A comment to my previous post eloquently stated a frustration that I think is rather common among Americans, that we have “a “stake” [in government] in the same way that flotsam has a stake in the ocean currents.” This vivid metaphor strikes a chord with me because it embodies the sort of cynicism that can cancerously eat away at democracy.
By contrast, consider the following quote from the New York Times, covering the historic free elections held in Egypt this week, “”It is like honey to my heart,” said Mohamed Mustafa Seif, 36, an accountant voting in downtown Cairo. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a role to play. My vote could possibly make a difference.”“
Why is it that we Americans, who enjoy historically unprecedented freedom and quality of life, feel like flotsam in the ocean, whereas Mr. Seif, whose freedom is nascent and fragile, feels like Winnie the Poo? Is Mr. Seif simply tied to an irrational hope, a child not yet burned by the embers of reality? Or do we have something to learn from him?
Mr. Seif believes that for the first time in his life, he has a voice. This voice is certainly no panacea. By all honest accounts, it is unlikely that daily life in Egypt will improve dramatically after the election. But after generations of forced silence, the voice of the people will finally be heard. For any single vote, even if defeated, there will be a record showing dissent. And the ability to lodge such dissent, without the fear of reprisal, is what makes each individual vote profound. For one dissenting opinion begets another, and the amalgam of dissenting opinions begets social power. The voice of a single vote is itself a signal, a call, a communication to political allies, that while we may not win this election, we will be heard. And perhaps, if we organize and persuade effectively, we may win and thus affect policy in the future.
Mr. Seif’s hope is the hope of democracy itself.
Now he does have a role to play. Now he can make a difference.
Under Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Seif was indeed like flotsam, being sloshed about by the tyrant’s unilateral current. Now, he is part of an engine, cobbled together from equal parts, competing, among other similarly cobbled engines, for a chance to move that current.
If Mr. Seif’s engine is to be powerful enough to move the ocean’s current, however, it must be made up of much more than just votes. It must contain a mechanism by which like-minded others are compelled to vote. This is the hard work of democracy, manifested informally around the dinner table, at the water cooler and in the local bar, formally through political writing, activism and campaigning. Mr. Seif himself does not have to forsake his career as an accountant to become a political activist, but hopefully, he will be free to do so if he chooses. Only time will tell if his body politic will successfully preserve those freedoms, of speech, of expression, of organization, that are preconditions for the hard work of democracy.
Democracy does not lie at the end of a road like a pot of gold. It is a process, an evolution. Democracy is the road, littered with potholes and brigands, but nevertheless, as Mr. Seif seems to acknowledge, worth taking.
We in the United States find ourselves further down that road, yet we have become cynical. Many of us seem to have forgotten that democracy does not begin and end on election day. We cast our ballots and are done with democracy until the next election. When we become dissatisfied by the state of our government, instead of engaging in the hard work of democracy as we are free to do, we opt to check out and thereby condemn ourselves to feeling like flotsam in the ocean.
But this feeling is self-inflicted.
We have a choice. A precious choice. A choice earned by the sweat and toil of our ancestors. We are free. We are free to debate. We are free to organize. We are free to persuade.
We are free to do the hard work of democracy.
So the next time you feel like flotsam in the ocean: knock on doors or make telephone calls for your favorite candidate, go to a town hall meeting, write an article, attend a Tea Party or Occupy rally, start a movement. And if you still need motivation, think of the 80 million Egyptians and countless other people around the world who are hungry for the freedoms that you enjoy.
Cherish your vote. Cherish your democracy.