My event related to global democracy is best described as a relatively small part of a large movement. Namely, the Memphis portion of the Global Climate Strike, which kicked off on September 20th and continued until September 27th. I tie this into democracy because according to the Yale Climate Communications Center, protecting the environment ranks in the top 10 issues important to voters, yet our elected officials continue to do nothing.
This idea was very much in everyone’s minds at the rally I went to, which took place outside of City Hall in an attempt to draw as much attention from elected officials as possible. However, there was still a belief in democracy present at the event; a candidate for mayor and one of the city’s council seats both spoke at the rally, attempting to solicit votes. While there wasn’t much in the way of party-based polarization (there were a few posters poking fun at both President Trump and the Republican Party as a whole in the crowd, but that was about the measure of it), the closest we got to that kind of ideological reinforcement was “climate change is bad.” Which, while it may be just an effect of that polarization on myself, doesn’t strike me as something that warrants being a contentious issue. The actual methods people proposed were varied, ranging from instituting better public transport to “weather-proofing” buildings, the first time I actually heard of the concept.
As to whether or not there was an undercurrent of belief in Democratic backsliding, well, there really wasn’t. One of the major themes of the day was a cry of “Vote them out,” indicative of a belief that electoral politics, even in this age of gerrymandering and voter suppression, was still an effective way of making sure your beliefs and values were represented.
So far as the larger issue, I would argue that the stonewalling of solutions to climate change, with Mitch McConnell’s time as Senate Majority Leader characterized by the chamber of Congress becoming the place where legislation goes to die as a form of gatekeeping. However, rather than gatekeeping being used to prevent authoritarian ideas from gaining traction and legitimacy in the halls of power, it’s gatekeeping against well-intentioned populism.
Coupled with this was the fact that Memphis wasn’t the only city having a strike; our crowd of maybe a hundred looks paltry compared to the hundreds of thousands who marched in cities from Australia to Canada, and it is in the larger strike as a whole where I see the best and brightest examples of what I’m dubbing “performative listening,” wherein the powers that be, who don’t really have any interest in substantive change, act as if they do for the purposes of getting the protestors to go away feeling accomplished. The best example I can think of is Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, who approved an oil pipeline expansion mere weeks before tweeting about the importance of protecting our future. This ultimately brings me to what is undoubtedly the most well-known image to come out of the strikes as a whole: Greta Thunberg, and her speech before the United Nations:
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”
“How dare you” she said, looking straight into the eyes of those who hold in their hands the power to fix things. Her message is clear, slamming those with power for attempting to put young people on a pedestal, to claim “the kids will do great” in an attempt to get out of fixing things while they still can. What gets me, personally, is not what she said, it was how she was met. Applause. Either unable or unwilling to listen to what Thunberg had to say, they instead default to a trick designed to stifle the masses; putting their faith in individuals, and putting those individuals on pedestals, in an attempt to discourage real, systemic change. It’s not a new trick: even in our lifetimes, the same thing happened to Malala Yousafzai.
I went into the Climate Strike with a lot of hope. I believed that our government was still made up of people who would listen to their constituents, who would be willing and able to make the changes we need. Instead, I met two men who lost their elections by a landslide and got to stand in the ever-hotter September afternoon while I watched a lot of semi-polarized people agree with each other. The event itself may have ultimately only had loose connections to democratic erosion, but it left me more certain it was happening in the United States than ever before.