Welcoming a New Approach to Democracy, Together

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Here we are again. The start of a new year and election cycle. We are nearing the end of January and I am already exhausted. 

Another year where everything is on the line. Another year we have to get people excited to vote when the material conditions of most people’s lives, especially marginalized communities, have not changed. 

We who do this work 365 days a year, we know what is at stake. We have to save democracy, again.

And we have to do it when apathy and disillusionment with politics is at an all time high and disinformation is rampant. Last fall, Pew released research with a ton of data on just how negatively Americans view politics in the United States. Only 4% of people surveyed said the political system is working, 63% aren’t happy with the candidates, and 65% are exhausted with politics altogether. Those numbers would send anyone who works in voting and elections into a downward spiral. The words people use to describe U.S. politics — divisive, corrupt, messy, disgusting — do not inspire confidence.

How can we pull ourselves out of this sense of despair and stop the doomsday scenarios that play on repeat in our thoughts?

Over the winter break, I started binge-watching This is Us on Netflix. Two of my favorite characters, Beth and Randall, play a game called “Worst Case Scenario,” where they share all the bad things that could happen in a situation, without judgment or censorship. It allows them to be vulnerable with each other and release all the negative thoughts and feelings they have, that will help them move forward.

We need to play a game of worst case scenario right now. Go outside, grab a pillow, and let it out. Or stay inside and grab a notepad and jot down EVERY TERRIBLE THING that could happen this election season. I’ll start.


Let it all out. I guarantee you can spend more time naming all the bad things than good things that could happen this year. 

Now breathe in and out and let it go. Let it all go.

Yes, we need to prepare ourselves for the worst AND we cannot drown in the darkness and despair. Democracy dies in darkness.

Despite all the negative things in the Pew study I shared, I see a path forward. There are many varying and intersecting ways to address and change our political system suggested in the study — curbing the influence of money in politics, tackling the two party system, ending the electoral college, enacting term limits, automatically registering all citizens to vote, and more. These potential solutions to address the structural challenges are not new and there are organizations dedicated to addressing them. (I’ve spent the majority of my career working on many of them!) 

None of these items are beyond our reach. We have to prioritize, organize, and challenge the current political power structure.

But that isn’t enough. Structural changes are necessary and important, but democracy is on the decline globally. We are not the only major democracy having elections in 2024. More than 50 other countries have elections this year, and there are global concerns on whether democracy is working. There is a clear disconnect to democracy in the U.S. and across the globe. In a recent Up First episode (start at 6:32), a reporter talked about how there is a saying in Central America: “We can’t eat democracy.” So even with the best system, we will still face challenges.

We have to give people hope and a vision for the future (and their role in creating it). The Pew study also shows that 78% of Americans believe that there is “too little focus on important issues facing the country.” If only we had a tool that allows the people to put the issues they care about onto the ballot…

We do. Direct democracy plays a vital role in the dawning of a new democracy. 

Since 2016, during another dark time in our democracy, issues like raising the minimum wage began to win at the ballot box, then Medicaid expansion, voting rights, and the latest wave of wins on reproductive freedom. You have heard this story many times from BISC. For several election cycles leaders and organizations in the states have been galvanizing voters across partisan lines to vote for the issues they care about.

That success has led to unprecedented attacks on ballot measures that have been increasing since 2017 and were centerstage in Ohio last year. A one-two punch was delivered by amazing organizers in Ohio. First, defeating the measure during the August special election that would have made it more difficult for Ohioans to deliver victories on issues they care about, like the successful reproductive freedom and marijuana legalization measures that won in November. Both elections in Ohio drove historic turnout for an odd year election. 

But as critical a role as ballot initiatives play in the path forward, and as exciting and impressive a 7-0 record on reproductive freedom measures is, ballot measures will not save democracy in 2024.

A bright spot, yes. A way to organize and build durable power, yes. Give people hope and the agency to make real change for their lives, yes. But even delivering these victories will not be enough. Policy victories at the ballot are important, but as humans we seek more.

I believe that we seek safety, joy, love, and belonging. Ballot measures cannot give us all of what we fundamentally strive for as humans. They are a piece of the puzzle, but still insufficient.

So let’s find the other pieces of the puzzle, where the lines intersect, and make the picture clearer of what it will take for a new democracy to rise up and allow for multi-racial, multi-generational, people-centered governing power. 

The good news is many of us are already on this journey. BISC and our partners are already innovating and practicing new ways of building and governing. It will take all of us working together and believing we can win to welcome a new approach to democracy.

Let us cast away the old, and open the door for something new.