Participating in a democracy

With election season underway and the first debate for the democrats tonight, people are paying more attention to politics. Obviously this has been an odd election due to the non-establishment politicians running for president, and even becoming the front runners. What a lot people tend to forget is that politics is not just relevant every four years. Political activism is an important part of our lives because the way the country is governed impacts not only ourselves, but the entire country for generations to come.

The reason I feel a lot of people are turned off politics is for two reasons. 1) That politics is boring and takes too much effort to learn, or 2) What the individual does will not have an effect on the outcome.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of politics is boring. Most people couldn’t care less about the legislative process our the power plays that go on in congress. But while those parts are boring the actual issues that politics focuses on are interesting. Since people are naturally very opinionated, as long as they aren’t completely self-centered, it’s difficult to have absolutely no feelings for an issue. Chances are they feel very strongly for at least on topic, whether it is gay rights, veterans benefits, helping the poor, healthcare, abortion, or any other topic, there is something political that resonates with their personality. You don’t have to know everything about politics to still fight for these issues.

The truth is that with around 318 million people in the United States, the individual vote really does not matter much. While yes it is true that if you collect everyone that didn’t vote that adds up to a large group of people that could make a difference, but that assumes that they’re all going to vote for the same thing. But while the way you vote may not matter, there are other ways to participate that are more effective. I guarantee that protesting sends a louder message than your vote every could. However the most disheartening this is when you pour your soul into an issue just to see the nation vote against you, and all the work you put into the issue is reversed. Everyone has had a politician they admire lose, everyone has had a bill they despised passed, but these things happen.

This was addressed directly by the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In book 9 IX of his Meditations he states:

The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivelers. Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter. For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

This is an odd passage for the book because it is not as upfront as the other entries and it doesn’t follow the same theme as the others. But just to dissect it I’ll give my interpretation of it. The universal cause represents the will to make conditions better, which in a sense is what politics is for. When Aurelius says “all these poor people who are engaged in political matters,” given the context I do not think he means literally poor people, but just the uninformed. As he says, they are playing the philosopher when they don’t seem to know what they talk about and as a result the “universal cause” is more difficult to achieve. Because that is one downside of a democracy: no matter how uninformed a person is their opinions still count.

The next part is simple: to counteract all the work they are doing you have to set yourself in motion. If you feel that strongly for an issue then you need to actively work towards it. Don’t expect a lot of praise. But when he says not to expect Plato’s Republic, he means do not expect things to be perfect. The Republic is often regarded as a utopia. Instead simply be happy if you gain any small victory, because in hindsight any small victory means progress is still being made. It is difficult to change the opinions of others which makes participating in a democracy even more difficult, so don’t expect too much.

Aurelius is known for giving little blurbs of wisdom. Find an issue that you feel strongly for and work towards that issue. Don’t spread yourself too thin or you’ll get worn out. The truth is it doesn’t always matter who the president is. Because if there are a million people camped outside the White House all protesting the same thing, something will get done if it is the will of the people.

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18 thoughts on “Participating in a democracy

  1. There seems to be such a distance now between the “will of the people” and their elected representatives. The only way the people can be heard is through peaceful or not-so-peaceful demonstrations and funny isn’t it the way there is always a police presence as if this democratic right to free speech is somehow against the law. I worry that once a group of politicians get together they forget (like banks) who is actually paying them. Suddenly the money they have access to is theirs by divine right and the people who voted them in are a bit of a nuisance. I know I’m sounding cynical but I think Marcus Aurelias is right when he says “be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter”. There is a politician here in Australia who is marvelous. His name is Scott Ludlam and he manages to listen to the people and present our concerns faithfully…he said recently “the true leaders are outside Parliament working in the community and quietly pressing for change”. He’s right. It’s those smaller but clearer voices we should be listening to.

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  2. Another important part of participating in a democracy would probably be trying to keep it one, by exposing people and organizations that try to wrest control of the state from the people. The monopolization of information in particular makes countries less democratic. It seems to me that people don’t vote because they don’t endorse the state, which usually means they don’t believe that it’s actually democratic.

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  3. With humbleness I think that the system that we call democracy is not working a while ago. As Wendy said, there is a lot of distance from our interests and those from people in power. Norberto Bobbio, a theorist in politics wrote many years ago that the representative system has been the fastest one to be corrupted. Even though, I think that we need to combine the things we can do, including voting. Politicians promise a lot, and they don’t receive any punishment if they fail. But we can forced them to walk their talk using social movements, social media and so on. Thanks again for your reflexions.

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  4. “Because that is one downside of a democracy: no matter how uninformed a person is their opinions still count.” I loved his line. Great essay. I failed philosophy in school. I’m finally seeing it being practiced to great effect in your work. Every time I read your work, I rush back and re-edit mine. Thank you and keep it up.

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  5. While agreeing with the points you make in general, I think that by “universal cause” Aurelius may have been thinking of “what is popular” or even “mob rule.” Even so, I agree that he is trying to inspire people that are committed to the common good. While the demagogue gathers people around them, they don’t have any consistent purpose. All their flash and show adds up, in the end, to nothing. The people that strive for an excellent result (that wonderful goal of “arete”) slowly build up a great and essential edifice that cannot be torn down. It is this that preserves modern democracies: the enormous social energy – although often passive and misdirected – that is stored in our institutions, allowing them to brake any rush into tyrannical rule.

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  6. The theme is consistent. His affirmations to himself of the stoic philosophy, the inviolate universal reason even in the face of obliteration, and the adamant Ruling Mind even while aware of the eclipse of that philosophy by Skepticism and Epicurianism and the deterioration of his Rome and his despair. Detachment yet participation, “whistling in the dark, or rather whistling to insist that reason proves there is a clear brightness and order which the darkness veils” per Irwin Edman. “Consider the past; the great shifts in political supremacy…”, Meditations, Book VII, 49. Presciently, the stoic philosophy has been inverted and adopted as the raison detre of today’s movement activists: “Treasure your sense of injury (genuine or counterfeit), and people will rever you as if you made the world a better place.” – Thomas Szsaz.

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  7. I think you’ve really hit on some essential elements of being a citizen – it’s about responsibilities as much as rights. However, voting (even putting in a blank ballot) does have an effect. If everyone votes, then everyone gets listened to equally. So if young people [insert any other group here] show up to vote, suddenly they become an important group to listen to. Voter apathy and political lack of interest go together.

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  8. I have a different interpretation: “all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher!” refers to the politicians themselves. Aurelius pities them as poor drivellers because they think that they are wise and important like philosophers, when in reality they are merely building shifting alliances and trading political favors, making them like slaves who “groan while they pretend to obey” always trying to achieve fame and recognition (the “universal cause”), while Aurelius cautions that those who truly want to change the world should not to seek power and fame and indulge dreams of grandeur (“Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if anyone will observe it”) but rather to “be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter.”

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  9. I used to think it didn’t really matter who the president of the US was but since the catastrophic time of George Bush I no long think that! Unfortunately, viewed from here in Australia, the power of money in US politics is so great now that both parties have to chase it. I heard on PBS the other day that something like 150 wealthy families have given staggeringly huge amounts to the campaigns, dwarfing other contributions. That amounts to an oligarchy in anyone’s terms.

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  10. Considering how many people are really truly struggling in this country, I think the Marcus Aurelius’ quote COULD also apply to literally “poor” (un-wealthy) people! While I agree that it also means uninformed, I feel part of that reason for those being uninformed is that there is no time and/or energy to get properly informed ~ as many folks are devoting most of their time/energy to working (sometimes multiple jobs) just to make ends meet. The rest of the time is spent on personal (family/friends) and social media interaction. Another thing: uninformed could also mean “misinformed” ~ as corporate-owned media so often likes to do to the masses.

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  11. I am not into politics or political analysis but I am into issues–there are issues that concern me. I believe that votes may not be the ultimate form of participation but they can in mysterious ways make a difference and should not be relinquished. Beyond that, participating by writing, demonstrating, being the change and more, make a difference and have an impact as well–probably bigger but where is the tape measure? The thing is that we care and act as if we care. Thanks for your post– it obviously got me going😊

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  12. I will disagree, slightly, with your statement that one person’s vote does not count. In one sense you are right and in another you are not. While there are elections that have depended upon a single vote, it is the effort to vote that counts. Especially if one does speak with others about your vote. In a sense every time you speak about an issue or a candidate you are voting. Yes, I know that it isn’t a ballot in a ballot box but it is a vote. Here in Pima County I chew out the County Board of Supervisors on a regular basis and I believe that the points I make resonate with others and might have had an effect in the recent bond election. Thus my one voice, my unofficial vote, made a difference. And it is the snowball effect that is important.

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