There’re many call-and-response chants that are repeated across protests of different sorts, and one of them is my favorite. It’s quite simple. A single member of the crowd, or a small group, will shout “Show me what Democracy looks like.” In response, the rest of the crowd will shout “This is what Democracy looks like,” often while elevating their signs and pickets even higher into the air.
This short rally cry speaks to two very important facts. First, democracy, by its very nature, can only be successful if it has the input of its people. Second, there is no greater way of making one’s voice heard by elected officials than by calling them out directly, clearly and publicly.
In the U.S., we are pretty solidly entrenched in a two-party system. While that system continues, there will be a limited number of platforms available to us at any given moment. When we vote, we are choosing between package deals of policies. When we protest, we are influencing the content of those packages. And when a candidate for office can depend on voters to stick to party lines, as long as the candidate remains the so-called “lesser of two evils,” they are granted wiggle room to cater to corporate and special interests.
This is how we end up with a Republican Party that will unanimously vote against expanding social security in the Senate, while more members of their base favor expansion than reduction. Or a president who has repeatedly increased the use of predator drones with 80 percent of democratic voters “concerned” or “very concerned” that the program is endangering the lives of innocent civilians.
There are many ways to take back some of this influence that a two-party system inherently robs from we the people. We can write letters or even arrange meetings with our representatives. This is important, especially in numbers, yet lacks the teeth to result in a high likelihood of significant change.
Protests, which I’m defining as an organized, public expression of dissent, are one of the most powerful ways of influencing a decision maker. In the case of politics, a protest can be the equivalent of undoing the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars or more in television advertisements or fliers, while an organized string based in fact and passion can result in an impact unattainable by many super PACs and special interests.
One of the top highlights of the recent Democratic debate was Senator Bernie Sanders loudly proclaiming that “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Secretary Hillary Clinton’s] damn emails.” Indeed American politics often lapse into the sensational, with races devolving into name calling and the hurling of insults. Many who express concerns over protests are weary about introducing any new conflict into the fray, and with good reason. However the difference between criticizing politicians for their proposals and records versus criticizing them for entirely non-political reasons is rather akin to the difference between a lumberjack and an axe murderer: the two acts can easily be described as similar in many regards, yet the productivity they yield couldn’t be more distinct.
It is a well-known fact that Case Western Reserve University students love to complain, albeit probably not more than students on most campuses. And we have a lot of things we care about. In spite of our busy schedule packed to the brim with academics, we somehow find the time to support individuals with mental illness, LGBTQ individuals, the environment, Socialism, Libertarianism, human rights, net neutrality, feminism and so much more. Yet we haven’t had a political protest with 10 or more attendees on campus since the 70s, and barely any in that time. With such a concentration of talent and passion, it feels like a waste that we aren’t more often directly involved in the political process. Maybe this election cycle can be the moment Case Western Reserve University jumps back into the fray.
Conflict in politics isn’t always pretty, but it is just as essential to democracy as compromise. Hashing out exactly where our different interests lie and pushing our representatives to be actually representative is a process that has been ongoing and fine-tuned since the founding of our country.
Remember the word used to describe a government built entirely on agreement: totalitarianism.
Barry Goldberg is a fourth-year student majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in history. He would gladly provide worksheets and support for anyone interested in becoming more politically involved or joining in on protests who emails him at Barry@case.edu.