Democracy fails us only when we choose to fail it
A generation ago, our nation’s youngest president spoke the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This simple line from the charismatic former President John F. Kennedy ushered in an age of political activism and hopeful politics.
This energy was met with at least five major assassinations, including the death of the president who uttered those words.
The 1960s held in its confines the voice of a generation, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr. From Washington to Selma, the air crackled with the power of democratic civil society.
Around 40 years later, the reemergence of these politics would be concentrated into the campaign slogan “Yes we can.” 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama personified the hopes of a people and the power of a democracy, personified the dreams of a people who not a century ago had been barred from voting.
Rising to the presidency on the promise of change brought a welcome end to the cynicism of the Bush years. His presidency faced an enormous amount of scrutiny, and unsurprisingly he stood up to it. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his article “My President Was Black,” described Obama’s presidency as one where he “walked on ice, and never fell.”
This president may not have been perfect, but he instilled a generation with the hopefulness that had permeated the politics of the Kennedys. Or did he?
On the tail end of Obama’s presidency, the foul forces of cynicism began to creep from the periphery and into the limelight.
In 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ran a campaign based on the exacerbation of racial grievance politics, scapegoating illegal immigrants, and destroying conventions. Even more surprisingly, his bragging about sexual assault was not enough to bar him from the highest office in American politics.
It seemed as if no amount of scandal could bring him down. Both Republicans and Democrats have felt the collective effects of this phenomenon. Democratic politicians such as Nancy Pelosi have engaged in rhetoric that emphasizes the strategic value of political positions.
The precipice of this cynicism came to a head in the Republican support for an alleged pedophile running for the United States Senate, Roy Moore.
The case for hope is simple, but imperative. The alternative is toxic and burns away the fabric of a democratic people.
Democracy is not about votes, policies, or approval ratings. Democracy is about people.
Every vote that a senator casts, every policy that a bureaucrat pens, and every bill that crosses a president’s desk affects a real person’s life. If health care gets cut, people die; if tax credits go away, people lose their homes; and if immigration policies change, people are cast from the country.
Losing sight of this is how we got here. Democracies run on their people exercising the right to command their own fate. The politics of hope is rooted in a faith in people’s ability to decide what is best for them.
Politics is not dirty unless we allow it to be.
It is often said that we get the politicians we deserve. In any democracy, the people of that system have the right and duty to shape that system. If you think your politician is reneging on their principles, run for office, vote and organize, but please do not say that this is how it has to be.
Cynicism prompts us to disbelieve in the power we have over our government.
Believing in people’s power and ability is what drives the engine of a democratic society. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you have an obligation to fight for the politics you believe in, and you have the ability to make those beliefs a reality.
We get the politics we deserve, and if you don’t fight for the government you want, then you deserve the one you have. A generation ago, a movement that would change the American system forever started with a bus boycott.
The power to drive change is in the hands of people, not politicians. The case for hope is simply believing in that power.
Opinion columnist Zach Appel is a political science sophomore and can be reached at the [email protected]