Civic Participation Begins in Schools
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Fostering a robust democracy in America requires that we create a truly democratic school culture.
‘Generations of young people growing up in the United States have witnessed a sustained institutional disregard for equal rights, freedom of speech, voting rights, and access to decent housing. Young people in this era are particularly disillusioned about a democracy in which Twitter wars at the federal level become an acceptable substitute for dialogue and debate about substantive matters.
Many schools have failed to prepare our youngest citizens to become stewards of democracy, possessing the knowledge and skills required for active and engaged citizenship. Statistics demonstrating this failure are plentiful: Only one-third of Americans can name all branches of government, and one-third cannot name any at all. 37 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed in the first amendment. And perhaps the most worrisome statistic: Only 33 percent of Americans born after 1980 consider democracy essential, while 24 percent of young people consider democracy a bad way to govern a country.
Today’s nationwide toxic environment provides an impetus for articulating a more inspiring and citizen-centric vision for our public schools. This new vision includes re-imagining schools as laboratories of democracy, enlisting young people as co-collaborators with educators and local community members as partners in constructing the democracy our country both needs and deserves. Rather than exhorting young people to understand a staid conceptualization of democracy that reduces their own agency in the ever-changing American narrative, there is an opportunity for schools to engage our youth as legitimate political actors who can help us re-envision the very practice and values associated with democracy.
We can transform schools into beacons of democracy by ensuring that schools focus on centering education in the communities in which they are located, by constructing classes that are relevant to students’ lives, and by creating a democratic culture within school walls.
The process begins with a greater respect for the community in which school are situated. Students need to understand that the community is a place where citizens make their wants and needs known, and work together to solve communal challenges. Community members need to see the success of young people as relevant to the success of the community. Elected officials can learn to recognize students as purveyors of important local civic knowledge, capable of informing the most complex policy debates. Young people have a place in the community’s discourse and action, and it is important for them to experience the messiness and the satisfaction alike of the democratic process.
Our democracy may indeed be at risk, but an appreciation for our unprecedented times opens up unprecedented possibilities. A foundational reorientation of the purpose of public education can enable our youngest generation to not only understand democracy but also participate in creating a better version of it. We may have not yet created a democracy stable enough for future generations. But young people can help to create a better one.‘
Sylvia Rousseau & Scott Warren
“The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Russian Oligarch Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury on Friday, February 16th, 2018, for interfering in the American election.
“Facebook, Twitter and Google have all identified the Internet Research Agency as a prime source of provocative posts on divisive American issues, including race, religion, gun laws and gay rights, particularly during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook found, for example, that the agency had posted 80,000 pieces of content that reached more than 126 million Americans.” [NYTimes]
Imagine a world where democracy lives up to its lofty promise… where problems are solved by debate and compromise rather than vitriol and internet trolls. A nice thought isn’t it?” asks Brian Klaas. As a scholar of democracy and authoritarianism, he’s seen fear-and-division politics rising across the world, but says we’re more powerful than we think in reversing this trend. Beyond the uncomfortable stats of our civic shortcomings; he shares moments with those he’s met risking their freedom and their lives for a democratic choice; and offers five concrete ways we can start changing what we don’t like.
Thoughts from Brian Klaas:
Democracies around the world are dying. Remember: Being a citizen is a full time job.
People who say, “my vote doesn’t matter”? Wrong.
Politicians pander to those who vote. (Who votes in majority? Older white males.)
Democracies are dying. One man in Russia who was being followed by the secret police told Klaas, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
-David Foster Wallace
We need to remember how powerful we are.
Of the people.
By the people.
For the people.
Ongoing paradox: People are unhappy with the system, but not many do much to understand it…or do anything.
In the midterm election in 2014, 36% of registered voters voted. 64/100 didn’t bother.
In the 2016 presidential election? 60% voted. And the current president was voted in by 30% of the US population. Apathy voted a candidate into the Oval Office.
80,000 people tipped the election…enough to fit into a football stadium.
We get the candidates we deserve.
P A R T I C I P A T I O N
Our collective power to save democracy:
Vote in every election…local and national, because the local candidates become national candidates.
Before the election talk to 10 people before voting.
Be the boss to your politicians; they work for us. Whether they agree with you or not, tell them how you feel.
Reach out to someone who believes completely differently from what you believe. And listen.
Run for office or organize a new political group.
Actions become ripples and those ripples become tsunamis.
Think about it. If women waited for an invitation, we still wouldn’t have the right to vote.
2018 is ours. And the youth? They are activating.
︶⁀°• •° ⁀︶
Go see it. It will give you hope. (Stay until the very final credit rolls.) ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
When Nazi planes dropped bombs on London, Edward R. Murrow climbed to the rooftops. Despite personal risk & the fear his signal would lead bombers straight to him, he brought the horrors of Hitler’s war to the ears of listeners around the world.
[Stand Up Ideas: Founded by Evan McMullin, & Mindy Finn to strengthen Americans’ commitment to democratic ideals & norms through civic education & leadership development.]
Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.
Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.
In January 1898, the famous author Emile Zola wrote a stinging indictment of French leadership and its embrace of anti-Semitism for political ends. The scourge was, he wrote, a moral outrage, with powerful men embracing a deeply harmful, and potentially violent, ideology for short-term political gain.
Titled “J’accuse,” Zola’s public letter to the president of the republic – the immediate cause of which was to protest the military leadership’s anti-Semitic attacks on an officer named Dreyfus – still stands, more than a century later, as the gold standard for public intellectuals seeking to hold morally bankrupt political figures to account.
“What a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices!” Zola opined. “What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.”
I ACCUSE YOU, DONALD TRUMP, OF USING FEAR TO DIVIDE NEIGHBOR FROM NEIGHBOR. I ACCUSE YOU OF PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH AMERICA’S PRESENT STANDING AND ITS FUTURE POSITION IN THE WORLD. I ACCUSE YOU OF USING YOUR OCCUPANCY OF THE WHITE HOUSE NOT TO IN ANY CONCEIVABLE WAY IMPROVE THE GENERAL WELL BEING, BUT TO FURTHER YOUR NARCISSISTIC, VAIN, AND CRUEL FANTASIES.
During the election campaign, I attempted my own “j’accuse,” for the progressive web site Truthout, detailing the numerous ways in which candidate Trump was committing a form of moral treason – stoking up fears and hatreds that would be impossible to contain once unleashed. During that election season, Trump accused Mexican migrants of being drug peddlers and rapists, talked of banning all Muslims from entering the country, fueled rage against journalists and used crude racist and sexist rhetoric whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Since the election, Trump’s behavior has only gotten more appalling. We now have the grotesque, almost pornographic, spectacle of the most powerful man on earth using his platform to urge police forces to beat up suspects. Using his platform to denigrate immigrants as “animals” who like to torture young women. Using his platform to marshal the forces of the federal government against refugees.
Using his platform to personally attack private citizens. Using his platform to promote his nepotistic, almost Mafia-like web of family and business and political interests. Using his platform to attack programs that encourage racial and economic diversity in colleges.
Using his platform to hold Nuremberg-styled rallies using barely adolescent Boy Scouts as a background prop – a spectacle as creepy, and as redolent of insecurity, as that of a grown man boasting of his sexual exploits to gain street cred with a gaggle of awkward middle school kids.
Using his platform to urge states to make it ever harder for poor, especially nonwhite, Americans to access the ballot box. And most recently, allowing the North Korean leadership to draw him into a potentially apocalyptic, public game of nuclear bluff.
I could, of course, go on. But it is for unsavory lists like this that the convenient phrase “etc.” was invented.
Trump, in his full-fledged bullying, scaremongering, blustering cretinitude, is not just “un-presidential,” whatever that somewhat nebulous phrase means. He is actively and aggressively unhumane.
He scorns empathy and humility as weakness, curiosity about other cultures as effeteness, and actively embraces a might-is-right rhetoric (witness his snarling speeches in September 2016 and again a week after his inauguration in which he argued that America should have seized Iraqi oil, telling his audience “to the victors belong the spoils”) last employed in “the western world” that he claims to be saving from barbarian hordes by the expansionist Nazi regime from 1933-1945.
He has surrounded himself, domestically, by sycophants and propagandists who can serve as props to his fragile narcissism – witness the extraordinary spectacle of his first full cabinet meeting, much of which was taken up in outlandish expressions of praise for the president; and, internationally, by dictatorial buddies such as Erdogan, El-Sisi and Duterte, who are as far from embodying liberal, enlightenment values as are any modern-day leaders on earth.
Were Trump just a temporary distraction, one could perhaps choose to ignore him, or to minimize his importance by presenting him simply as a bizarre, reality-TV, outlier. A plastic president for a plastic age.
But there’s nothing temporary about Trump’s project. His vision, as laid out in his sickening “American carnage” inauguration speech, is to fundamentally reshape America as a nasty, brutish, ethno-nationalist citadel. I doubt that in the long run he will succeed in achieving this, not least because in addition to being a monstrous narcissist he is also chronically, dementedly, cartoonishly inept. Trump, the uncouth and uncultured businessman-president is, quite simply, a fiasco of a manager.
But what this Joker-like figure is far more likely to accomplish is the permanent wrecking of America’s unique status as the “indispensable nation” serving as glue for a liberal, pluralist, open international order. What he is far more likely to preside over is a permanent reduction in America’s global standing, as populations the world over look at his behavior and his actions and his values, look at the chaos he has unleashed, and the politics of fear that he has ridden to power in the United States, and turn their backs in contempt and shock.
And that is why I say, again, “j’accuse.” I accuse you, Donald Trump, of using fear to divide neighbor from neighbor. I accuse you of playing Russian roulette with America’s present standing and its future position in the world.
I accuse you of using your occupancy of the White House not to in any conceivable way improve the general well being, but to further your narcissistic, vain, and cruel fantasies. You are a morally puny man, Donald Trump, a bloated fellow who feels big only by making others feel small.
You puff up your chest and urge the police to beat up suspects, and urge the military to show no mercy on the enemy, and urge intelligence agents to torture those thought to be terrorists, not because any of this this will really make America safer but because in your twisted understanding of the world strength is shown only through violence.
And I say “j’accuse,” too, to the GOP leaders in Congress and in statehouses around the country who know exactly how toxic and unstable Trump is, yet continue to tolerate his banalities and his politics of fear in order to get their way on tax cuts, deregulation and judicial appointments.
Shame on the whole sorry lot of you. In tolerating a madman in office, you are permanently diminishing the country, you are scarifying its vital democratic edifice, you are coarsening the culture and playing havoc with the lives of millions of vulnerable people. The history books are never kind to men and women of such craven attitude. You are collaborators in Trump’s vile passion play.
SASHA ABRAMSKY’S 2013 BOOK,“THE AMERICAN WAY OF POVERTY,’ WAS LISTED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES AS ONE OF THE 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF THE YEAR. HIS NEW BOOK,”JUMPING AT SHADOWS: THE TRIUMPH OF FEAR AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN DREAM,” WILL BE PUBLISHED BY NATION BOOKS IN SEPTEMBER. HE CAN BE REACHED AT SABRAMSKY@SBCGLOBAL.NET.
‘But if not for ourselves, at least for our children, we should unite to respond to these attacks on our lives, liberties and the environment. In his poem “Let America be America Again,” Langston Hughes says,’
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
‘It is indeed possible that after this period of turmoil we may reach that beautiful stage when democracy and justice will come back to America. As Leonard Cohen says in his song “Democracy,”’
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the USA.
By:Cesar Chelala| MAY 31, 2017 Bill Moyers & Co
To bridge to the chasms of ‘siloed’ ideologies and the echo chambers of polarized media, if we open our hearts to listen, deeply listen, and connect empathy, I believe we will bridge the chasms when we discover shared foundational common values for people and democracy. We the people.
“In this time of dire need for “a revelation in the heart,” when the values of democracy are continually misconstrued and misused, Cohen’s immortal words come to life in a beautiful short film — part tribute to Cohen, part fundraiser for Pen America, part public service to lift the human spirit, narrated by Neil Gaiman, with music by Amanda Palmer and gorgeous watercolor art by David Mack and Olga Nunes.
“In this compelling hybrid of memoir and sociological analysis, Vance digs deep into his upbringing in the hills of Jackson, Ky., and the suburban enclave of Middletown, Ohio. He chronicles with affectionâand raw candorâthe foibles, shortcomings, and virtues of his family and their own attempts to live their lives as working-class people in a middle-class world. […] Vance observes that hillbillies like himself are helped not by government policy but by community that empowers them and extended family who encourages them to take control of their own destinies. Vance’s dynamic memoir takes a serious look at class.”
In the many year Stacy Krantiz has been documenting life in Appalachia—as seen in her ongoing project As it was Give(n) to Me—she has deftly navigated the minefield that comes with photographing in this often misrepresented part of the county. At least since Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the 1941 book by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans* that chronicled the lives of poverty-stricken sharecroppers in the South, residents have rightfully complained about how outsiders have portrayed them in photographs—nothing short of a kind of visual openmouthed gawking and pointing. By living with her subjects, Krantiz challenges and plays with common stereotypes of the beautiful hill region of southern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Kranitz’s photos show her living it up with the subjects of her photos, deeply embedded, fully embraced, sometimes even appearing in the images herself. She photographs as a member of the family, showing the good and the beautiful, along with the bad and the ugly. Nothing to hide.
For additional perspective, watch Rory Kennedy’s poignant documentary, “American Hollow”. It is the story of one Appalachian family living in a hallow of Kentucky for seven generations. Kennedy chronicles their lives for one year. 
In the Assyrian tale of Gilgamesh, over seven thousand years old, the lost and empty king doesn’t listen to the pain in his heart and so mistakenly declares war on Nature, projecting his pain as something to be conquered in the world.
How many times do we project our pain onto the world, rather than face the emptiness in our heart? How many times have we all been given a sign of what might help us find our way only to smash the sign, out of grief, impatience, or anger?
Projecting our pain, grief, impatience, and anger on others, abdicating our gifts to please a loved one, rejecting new learning because it challenges what is familiar, exiling others because they threaten our position or identity, and denying difficulty in hopes that it will go away – – these are all form of not listening that can undermine our aliveness in any given moment.
All would be well, he said, so long as the people made sure always to elect political leaders who were “wise and good.”
By the time we reach ancient Greece, philosophers like Plato start to offer formal definitions of the tyrannical soul, and the picture is one of the person who defrauds freely, takes violently, lies consistently, robs and kills. Think of ’45’ saying last year about terrorism suspects, “You have to take out their families.” Think of his remark, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
For many years, I’ve taught Plato’s “Gorgias” and “Republic,” where the tyrannical soul is described. Never did I think we would have a walking, talking example from American politics in front of us 24-7. But here we are. I don’t invoke ’45’ when we discuss passages about the tyrant in those texts. But the comparisons are so obvious that after class my students tend to make small, quiet remarks to me about it.
While the institutions of constitutional democracy were invented to make it easier to rein people in, those who did the work of drafting the Constitution never thought that institutions alone could solve the job. On the cusp of the Constitution’s ratification, founder James Wilson paused to ponder what it would take for the reorganized representative democracy to succeed. All would be well, he said, so long as the people made sure always to elect political leaders who were “wise and good.” The president and other elected officials, he pointed out, would populate the bureaucracies of the new nation. If they themselves were wise and good, they would also populate all the offices of the country with the wise and good. If they were not, then corruption would spread through the entire system.
This election has moved past questions of ideology and partisan position to fundamental elements of the human condition, elements so fundamental that we can find them recorded in the earliest human texts. From the beginning of human history, when tyrannical souls have acquired power, the people have found themselves groaning and crying out with laments under the burden of it.
Character matters because it is how we restrain the inner would-be tyrant in each one of us. It matters because it is how we limit the placement of great power in the hands of those with tyrannical instincts and appetites. If we’ve given up a commitment to character, we’ve already given up the game or, to speak more precisely, the work of protecting freedom, equality and human flourishing.
-Danielle Allen/Political Theorist at Harvard University
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Democracy is the most fragile thing on earth, for what does it rest upon? You and me, and the fact that we agree to maintain it. The moment either of us says we will not, that’s the end of it. It doesn’t rest on anything but us; it doesn’t rest on armed force, the moment it does it isn’t democracy. It isn’t something to kick around or experiment with.
-Allen Drury, Stanford University
‘We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy. It doesn’t.’
“Have you wondered why politicians aren’t what they used to be, why governments seem unable to solve real problems? Economist Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance for Greece, says that it’s because you can be in politics today but not be in power — because real power now belongs to those who control the economy. He believes that the mega-rich and corporations are cannibalizing the political sphere, causing financial crisis. In this talk, hear his dream for a world in which capital and labor no longer struggle against each other, “one that is simultaneously libertarian, Marxist and Keynesian.”