The Democratic Process

statue of liberty

As citizens of a democratic country, voting is not only our right, but our responsibility. We know that in order to enjoy a government of, by, and for the people, we have to exercise the power vested in us to shape the society we want to live in. As Unitarian Universalists, one of the seven principles we uphold is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Likely the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the words “democratic process” is voting. But notice that the word “voting” is not used in the principle itself. I think this is not accidental. It is an acknowledgment that the democratic process encompasses so much more than walking into a voting booth on election day and casting our single ballot.

Of course, many people choose not to do even this, the most basic duty we have as citizens. Many say that the reason they do not vote is because they do not see how their one vote could possibly matter or make a difference. Perhaps you too are sometimes overwhelmed with a feeling of powerlessness, knowing that your vote is only one of millions. For us to feel this way is exactly the goal of powerful and wealthy interests who look to influence the powers of government in their own favor, at the expense of society as a whole. Mind-boggling amounts of money are poured into our elections with the goal of swaying the outcome, either through influencing the way people vote or through suppressing their ability to vote in the first place.

The sheer amount of money and effort that goes into this is all the evidence I need to know that the one vote invested in each of us is the only true form of power in a democratic society. We often bemoan the influence of money in politics and elections, yet we see that the candidate who spends the most (or has the biggest super PAC) still does not always win. Of course, money certainly helps, and without it a candidate stands little chance of winning, but at the end of election night, victory is tallied not in dollars, but in votes.

And yet, the reason we so often feel like our vote doesn’t matter is because we have allowed ourselves to believe that voting is the beginning, middle, and end of the democratic process, when nothing could be further from the truth. Voting is a single action, something we do only when an election rolls around. But that is hardly a process. No, the democratic process is the constant, ongoing project of conversation, persuasion, argument, education, and expression that we engage in every single day. It is this constant back and forth, the give and take of information and ideas, the exercise of our first amendment rights, that ultimately produces the outcomes of elections.

The fragmentation of media and information sources coupled with the notion that it is not polite to discuss politics have led to what I believe to be a massive breakdown in the democratic process. We all hesitate to talk about the issues of the day with a stranger, uncertain of where they get their information and which “facts” they subscribe to. Or we avoid discussing politics with certain friends and family members because we know exactly where they get their information.

As UUs, we thrive on conversations about religion with people who walk a different path than our own. Our perspective on faith and spirituality lowers the stakes of these conversations enough that we can allow our curiosity and compassion to guide us through conversations that many would find challenging or impolite. And it is precisely this openness that draws others to us. It is more difficult to cultivate this kind of openness when it comes to politics because we see the stakes all around us, and they are real. The fire of our commitment to social justice often leaves little room for curiosity and compassion to lead.

And yet, for the majority of people who are not avid followers of politics, their personal relationships can be one of the biggest factors in how and, indeed, whether they vote. You will likely never change someone’s mind in the span of a single conversation, and if you have avoided the topic with someone for a long time, it is going to take gentle and gradual efforts to create a space for it. But it is imperative that we practice and regain our national discourse in the form of everyday conversations with our friends and relatives, maybe even coworkers, if you can imagine such a thing. If you go to vote on election day but not a single person in your life knows or respects your viewpoints, then you have not truly participated in the democratic process.

The power of our votes comes in aggregate, from the collective. This is one area where the individualism of Western society has failed us. It is so difficult for us to view ourselves as one small but vital part of a greater collective, but elections are not won by individual votes. They are won by networking, organizing, canvassing. They are won when we use our personal, social, and political capital to win people to our causes. That is the true source of political power that wealthy elites fight tooth and nail to prevent us from realizing.

The deadline to register to vote in Tennessee is October 5. Early Voting begins October 14 and ends October 29th. Election day is November 3rd. Make your plan to vote, but more importantly, make a commitment to make sure every person in your network votes as well, and have conversations where you can about how they will vote. Take the time to learn why they believe their choices reflect their values, and try to convey how your choices reflect your values. Make sure you know about the down-ballot races and can inform others about them. I guarantee you will feel rude and pushy for doing this, but you would be amazed by how much people might appreciate your desire to help inform them. Even if your efforts do not get far, you will have taken the first step toward normalizing the healthy political dialog that we so desperately need.

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