Last week I spoke at a seminary and graduate school in New York about the protests following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.
It was invigorating and inspiring to be among so many young people with so much passion about social justice, young people beginning to feel their power as change agents and brimming to exercise it by disrupting the status quo.
However, I couldn’t help noticing a disturbing sentiment echoed in a few of the questions about the value of voting. One gentleman even said something to this effect: “It doesn’t make a difference whom you put in office because the office is corrupt.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Voting is not some fruitless, patrician artifact from a bygone era. It is not for those devoid of consciousness and deprived of truth. It is an incredibly important part of civic engagement. No politicians are perfect, but neither are they all the same. The sameness argument is an instrument of deceit employed by the puppet masters to drive down the electoral participation of young idealists.
We don’t vote for people because they are the exact embodiment of our values, but because they are likely to be the most responsive to them.
Also, there has been too much blood spilled, too many bodies buried in the struggle to expand the franchise of voting in America for us to cavalierly shrug it off. And the effort to constrict the pool of eligible voters is too well organized and too well financed for anyone to see his or her vote as lacking value.
And yet, I do understand the bulging frustration that the political system can foster.
I understand the feelings of these young protesters who are chafing at our current representative democracy and yearning for — yelling for — more direct democracy in which “the people” make direct demands and direct decisions, possibly circumventing an admittedly polarized-to-the-point-of-paralysis federal legislative system.
Protests are a form of direct democracy.
But direct democracy works best at the local level, like town hall meetings. It is far more challenging and unwieldy when national policy changes are sought.
I understand the fundamental questions being raised in these protests and others. There is an emotional declaration: The system is broken. There is also a moral, philosophical question: Who are we?
Are we — or better yet, should we be — a nation that tortures detainees, or targets and kills American citizens with drones, or has broad discretion to spy on the American public? Should we be a country hamstrung over how to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants, or our gun violence epidemic, or our growing income inequality? Should we be a country that accepts bias in its criminal justice system, a country of mass incarceration and a country where so many young black men can be killed by the police?
Who are we?
That is a very real question. Who are we now and who do we aspire to be? Do we aspire to the ideas enshrined in our founding documents? Do we truly believe the Declaration of Independence?
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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
If so, then we must do as the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted this nation to do in his Mountaintop speech: “Be true to what you said on paper.”
King continued: “somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
He read those things in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
America is still straining, against corporatist, elitist, exclusionary forces, to be true in practice to what is clearly written on paper. Representative democracy is not a perfect form of government. It can be fragile and subject to corruption, the only guard against which is unwavering vigilance. But it is a grand idea, exquisite because of its fragility, and deserving of every effort to make it more perfect.
Who are we? We are America — impossibly strong, illogically optimistic, eternally hopeful. This is a laboratory in which one of the greatest experiments in human history is still underway. We can be whoever we want to be, dare to be, dream of being.
We are the young people in the streets, who shout out and die-in for the right to be treated equally and to live freely. We are people who must know that the voice and the vote are mutual amplifiers, not mutually exclusive.