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Michael Deal

Democracy should not be treated as a spectator sport, especially given the very real threats arrayed against it.  From my experience as a Foreign Service Officer with USAID, I witnessed first-hand democracy being directly undermined (drug cartels and rebel insurgencies in Colombia, civil war in El Salvador, military coups in Bolivia, rigged elections in the Dominican Republic). 

For fear of being kidnapped, mayors had to work in exile; labor leaders and journalists faced assassination; small business owners were victims of extortion; and small holder farmers had their land seized and were forced into cultivating illegal crops.  The rule of law and the market economy in these countries suffered from weak institutions and corruption.

U.S. foreign aid programs helped these countries strengthen their democracies, drawing on America’s history of freedom, rule of law, system of checks and balances, and citizens’ rights. Democracy in the United States was considered “a Beacon on the Hill”.  Returning home, I find that our democracy is in peril and we no longer enjoy the same degree of international credibility.  Rather than a “Beacon”, our democracy now resembles an “alarm bell”. 

While U.S. citizens do not face the threats to their physical safety and well-being as many people in developing countries often do, nonetheless our freedoms and that of future generations are increasingly placed at risk when citizens lose faith in the system.

Increasingly, Americans do not believe their vote matters.  Voter suppression measures are more common.  Public discourse is becoming ever more polarized.  Congress is gridlocked.  Political parties are increasingly controlled by those who hold the more extreme positions, further dividing us rather than coming together to address the issues on which the majority of Americans agree.  Big Money and special interests have a stranglehold on policy and legislation, frustrating the ‘will of the people.’ 

No wonder that young people tune-out the ‘noise’ of politics.  Their voter turnout is low and many turn to apathy or despair.  Polls show that many do not consider America to be a great nation.

The good news is that most Americans are in favor of reform measures designed to unrig the system and restore political power to the people.  New research based on a large-scale national survey of Americans (“Hidden Tribes – A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”), which provides substantial evidence of deep polarization and growing tribalism, also provides some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.

Returning to the States, I have found a growing number of grassroots initiatives have emerged to promote creative solutions to issues such as gerrymandering, restrictive voting practices, polarization and tribalism, and the influence of big money and special interests.  Citizen reformers are working in a non-partisan or cross-partisan fashion to reform the system, establish common sense accountability, encourage safe spaces for constructive dialogue, and help ensure that citizens’ votes actually do count. 

Unfortunately, headlines and news coverage rarely include stories about these reform initiatives.

As a freelance journalist and a member of the Solutions Journalism Network, my goal is to help Americans become more aware of the compelling stories of ordinary citizens making democracy work to effect change on everyday issues, whether at the national, state or local levels.  Hope is contagious.  Ordinary citizens can and are standing up for common sense solutions.  Citizen reformers are engaging established political parties, Big Money and corporate interests…and winning!

The stories of citizens making a difference are vital if we are to avoid cynicism, apathy, or despair.  As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said: “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”  Our youth need greater exposure to civic education and the opportunity for experiential learning to provide them with agency and the skills necessary for democratic engagement.  I’ve written about the growing momentum for ‘action civics’ in our schools as one example of the progress that is being made.

Democracy4change.org features inspiring stories about ordinary citizens’ efforts to galvanize public support and overcome obstacles to change.  These stories are about actions that you can join, support or replicate on your own.  Our hope is that more Americans will become motivated to actively engage on issues that affect their communities. Readers are encouraged to come forward with their own stories and thereby help restore faith in America’s democratic values.  This website is dedicated to helping you learn how you can become involved and make a difference in a constructive, cross-partisan way, no matter your political persuasion.