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  • Jan Flynn

Democracy Won’t Save Itself

It needs elders in the fight

We have a gut-level understanding of what’s at stake

Here’s what I see on the Zoom call as I prepare to do phone banking:

A grid of faces, each in their little rectangles, all earnestly staring into their laptops and trying to figure out whether or not they’re on mute.

All of them are around my age.

We’re not doing this for fun. It takes more chutzpa than is native to many of us, myself certainly included, to call people we don’t know who often live in other parts of the country.

This weekend, I was calling folks in New York’s Nassau and Queens counties. The special election on February 13 will determine who fills the vacancy left by deposed fabulist George Santos, and we’d like to see Tom Suozzi get that seat.

It would do a lot to restore some sanity to the House.

Last November, I was calling into Ohio to get out the vote in support of Issue 1 — the amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine the right of citizens to make their own reproductive decisions, including abortion.

Issue 1 passed with just under 58% of the vote.

All of these calls make a difference. And while making them isn’t entirely comfortable, it’s something I can do.

Nobody ever said keeping democracy alive is a piece of cake.

When people answer, their responses usually range from guardedly polite to suspicious. Sometimes they’re genuinely eager to talk, either to share similar sentiments or to point out how I’m misguided (“Oh, honey, would you go into your own tummy and kill a little baby? “— the earnest question of one woman in Ohio). Others merely hang up once they realize we’re “one of those political calls.”

A few plead, in an exasperated tone after they’ve remarked that this is the umpteenth one of “these calls” they’ve gotten in a week, to be taken off the calling list.

“I can do that!” I say brightly. And I do. Such power I have.

But in a surprising number of cases, people want to support the cause or candidate and just need to know where, when, and how to vote.

That’s when I know I’ve made a difference.

I do this maybe once a week in the run-up to a critical vote

I’ve done phone banking since the 2016 presidential campaign, when I learned that even negative responses can be good-humored, such as the Arizona man who told me, “Jan, I’d rather set myself on fire than vote for Hillary Clinton.” I laughed and thanked him for his time.

Since the pandemic, the phone banks are all on Zoom, which makes them even more accessible, although they lack some of the communal energy of a bunch of folks sitting together in a borrowed office space.

Others of my phone bank colleagues put me to shame. They’re working the phones several times a week, even daily, as Election Day draws near. When they’re not doing that, they’re writing postcards to voters or canvassing door to door.

And they’re almost all in their 60s, 70s, or better.

Why is that?

I don’t believe for a moment that younger people are apathetic, lazy, or uninformed — at least, not any more so than older folks. But their lives are often taken up by the struggles of young adulthood, which have only gotten more complex and befuddling since the days when we were busy nurturing kids and careers.

At our age, we’ve got the time, perspective, and firsthand grasp of history to get involved, even when it’s not comfortable.

I understand there are people who, at my stage of life, have opted out. Perhaps figuring their foreshortened futures means that their time is better spent in more pleasant distractions, they want no part of “all that political stuff.”

But I don’t know anybody like that.

All the people of my vintage whom I know are passionately concerned about what’s ahead for the nation and the globe — and for their kids and grandkids.

Our sense of democracy as central to our national identity kept us from heading over the cliff.

We’re at most one generation removed from the guys who stormed the beaches at Normandy.

We grew up between World War II and Vietnam. It was hardly a halcyon era, but compared to the last three decades it was marked by a much more equal distribution of income (if you were white) and much less polarization.

With Hitler and Stalin fresh in society’s memory, we were raised with a healthy dread of authoritarianism. Our belief in democracy was imperfect, but it was a shared assumption. We had our darker impulses: McCarthyism, racial apartheid, and all the forms of fascism and jingoism with which Americans have flirted.

As bad as things got, even when we rolled our eyes at the new administration coming in, we could trust in the rule of law, the safety of our elections, and the peaceful transfer of power.

Until January 6, 2021. Seeing that violent mob storm the Capitol, intent on overthrowing a presidential election, told us that all the democratic institutions we’d depended on, even taken for granted, were in existential trouble.

With democracy on a knife’s edge, elders are called to action

This is our legacy, and it’s our fight. Our experience, our history, and our wider perspective mean we’re the ones who have to pick up the torch and carry it for those who can’t.

Perhaps you feel that sense of urgency. Maybe it’s one of the things that keeps you up in the wee hours.

Here’s what I’ve found: when it comes to anxiety about the future, the antidote is action. And while I know my small efforts — my phone calls and emails and so forth — aren’t going to be the exact things that save the free world, little things done consistently by a lot of us, can make a big difference.

You don’t have to do it on your own

Nor does it have to eat up your free time. Calling your congressional representatives only takes a few minutes, and those calls count — literally. Whatever intern or staffer answers the phone or checks the voicemail will tally your comments for or against whatever issue or bill you’re concerned about.

That’s their job because that’s the job of your senators and congresspeople.

I regularly call my congressional reps, whose DC staffers by now don’t even have to ask for my mailing address (“Thanks, Jan, we’ve got it”).

Being a bright blue snowflake in a blood-red state, I know the likelihood of any of them ever voting the way I urge them to is slim to zero. But that makes it even more important that they hear from me. I may not get my way, but I do get my say, and that counts for something.

That’s democracy.

If the thought of making phone calls makes your toes curl up, there are other actions you can take. Any of them might test the limits of your comfort zone, but you know what’s really uncomfortable?

Living under a dictator, that’s what. Which is exactly what we’re told to expect by the guy who wants that job.

And if you think a dictator is going to stop being a dictator on Day Two, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d love to sell you.

So do something

If you’re not sure who or where to direct your concerns, non-partisan Common Cause has a handy Find Your Representative tool that allows easy access to your federal, state, and local representatives.

And if you’re not sure where or how to start, I highly, highly recommend the weekly newsletter Chop Wood, Carry Water from Jessica Craven. She offers specific, eminently doable action items along with a lot of encouragement. You can subscribe for free.

You can do this. Maybe your individual actions won’t, all by themselves, keep the ship of state from heading onto the rocks.

But you can help with the steering.

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