Although the defeat of Donald Trump signals a kind of reprieve, democracy worldwide is on the retreat. Within the European Union (EU), Hungary and Poland have undermined their democracies through autocratic reforms. The Law and Justice Party within Poland has systematically packed the judiciary with judges loyal to the party and thus weakened the ability of the courts to hold the government accountable. In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orbán used the coronavirus to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.
The approach used in Hungary indicates a growing trend towards more authoritarianism worldwide using the pretext of the virus. In Hong Kong, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the postponement of the September legislative council elections due to the coronavirus. Since this decision, the government has disqualified opposition legislators. The opposition legislators who were not disqualified resigned in protest at this power grab by the Central Government in Beijing. Certainly, the coronavirus has hastened the destruction of “One Country, Two Systems” where Hong Kong was supposed to have a separate legal and political system from the Chinese mainland until 2047.
Coronavirus has also sparked a debate around protecting public health and personal freedoms. Democracies have imposed strict lockdowns, and this has led to various lockdown protests and opposition to wearing masks. This debate is particularly striking in the US where the Texas Lieutenant Governor claimed that elderly people should sacrifice themselves by risking catching the virus if that could mean a return to normality. While I stand firmly on the side that government should protect our public health, it is true that civil society plays a large role in keeping democracies accountable.
One form of civil society that has become particularly relevant is grassroots activism. Such activism has appeared both on the Right (in the form of the anti-lockdown protests) and on the Left (in the form of Black Lives Matter). However, grassroots activism has always been much stronger on the Left because the ideals that the Left fights for like equality and social justice are much better causes to fight for than trying to lower taxes for the rich or promoting conspiracy theories.
While common perceptions of democracy focus simply on elections, activism forms a crucial part of the lifeblood of democracies. Within the United States, the civil rights movement and the continuing fight for racial justice present a good example of how activism energizes democracy. Democracies are at their strongest when people are protesting out on the streets and showing that they care enough about society to go out and try to make things better. Democracy is not only encapsulated in the apathetic voter who chooses a candidate because he sounded better on TV. We must never take democracy for granted and always strive to improve the world we live in. Activists play that crucial role of holding democratic leaders accountable and demanding change when the status quo obviously fails so many people.
I would first like to turn to the example of the civil rights movement and talk about how grassroots activism not only held democratic leaders accountable but improved the lives of so many people who had had their human rights denied to them (although of course there is still a lot of racial inequity and discrimination within the US today). I will then move on to talk about a subject dear to my heart. I will discuss environmental activism and how this too is enriching democracy and providing hope that we can have a better future.
The Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights movement of the 1960s was an inflection point in the long struggle for racial justice in the US. The civil war had brought an end to slavery, but many former slaves were pushed into tenant sharecropping and faced persecution from new racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The reconstruction period directly following the civil war was arguably when black people had the most rights and freedoms that they have ever had in the South. Black men occupied positions of power throughout the South at all political levels. However, following the withdrawal of federal troops after the election of President Rutherford Hayes in 1877, the Southern states faced little real opposition to disenfranchising black voters and imposing harsh discriminatory laws against black people. By 1900, most of the black politicians who had been elected after the end of slavery were gone and replaced by white politicians advocating segregation.
In 1865, the federal government with the consent of the states passed the 13th amendment to the constitution, which explicitly outlawed slavery. In 1868, the US government ratified the 14th amendment to the constitution, which granted citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States” and provided for “equal protection under the law” for all citizens. Finally, in 1870, the US government ratified the 15th amendment to the constitution, which prevented states from disenfranchising voters on account of their race or color, although it did leave open the possibility for states to impose qualifications on voters such as poll taxes. While the US may have honored the 13th amendment following the civil war, the South (and the North too) violated the 14th and 15th amendments by discriminating against people based on their race.
How could the reality of the United States be so far from the ideals espoused in the US constitution? The reality of segregation and the discriminatory Jim Crow laws stood as a testament to the failure of the United States to live up to those ideals. US democracy itself was non-functional. When black people were systematically disenfranchised throughout the country, the democratic nature of the country could be called into question. The grassroots activism in the 1960s civil rights movement was a commitment to healing American democracy. It was about claiming that black people are humans too and deserve to have their human rights respected.
In the early 1960s, President John Kennedy was reluctant to pass civil rights legislation. However, he faced increasing pressure from marches and demonstrations against the abhorrent treatment of African Americans in the US. Martin Luther King Jr may have been the face of the movement, but he could not have accomplished its aims alone. He could not have done it without those brave souls who marched against police at Selma to demand the right to vote. He could not have done it without the courageous student activists who staged a sit-in at a canteen in Greensboro, Alabama in 1960 to protest against segregation. He could not have done it without the hundreds of thousands of activists who marched on Washington in 1963 to demand civil rights legislation.
When one person stands up against an oppressive system, she is powerless. But when people stand together in solidarity, they can truly achieve change. The voices of the oppressed joined together, and they were the driving force behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even if the US government claims credit. Activism holds democratic governments accountable and energizes democracy by making people care about the society they live in and feel there is some hope after all.
Moving more towards the present day, American democracy may have been sliding towards authoritarianism under Trump, but the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has galvanized calls for racial justice once again. The BLM movement, in particular, has shown that racial justice was not suddenly achieved in the 1960s and now everything is fine. The fight to achieve racial justice is a constant struggle and grassroots activism and protests can get the attention of the government and force them to change. It is when we act together in solidarity that we can achieve real change and strengthen democracy.
The environment is clearly an area where simply voting will not be enough. While governments set goals at the Paris Climate Agreement, they were woefully inadequate, and governments have not stuck to them anyway. At the gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019 (where all the rich capitalists and leaders gather), Greta Thunberg said, “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Setting distant goals for carbon emissions is completely unacceptable when the climate crisis is already here and getting worse.
The response to the coronavirus, in particular, demonstrates that governments have the will to act if they judge the situation to be severe enough. Clearly, governments do not see the climate crisis as posing nearly as big a threat as the coronavirus. Activism can force governments to take climate change more seriously and force them to speed up their goals. These are the aims of the Fridays for the Future movement, which are mostly young people striking for the climate (and it became well-known through Greta Thunberg).
According to their website, they have gotten over 14 million people from all over the world to join together to protest against climate inaction. Young people are the ones who will have to live longest with the world that has been created through climate degradation. It is only natural that they lead efforts to combat climate change. Even if governments mean well, they will not be forced to change except through profound grassroots action and protest.
In August 2019, climate activists issued three demands: keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, ensure climate justice and equity, and listen to the science. These demands will protect people and ensure justice for all. Following these demands will lead to a better, more robust democracy. After all, the political scientist Frank Fischer has argued that climate change will fundamentally threaten democracy through the development of eco-authoritarianism, where unaccountable expert technocrats supposedly make the best decisions for humanity in terms of the environment.
Fischer argues that climate change demands a return to the local. In this sense, he talks about the concept of eco-villages. The Global Eco-village Network (GEN) characterizes eco-villages as being 1) rooted in participatory process; 2) committed to social, cultural, ecological and economical sustainability; 3) committed to regenerating their social and natural environments. Thus, eco-villages are inherently very democratic as they involve the participation of the members who make up the eco-village, and they are also very exploratory in terms of achieving those three aims. There is not one model eco-village but rather various different villages all striving to be more democratic and sustainable.
While these eco-villages may not be possible everywhere, they represent a kind of utopian society. GEN talks about the eco-village as a way of “building bridges of hope and international solidarity.” Thus, eco-villages help build a sense of solidarity and they show what is possible. They show that the destructive path we are on now does not have to continue unchanged. Eco-villages give us hope that a better world is possible. Even though eco-villages are very local, the global network of eco-villages very much can influence people around the world to see that the status quo of destroying the environment is completely unacceptable.
Both Fridays for Future and the eco-village movement represent a chance to renew and strengthen both the democratic process and democratic accountability. Grassroots activism represents the best way to make positive change in our society. It is through acting in solidarity with our fellow humans that we can pursue climate justice and avert climate catastrophe.
Both the civil rights movement and environmental activism represent a struggle for justice. Leftwing grassroots activism seeks to fight for the marginalized and oppressed in society and make things better for them. Democracy can confront racial and environmental problems, but it cannot do it through politicians alone. Activists must come out on the street and show the government that there is widespread support for racial equity and a livable Earth. Voting is only one aspect of democracy. It is a crucial aspect, but it alone will not bring about change.
I would now just very briefly like to look at the recent election of Joe Biden. He has proposed decent climate policies, but he will not enact very radical change without sustained pressure from the grassroots. Activists must show Biden that just going back to the status quo pre-coronavirus is not good enough. If Biden is willing to take drastic action to limit the spread of the coronavirus, he must also be willing to take radical action on climate change.
In terms of racial justice, as well, Biden cannot simply shove the issue under the rug. Sustained pressure from BLM activists will be needed to force Biden to implement reforms. The first female vice-president of color in Kamala Harris is obviously a good first step but does not address the deep-seated racial inequities inherent in the US system. There must be a reckoning with police treatment of black people and the mass incarceration of black people as well.
When democracy seems to be faltering, activism can provide a light at the end of the tunnel. Standing together in solidarity is something that is empowering and can provide a voice for the voiceless. If democracy is to survive the coming storm, participatory and grassroots activism will be needed to strengthen and sustain it.