By Kathryn Boland, ITF NBK Founding Member and Communications Team Co-Lead
As I write this in early November, 2020, election results are trickling in. The votes we’ve counted (not all of them yet) far surpass the votes cast in any other US election. Yet the rates of eligible voters who’ve cast a vote ranges from 30–70%. And this is record turnout. Given that, it’s safe to say that most Americans eligible to vote don’t do so. Most don’t write to their elected officials or volunteer on campaigns. Most don’t go to town halls, sign petitions, attend rallies, or march in protest. Why, in God’s name, would people not exercise these fundamental rights and duties of American citizenship?
There’s really no simple answer, but it seems as if American life at large isn’t conducive to political involvement and/or partaking in activism. Simply put, participating in civic life is a form of privilege: as I will show, it requires time and energy that not everyone has. Conversely, choosing to abstain completely is another form of privilege itself — the privilege to say “this doesn’t impact me, so why should I care?”. But it’s really those without either type of privilege who are most vulnerable and affected by the result of who chooses to participate and who doesn’t. Let’s peel back the layers and look at what’s going on. There’s a lot of work to do and particularly high stakes at hand in coming years, so this feels like an important focus at this time.
Evidently enough, being involved in politics and activism takes time. For the working class, time is literally money: an hour less pay might mean three fewer meals next week — or paying a late fee on a bill that you can’t afford, not being able to buy toilet paper, et cetera et cetera. Beyond that, making too many requests for time off work to participate in protests, organizing meetings, or town halls might mean you eventually get your hours cut or you even get fired. You might not have the savings to carry you through until you get another job (if that’s even possible). Even though Election Day comes just one or two days a year, the same dynamic is at hand with voting — the most basic democratic exercise.
Obviously, this doesn’t even get to insidious voter disenfranchisement efforts. To note just one, state IDs — which take money and time to acquire — are required to vote in several states. Well, everyone has a state ID, don’t they? I can say that because of moving states, combined with the COVID pandemic and working-class challenges that I generally face (for instance, time away from work, the money it costs to get an ID, and getting to a local DMV without a car), I personally was almost unable to vote in the 2020 election. It’s not as simple as you might think.
All of that considered, if you want to eat or not get evicted for not paying rent, taking time to do your civic duty or get involved in activism can be incredibly challenging. Even if you’re in the gig economy and can make your own hours, a constant state of just barely making it makes the temptation to keep working — rather than, say, go to a town hall — understandably quite hard to overcome. This economic marginalization ties in with all other types of marginalization — race, disability, LGBTQ+ identity, to name a few — given quantifiable disparities in employment, education, housing, health outcomes, and numerous other key areas of life.
Well, even if you’re poor, you can take two minutes to sign a petition, can’t you? There’s another aspect at play here making political and activism involvement tough if you’re working class — the mental exhaustion of poverty. Empirical data demonstrates the constant stream of calculations and choices that come from not having money, and the mental toll that takes.
Mental dialogues can go like this: “What bill can wait until next month to catch up on?”, “Oy, gas went up .25, and I got charged a late fee, now I have to redo my budget for the month.”; It’ll take a half-hour more to get there, but I really need new shoes and they’re half-off at (x) store…”. Such mental chatter is exhausting — but perhaps, dear reader, you already know that first-hand. It can really be too much to add in the logistics around activism and political involvement (time, place, deadlines, agendas, et cetera). That’s not to mention the mental and emotional toll of things like interacting with rude people when phone banking or dealing with police when protesting.
The harsh Catch-22 is that the working class and marginalized stand to benefit most from the positive effects that activism and grassroots political involvement can bring. Lack of real change that improves their lives only entrenches these challenges further through increasing disenchantment with and disaffection from the system; “what has politics or the government ever done for me?,” one can, understandably enough, imagine thinking.
A caveat to this whole line of thinking is how the marginalized and working classes are the ones leading mass movements to better their own lives, as well as those of others. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, overthrew segregation as a legalized discriminatory status-quo — while also instantiating a model of nonviolent resistance that would resonate ever further into American history. The sacrifices and strength at hand here are truly commendable. Yet one could argue that these communities had no choice but to stand up, join together, and say “enough is enough”.
Which leads us back to, conversely, privilege; if you hold a certain level of privilege and say, “meh, I don’t get that involved in politics,” it may very well be that the status-quo works just fine for you, that your hard-fought-for rights and protections aren’t on the line. Your employment, housing, education, healthcare, and your very existence aren’t threatened by a law passing or being repealed. You can afford not to pay too close attention. Whatever happens, you’ll be basically okay.
There are those who are privileged who, to their sincere credit, realize it’s their duty to stand up for those who are less privileged — through actionable measures of activism and political involvement. Yet there’s a tricky balance to strike between lifting up marginalized voices speaking for themselves, rather than descending into “white saviorism”, gatekeeping, or movement appropriation. The privileged in activist spaces should be wary of their own motivations: are you working to materially benefit those whose betterment you claim to be fighting for, or are you acting on behalf of the marginalized in order to assuage the guilt of your own privilege? There is danger in staying static in the latter.
All of that considered, it’s clear that American life doesn’t naturally promote activism or political involvement. If you’re marginalized, you very well may not have the time, mental energy, and relationship with your employer to make it work — at least not consistently. If you do engage in activism and are politically involved, you have wonderful strength and resilience — but you may also have no choice. The status-quo may be fully untenable for you.
On the other hand, if you are privileged, you may not feel any urgency compelling you to take civic action because you’re fine with the status quo. If you do so genuinely on behalf of those less privileged than you — to improve their actual material state — well, that’s laudable. We need more people like you to stand in solidarity with those less privileged. You’re also in the position to push for reforms that can make civic involvement more feasible for more people.
A first step is advocating for ways to make voting easier — pushing for automatic voter registration, fighting against disenfranchisement, and pushing for increased early voting periods and vote-by-mail options, for a start. On a more local and personal level, you can arrange childcare or transportation for someone so they can take part in a rally or town hall. So, dear reader, it’s in your hands — particularly if you are in a privileged social position. Will you remain complacent with the status quo, or fight for a better world for all?
To circle back to present-day context, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States in January, Democrats held the House, two run-off elections hold the potential to give the Democratic party the ability to actually legislate through the Senate, and progressive ballot measures passed all across the country. That was because thousands of people across the nation gave of their time, money, and energy for something bigger than themselves.
As Margaret Mead said, “never believe that a small group of committed individuals can’t change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The 2020s will call these same people (and hopefully new ones!) to push back against Trumpism — certainly not gone with him no longer in the Oval Office — as well as standing against Democratic incrementalism. Will you be part of such a small group of committed individuals? Or a larger coalition? Your move.