From my observations as a student here at Berkeley, most of my classmates and peers are hyper-focused on their studies and extracurricular activities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but we — meaning students all over the country — are at risk of becoming complacent and indifferent to the state of our democracy.
I’m part of an organization here on campus called Democracy Hawks. Our team works to raise awareness about threats to democracy around the world, as well as telling people what they can do about it. We have watched with increasing concern as democracy is being eroded worldwide. In Russia, Iran and China, people are being arrested, censored or even killed for expressing dissenting opinions or otherwise challenging governmental authority.
I’ve often heard people here say that their vote doesn’t matter, or that it’s impossible to change anything. If everyone thought the same way, we would be opening the door for autocratic leaders to take power in the United States.
Thankfully, in the 2020 election, 81 million Americans stood up for democracy and said no to authoritarianism. However, alarmingly, only 50% of eligible young people, ages 18 to 29, voted in that election. While this percentage is higher than previous elections, it underlines the fact that our democracy is only as strong as its voters.
The price of complacency is higher than we realize.
In Russia, some everyday citizens who were caught in the snare of propaganda are now finding themselves being drafted into a bloody and destructive war that they don’t even agree with. Those who speak out against the war against Ukraine face harsh repression from the authorities. Just recently, I read a news article about a 19-year-old in Russia who is facing years of imprisonment for posting an anti-war message on social media. We in the United States must elect leaders that care about democracy and human rights. Even now, there are politicians who wish to limit the free discussion of certain issues in public schools and universities.
While I don’t think that politics should dominate one’s life, I do think that we should do our best to vote in every election — federal, state and local — and do research about the topics we are voting on. This isn’t meant to be a platitude or feel-good statement; we nearly dealt irreversible damage to our democracy, and our voter turnout rate did not reflect that danger. We shouldn’t take democracy for granted, and we should keep in mind that people around the world are fighting tooth and nail for the freedoms we already enjoy. Right now, in Ukraine, people are dying on the front lines not only to secure the independence of their nation, but also to ensure the survival of their young democracy.
No matter what issues you care about, the only way we will make any meaningful progress on them is if we preserve our democratic system. In the past two years, Congress has passed the most impactful climate legislation to date and the first major gun safety legislation in decades. The Inflation Reduction Act authorized a whopping $391 billion to fight climate change by investing in renewable energy. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act provided for more stringent background checks for gun purchasers under 21, as well as authorized federal funding for red flag laws that allow police to seize the guns of people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
While these pieces of legislation aren’t as sweeping as some would like, their successful passage is a testament to the persistent efforts of individuals who made their voices heard and worked within our democracy. If that means anything to you, then it’s important to fortify the system that makes this legislation possible.
I know that there are impassioned activists who are infinitely frustrated with the slow pace of progress in the United States. While this is a real and valid concern, what needs to be acknowledged is the fact that our democratic system is not the obstacle to change; indeed, it is what enabled the progress that made our country what it is today.
This may sound cliche, but your voice does matter, and it matters the most when millions of our voices shout at the same time. It’s easy to dismiss your own vote or voice as being a drop in the bucket, but if everyone thinks the same way and withholds their drop, then the bucket will be dangerously empty.
During the Civil Rights Movement, millions of Americans made it known to their government that they would not accept the status quo of segregation; if those Americans did not speak up for what they believed in, change would not have happened at all.
Democracy is not an empty or meaningless word. It is the reason why we are able to debate contentious issues, propose solutions and hold those in power accountable. Does this mean that every law passed by Congress will satisfy everyone? No. But it does mean that if we use our voices and our votes to persistently advocate for something, we will come closer to achieving that goal. Our next election is in 2024. Let’s make our voices heard.