Eric Liu: Voting used to be a civic occasion with its own cultures of celebration
To refresh our democracy we need to make voting fun again, he says
Editor’s Note: Eric Liu is founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program. His books include “A Chinaman’s Chance” and “The Gardens of Democracy.” He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
I have a radical proposition: Let’s bring back the joy of voting.
I know what you’re thinking. Joy? In this political hurricane season of stress and fear and anger? Yes. I believe we can revive the joy of voting – especially at the local level – and I believe we must.
It helps to remember a time in America when voting was fun, when it meant much more than a grim burden. That time is called most of American history.
From the Revolution through the civil rights era, the United States had a culture of voting that was robustly, raucously participatory. It was about festivals, street theater, open-air debates, toasting and fasting, parades and bonfires.
Of course, voting was initially restricted to white men. But with each painfully earned expansion of the franchise, a creative culture of voting took hold. During the 19th century, immigrants and urban political machines fueled this spirit of communal campaign participation. During Reconstruction, new black citizens celebrated in Jubilee Day parades that linked emancipation to the right to vote. Decades later the suffragettes brought a spirit of theatricality to their fight, marching in white dresses as they claimed the franchise.
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And the civil rights movement, fighting to redeem the promises of citizenship that had been betrayed by Jim Crow, naturally focused on the vote. From Freedom Summer to the march in Selma, that generation of activists knew that spectacle and the performance of power were key to gaining power.
But it’s been more than half a century since Selma and the Voting Rights Act. And decades of television and the Internet have killed much of that joyful culture of voting. The couch has replaced the commons and the screen has made most citizens spectators. Sharing memes on social media is nice but it’s a quiet kind of citizenship. It’s being “alone together,” as the sociologist Sherry Turkle puts it.
What we need now is an electoral culture that’s about being together together. In person. In loud and passionate ways. That means instead of “eat your vegetables” or “do your duty,” voting should feel more like “join the club.” Or better yet, “Join the celebration.”
Imagine a concerted effort – local but nationwide – to revive an array of creative, face-to-face electioneering rituals. Outdoor shows, in which citizen actors mock and praise candidates and their causes in broad satirical style. Soapbox orations by citizens. Fast-paced public debates held in pubs or co-working spaces or coffee shops. Battle-of-the-band concerts in which candidates are repped by competing performers. Streets with heavy foot traffic festooned with handmade political posters and murals.
You might be asking yourself: Who has time for this? Well, the average American does watch five hours of TV a day. Who has the motivation? Anyone who wants to be heard and seen not as a political prop for candidates but as a participant in democracy. A creator of civic life.
All it would take to do this is simply doing it.
That’s why my team at Citizen University, with the support of the Knight Foundation, has launched a project called “The Joy of Voting.” We’ve invited artists, activists, designers and educators in Wichita, Akron, Miami and Philadelphia to come up with projects that foster a local culture of voting.
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In Miami that means neighborhood block parties with hot DJs for people standing in line at early voting locations. In Akron it means local actors performing political plays in the bed of a pickup truck that goes from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Philadelphia, it’s a festival of music and food from around the world to celebrate the first vote of newly naturalized citizens. In Wichita, it’s creating mixtapes in the North End and live graffiti-art to get out the vote.
We’ve sparked 20 such projects that have generated civic engagement and sparked civic imagination. Huge carnivals on college campuses in Wichita and Miami, punk-rock shows and interactive art installations in Philadelphia and Akron. An augmented-reality voting-themed smart phone game, and competitions for artists and student filmmakers.
All citizenship is local. When politics becomes just the reality TV show of a presidential campaign, you scream at your screens and collapse, exhausted. When politics is you and your neighbors and others in your community creating collective experiences of voice and imagination, you begin to remember that this stuff matters. You begin to remember that this is the stuff of self-government.
Why bother voting? Because there’s no such thing as not voting. In a democracy, not voting is voting – for all that you may detest and oppose.
Not voting can be dressed up as an act of passive resistance, but it actively delivers power to those whose interests are counter to yours and who’d like to take advantage of your absence. To put it simply: Not voting is for suckers.
During these dark and divided times, many folks on the left and right alike are calling for a “revolution” to disrupt everyday democracy. Well, here’s the thing: Everyday democracy already gives us the playbook for revolution. In the 2012 presidential election, youth voters, low-income voters, Latino and Asian voters all turned out at less than 50%. In most local elections, turnout hovers around 20%. In the 2014 midterms, turnout was 36%, a 70-year low.
Imagine mobilizing 100%. Our nation’s priorities would be completely different. Government at every level would become radically more responsive.
To get there, we have to create a culture of voting that people of all parties want to be part of and experience together. We have to give citizens a sense of purpose and play. And joy.
So yes, let’s have a revolution. Let’s vote one into being. And while we’re at it, let’s have some fun together.