April 26th, 1968.
Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy spoke before a group of medical students at Indiana University Medical Center, and laid out his plan to increase federal funding and programs to care for the most vulnerable in the nation: the poor, the elderly, and the sick. The crowd was scornful of his vision and their skepticism was summed up in a question asked by one of those young students.
“Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you’re proposing?” Without hesitation, Kennedy replied, “From you…you are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too….”
Can any of us imagine a present day candidate for office having the courage to push back so strongly against a group of voters? Having the idealism and the fire to actually call citizens out? Challenge folks to step up and to do their part for democracy, in such stark and clear rhetoric? I’m hard pressed to find such leaders in our current political climate.
Instead, so much of the time in our frantic run up to the election on November 8th, what I mostly hear from candidates at every level of government is this: “I promise that I will do this and this and this for you!” Voters eat it up because their questions often seem to be: “What are you going to do for me? For my tribe? For my special interest group? For my tax bracket? For my one life?”
Lost in this rush of civic narcissism and political pandering, is one forgotten democratic ideal: we, collectively, are the society, the government, the community, and the neighborhood. We. We are responsible, one to another, in building up the nation and creating institutions that reflect the will of the people. We. Us. All the people. Therefore it is each of our responsibilities to do the work of democracy, to step up and ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but instead, “What can I do as a citizen to contribute to the common good?”
Yes, I know I’m going all idealistic here. I know to suggest that democracy can and still and must work somehow, is swimming upstream against a tide of wearied cynicism and ugly public language that marks our current political dialogue. Guilty as charged. I’m a wide eyed cheerleader for democracy. I still believe that the best society always balances individual rights with communal responsibilities. That like it or not, we are all common passengers on the ship of state called the United States of America and so, somehow, we need to figure out, together, how to journey as one. And for me, that work begins when every single citizen does their part, their job, in our democracy.
I’ve learned these citizenship lessons in many settings: from my faith that teaches me the best life is one always devoted, in part, to being a good neighbor, making this world a better place. I learned it from parents and grandparents who sacrificed their individual good for a greater good. I learn it from neighbors who volunteer as a regular part of life: in a soup kitchen, on a Habitat for Humanity site, on a town board, tutoring kids, teaching prisoners. I’ll relearn it on November 8th when I take my place in line and cast my vote.
The key learning in all of this is one simple transformation: getting from “me” to “we”.
So here’s a charge. It is less than four weeks until Democracy Day. If you’ve not yet done so, register to vote and encourage others to do so too. The deadline in Massachusetts is October 19th. Study the issues, especially the four ballot questions that have been largely overshadowed by the Presidential election. Attend a public forum like the one I am helping to organize in my home town on October 20th, about legalizing marijuana. For it? Against it? Do the research. Become informed. Remember that all politics is local. Town and city citizen-led boards are always in need of members. Volunteer. Campaign for your candidate. Make phone calls, ring doorbells, and help get out the vote.
Democracy says to us: “Do your job.” Democracy works if we work it; of this I am fully convinced and convicted. Democracy works, but it needs us, workers, to make it work.
See you at the polls.