democracy

If the Things You're Protesting Don't Seem To Be Improving, Here's Why

The relationship between politics, democracy and social justice is complex. Let's break it down.

We've all said it at least once, "I hate politics," and honestly, we get it. When it feels like Congress endlessly debates and makes no progress on the same issues, it's natural to want to disengage with politics.

But do you care about climate change? How about racial justice? Maybe you're really passionate about education or women’s rights. These issues don't get addressed without politics functioning properly — and that can't happen without a strong democracy.

Let's breakdown the difference between the two.

Democracy is a type of government where the power is vested in the people and is exercised by the people directly or indirectly through a system of representation, such as mayors, governors, state senators and the president. Politics on the other hand is about getting elected and supposed to involve finding compromises and working together for the common good.

Democracy is also so much more than just showing up to the polls.

"You could run for office or you could run for your local student council," said Katrina Phidd, communications and digital strategy manager of Chicago Votes. "You could reach out to elected officials right now and have a one-on-one conversation with them and tell them exactly what you want to see for your community. You can write your lawmakers or you can organize a protest."

So how do protests and social justice movements play into all this?

According to Sheron Fraser-Burgess, Ph.D., an educational studies professor at Ball State University, social justice serves as a supplement to our democracy when the system fails or underperforms.

"It is improving the quality of life for those individuals who are part of groups that have historically been marginalized and reflect the markers of inequity along the different components of 'the good life,'" she explained.

For example, let's say you and your friends don’t think that your representatives in Congress are doing enough about systemic racism, education or climate change (the list goes on). Instead of being passive participants, waiting for politics to make change, social justice movements can push leaders and institutions into action. But it only works if our democratic institutions are functioning properly.

Why? If the people we elect aren’t accountable to us or they manipulate the voting system so they don’t have to worry about reelection, social justice movements don’t work.

So what happens if we're not able to fix the relationship between social justice and democracy? 

"The liberties we take for granted, the freedom of thought that we so value are really threatened as our democracy deteriorates," Fraser-Burgess said. "We should all care because increasingly, these changes are going to impose upon our freedom. It might be someone else's freedom today, but if this pattern continues, our liberty is going to be threatened."

To fix this mess we've made of our political system, it'll take time. And as cliché as it sounds, it will be up to the younger generation to make sure the world's first democracy doesn't take its last breath anytime soon.

"I think other generations were more quick to accept the status quo. And I think the younger generation honestly just doesn't give a damn," Phidd said. "We're going do what we want, and if that means coming up with a whole new system, then we're going to do it."