During an election year the apathy and despair of the voting public is brought into sharp relief. At times democracy seems a farcical sport, and we are just spectators. For too many of us, polling day represents the only time we pull on a jersey and get out on the field.
A 2014 study by the Australian National University not only found significant declines in Australian support for democracy, but that only 43 per cent of Australians believe it makes a difference which political party is in power.
The same is true in my own country, the United States. I recall reading a column in the New York Times eight years ago noting that only 24 per cent of Americans believe their country is on the right track. The columnist warned, "Wrong track is a euphemism. We are a people in clinical depression who know our ideals have been vandalised." A poll from January 2016 found the results virtually unchanged in the US despite a complete change in government.
If we change the players and still end up at the same grim place, how do we respond?
The remedy is to come off the sidelines and get involved using our voices as citizens – making democracy a full-contact sport. But that's easier said than done. Where do we start? We may well get lit up by a cause and head straight to a website, sign up for updates or click on a petition, and feel our job is done. Or rather, we feel our power to effect change has run its course. We remain spectators.
The thought of actually having a conversation with a politician is enough to cause most of us to break into a cold sweat. Combine our feelings of helplessness to change anything, with rampant civic illiteracy and you have a dangerous brew that results in a paucity of thoughtful civic engagement between elections.
I first confronted this civic illiteracy more than 35 years ago when I spoke to 7000 American high school students on ending world hunger. I read quotes calling for the political will to end hunger and found that fewer than 3 per cent of the students could name their member of Congress. Thirty-five years later only 10 per cent of students I polled on 15 college campuses could answer correctly. I started RESULTS to bridge that gap between the public and their political leaders.
There is great joy in being in action and knowing that your voice matters, but only a small number of organisations work to really empower their grassroots. I'm proud to have started one - RESULTS – and been the inspiration for another – Citizens' Climate Lobby – both now international and both with an active presence here in Australia. In fact, the first Australian RESULTS group was started 30 years ago in Canberra.
RESULTS is committed to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by 193 nations of the UN in 2015, which include eliminating preventable child deaths and eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. Currently 16,000 children die every day from preventable malnutrition and disease and 700 million people live in extreme poverty.
The climate agreement in Paris sends hopeful signals, but progress will require groups like Citizens' Climate Lobby (CCL), whose growing team of volunteers in the United States and Canada had 3792 letters, op-eds, and other pieces published last year, up from 65 published in 2010, all in support of a steadily rising fee on carbon 100 per cent refunded to the public. Relatively new in Australia, CCL is growing its presence and influence here too.
What's unique about these groups is the deep citizen empowerment each provides; the training, as it were, to get an ordinary citizen 'match fit' for active advocacy.
A RESULTS volunteer in Canberra described himself as "sceptical about what sort of impact I could have" but now leads his group and regularly meets with parliamentarians. Another volunteer in Hobart, an author who writes about superheroes, tells how she now feels like one when she steps into a parliamentarian's office to talk about ways to eliminate preventable child deaths. She says "Despite the things I've learned – the terrible state of poverty so many people are trapped in – I've never felt more positive about the future." These are not the words of people trapped on the sidelines in apathy and despair.
When the seeming farcical sport of democracy drives us to despair, it helps to be an informed spectator, but it's even more powerful to find an organisation that will get you off the sidelines and into the game.
Sam Daley-Harris is the author of Reclaiming Our Democracy and founder of anti-poverty movement RESULTS. He will be in Australia from May 25-30 to celebrate RESULTS Australia's 30th anniversary. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.results.org.au