the challenge of shifting focus from the immediate to the foundational. For Democrats, it is difficult to think about anything other than the immediate tasks at hand: taking back the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. The problems are both endless and urgent: the withdrawal from the Paris Accord, Obamacare in the balance, escalated immigrant deportations, and a Republican Congress that continually ignores Trump’s anti-democratic proclivities. Electing the right candidates is undoubtedly vital in addressing these challenges.
But focusing solely on regaining power is not sufficient. Whether Ossoff prevails or loses, the underlying problems that plague our government will remain. Rather than concentrating on the next race, Democrats, and all democracy-appreciating Americans, need to focus on the longer game. Rather than just fighting against Trump, we need to fight for our democracy. Indeed, Trump’s election is a symptom, not a disease — his ascendancy did not materialize out of nowhere. The threats to our democracy run deeper than one man.
Post-November, we hear about threats to our democratic institutions every day. But rarely do we actually look at the statistics and data that illuminate the true precariousness of the situation. The decline in civic participation is perhaps most alarming — voter turnout has been consistently declining since 1964. The United States ranks 31st out of 35 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in voter turnout, and only 20 percent of young people voted in the 2014 midterms, the lowest rate in history.
This participation crisis has accompanied growing skepticism in government itself. Perhaps most worrisome is a growing belief that the very concept of democracy might not work. Asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how “essential” it is for them to live in a democracy, 72 percent of Americans born before World War II check “10.” Less than 33 percent of millennials, however, believe the same. Similarly, while nearly 80 percent of Americans trusted government in 1975, that rate has plummeted to less than 20 percent.
This decrease in citizen participation and belief in democracy may feel somewhat deserved — with increasing economic inequality, continual political stagnation in Washington, and the never-ending and corrosive influence of money in politics, ordinary citizens do not feel heard. But these declines still carry real repercussions. The less people participate in the process, the more the powerful are able to consolidate power. Put in a different way, perhaps paradoxically, the more corrosive our democracy becomes, the more important it is for us to participate. But this revitalization does not happen overnight.
The question becomes how to fight against Trump’s agenda, and for the candidates who will do the same, while concurrently combating the forces that conspired to abet his ascendancy. The answer must be long-term: rebuilding the foundations of our democracy and concentrating efforts locally.
First, over the last few decades, there has been an erosion of civics education, for young people and adults alike. We have not emphasized the primary purpose of our public education system: educating citizens to participate in the complex task of self-governance. Perhaps no task is more important than revitalizing our democracy than investing in the very foundation of its success: young people engaging in the process. Pressure your school board to emphasize civics, and your members of Congress to prioritize civics funding in the recently passed Every Child Succeeds Act.
Second, rather than spending millions on races thousands of miles away, it is crucial to engage locally, and not just in federal races. For every dollar you give Ossoff, give to a candidate in your own district. We need a reinvigoration of energy and money into local parties, and city council and state legislature races.
And thirdly, remember that change in a democracy takes time. For Democrats, the positive of this reality is that Trump has been unable to enact his entire agenda quickly. But part of engaging in the democratic process is not getting a desired result, and remaining engaged. There is a risk that newly minted activists will become frustrated if not every congressional race goes their way. Sustained engagement is the only way to sustained change.
The energy in the Georgia 6th race is heartening. But to solve the overarching problems in our democracy, it is insufficient. While we’re facing an important fight in Georgia, and in districts across the country, we must recognize the bigger, and broader, fight: the one for the very survival of our democracy.
Nora Howe works to engage young people in the political process as a Program Associate at Generation Citizen. Scott Warren is co-founder and CEO of the same organization. GC works to empower young people to be informed and active citizens through implementing an action civics curriculum in schools across the country.
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