The New Year is a time of reflection and renewal. We look back on the past year — or in this case, the past decade — and we make resolutions for the year ahead.
What if our collective New Year’s resolution this year was not your traditional “go to the gym more,” but, rather, exercising the whole body politic? What would that workout plan look like?
Democracy is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. The more people engage in civil society, the more representative, responsive, and productive our society becomes. Like healthy muscles, a healthy democracy tends to have benefits too — better civil rights protections, a stronger social safety net, and a legal system that works for the many, not just the few.
Having lived in parts of the world where civil society is weak, I appreciate the extraordinary power that ordinary people in this country can exert in our representative democracy. We have a free press, a right to petition our government, to seek redress in the courts, and to demand accountability from our elected leaders. It’s a degree of political agency we need to use or risk losing.
Here in New England, we are blessed with robust municipal governments that provide the foundations of our democracy — and are great places to start your political workout. Local political participation not only protects the interests of local residents; it can influence policies beyond its borders.
Take Brookline, for example: Its Town Meeting — over 250 members strong — convened in November and passed a slew of new bylaws, including a ban on dangerous face surveillance technology. These measures have huge benefits for the town’s 50,000 residents. Northampton also adopted a ban on face surveillance technology in December, as did Somerville last June. Local leaders in these cities and towns listened to their constituents, and voted to protect them from unchecked government surveillance. In so doing, they strengthened the civil liberties of some 160,000 Massachusetts residents — and set the stage for other cities and towns, and the Massachusetts Legislature, to do the same.
Consider communities like Greenfield that are taking positive steps to create safer, more welcoming environments for immigrants in appropriate defiance of the cruel and heedless Trump deportation machine. Across Massachusetts, nearly a third of all cities and towns, including Boston, have passed similar welcoming resolutions to build trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.
And let’s not forget the volunteers who turned out in droves to canvass and vote in local district attorney races in Massachusetts — the first competitive DA races in decades — acknowledging at long last what a difference a DA makes in the lives of everyday people. Massachusetts voters also made history by affirming through a direct ballot initiative with one voice that trans people belong everywhere in our state, in defiance of the federal government’s policy of bigotry.
None of these positive changes could have happened without a commitment by ordinary people to exercise their civic duty to engage and petition their government. Sometimes it meant staying late at a town meeting to make their voices heard, or volunteering to watch someone’s kids so they could go door to door canvassing. Sometimes it’s a single vote that tips the balance in a key election. Sometimes it’s as simple as forwarding an email, tweeting, or making a phone call to a city councillor, state legislator, or member of Congress.
When it comes to exercising the body politic, no act is too small, and nothing is ever done in vain. Win or lose, your community will be stronger for your efforts, and you will have laid the foundation for future progress.
Flexing our civic engagement muscles sometimes changes the national conversation and shapes history. Consider the recent emergence of the Sunrise Movement of young people fighting the climate crisis, the launch of the #MeToo movement, and women’s marches more than a million strong. Witness the widespread acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter — and an awareness that the slogan signifies we still have work to do. Let’s celebrate the Dreamers and other immigrants who make our communities strong and our nation great — and then, together, urge our Legislature to pass and Governor Baker to sign into law the Safe Communities Act, limiting state cooperation with the Trump administration’s continued attacks on immigrants.
Flexing our political muscle means helping more people run for public office or, if party politics is not your your jam, consider lending your time to a non-partisan advocacy group, such as People Power, Indivisible, or the ACLU (where I work). There are plenty of great options for your political workout, so find one that feels right for you.
Beyond making the world a better place, collective political action can be truly affirming, connecting us with our neighbors in a shared sense of solidarity.
So, this New Year, let’s set aside despair, and resolve instead to strengthen our body politic: show up, join a campaign, hold a sign, raise your voice, be a poll-watcher, write a letter to the editor, make a phone call, tweet and — above all else — vote.
Flex your political muscles as if our democracy depends on it — because this year, it actually does.
Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts.