It is a principle of Roman Law that silence betokens consent: when you are silent, then you consent to whatever is being proposed (or not proposed). It follows that if you do not consent, you should not be silent. But that brings up an awkward question: when you speak up, is it just for the record, or do you actually want to change things? It seems that changing things requires a lot of work...
Part of the folk wisdom of democracy is that as politicians need to win elections in order to keep their jobs, the way for ordinary people to influence policy is to write to politicians, write letters to the editor, and perhaps attend occasional events - as individuals. So it was a bit disconcerting for Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels to write a book, Democracy for Realists, proposing that voters do not make their choices because of the effect of past policy over time, and outside of the consequences of the elections themselves, government policy does not much respond to elections anyway.
So how can ordinary people influence the politicians that they elect?
During the less transparent 1980s, BBC ran a comedy Yes, Prime Minister, presenting a not-entirely-non-partisan parody of how 10 Downing Street actually worked. In the Power to the People (see 10:40 - 14:00) episode, the prime minister's political advisor explains that if ordinary people want to get something, they form a group that goes out and talks to people and drums up support. (The episode then veered off into how a government might formalize this approach.) This may give us an answer to Achen and Bartels' puzzle: ordinary people might influence a democratic government (and/or the nation it governs) by organizing.
In his Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky described his experience building organizations that arose organically from the communities that they represented and served, and how these organizations effected changes. This took advantage of the often overlooked tail end of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. This entails organizing for secular purposes.
We can see this in recent events.
One movement that took this approach was the Tea Party. Many things came together, from Ron Paul's unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the presidency to efforts by President Bush and later President Obama to bail out the banks after the 2008 meltdown. In early 2009, ordinary citizens like Keli Carender and Rick Santelli started organizing groups that didn't merge so much as generate a Tea Party Patriots organization. Big donors are as attracted to band wagons as anyone else, and Americans for Prosperity poured money into the movement - leading to the accusation that the Tea Party was as much AstroTurf as grass roots. Well, certainly the money helped, but much of this activism was populist and much of the movement's strength arises from a broad base of organized activists who write letters to news sites and politicians, organize and participate in events, and participate in primary campaigns. One activist even wrote his own rules for tea partiers, and no doubt there are other manuals out there.
To every action, claimed Sir Isaac Newton, there is an equal and opposite reaction. After the election of Donald Trump, a group of Washington insiders composed an Indivisible Guide that offers "... a step-by-step guide for individuals, groups, and organizations looking to replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting Congress to listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents." Like the Tea Party, this Indivisible movement is based on building many local groups that - as an old environmentalist phrase goes - think globally but act locally. These groups run campaigns, which involves talking to citizens and politicians as part of organized activities, staged events, and they hope that through a long, slow process, they will gain a lot of influence.
So in answer to Achen and Bartels, the Tea Party does consist of ordinary citizens acting deliberately and successfully to influence policy, and the Indivisible movement hopes to do as well. This suggests that our democracy works not as three hundred million atomized individuals guiding the state, but as many groups, based on engaged individuals, guiding the state. And not just the state.
Other activists offer similar advice. Eric Liu of the University of Washington began his recent book on civic power by outlining how Florida tomato pickers - migrant workers with little English and resources - formed a Coalition for Immokalee Workers that extricated workers from forced labor, improved working conditions, and went on to win raises from Taco Bell, Burger King and MacDonald's (they are now working on Wendy's).
Notice that this takes time, patience, and sustained effort and attention. "All the performances of human art," wrote Samuel Johnson, "... are instances of the resistless force of perseverance: it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals." This goes for politics as well.
If tomato pickers can do it, so can we. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that "... as tensions between administrators, faculty, and students have increased over the past few years — particularly over issues like free speech — more professors say they are seeing the consequences of weak faculty governance." That means the system from departmental committees up through the faculty senate. But "Leadership veterans describe something of a vicious cycle: If faculty members are not engaged in the senate and voicing their concerns, the senate itself is limited in what it can accomplish": faculty don't want to spend time on a weak organization, so it remains weak, and the administration doesn't want to waste time on it, either. Such problems have led some faculty for form other groups, like faculty unions or chapters of the AAUP. But the reality is that the way to get a powerful organization is to build one, not wait for one.
So come and get involved. At USF, in your senate or the United Faculty of Florida. Or in the professional organization in your field. If you are interested in politics and would like to help UFF educate politicians, contact the Chapter Secretary about joining the political committee. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80 % of politics is showing up.
A Travel Tale
Lisa Starks is a professor of English and chair of the Verbal and Visual Arts Department at USF St. Petersburg. The USF Chapter of UFF was pleased to award her a scholarship for travel to a conference, and here is her account.
I’ve just recently returned from a truly wonderful experience presenting at the Shakespearean Theatre Conference in Stratford, Ontario. The conference’'s theme "What's Next?" was developed in various ways through sessions on new trends in Shakespearean studies, with an emphasis on performance and adaptations in various media. My panel, "Mediated Shakespeare," dealt with screen, television, and social media; my paper focused on gender and sexuality in biopics of both Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Plenary speakers included Peter Holland, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Sarah Beckwith, and Martha Henry. In addition to attending these sessions, speakers had the opportunity to attend the extraordinary stage productions at Stratford Festival at night and engage with directors and actors during roundtable sessions during the day. I crammed in as many plays as I could, including Richard Sheridan's School for Scandal, Euripides' Bakkhai, Middleton & Rowley's The Changeling, Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It was a glorious time, one which will greatly enhance my scholarship and teaching. I'm grateful to UFF for awarding me the travel scholarship to attend it.