Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Dozens of volunteers and activists turned out Tuesday at the State House to show support for referendum to strengthen Maine’s Clean Election law, July 28, 2015. (Photo: BDN File)
By Ilze Peterson /

Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our state.

I remember she said “democracy is not a spectator sport.” But each time I turn on the television, listen to the radio or read the paper, I quickly turn away from “the news” that focuses mainly on the latest outrageous attack by Donald Trump and counterattack by Hillary Clinton. Is this what democracy looks like? If so, count me out.

Writer and blogger Tom Engelhardt got to the core of the inanity and insanity of this seemingly endless election campaign. In an Aug. 7 article on, he says, “The spectacle of our moment is so overwhelming, dominating every screen of our lives and focused on just two outsized individuals in a country of 300 million plus on a planet of billions, that it blocks our view of reality.”

He suggests that “missing in action” is meaningful discussion of endless war, the federal budget that feeds this war with billions of our tax dollars, climate change that threatens the future of the planet and what we as citizens in a democracy can do to help shape a future for our children that is more peaceful, just and sustainable.

"I believe that unless we as individuals commit ourselves to becoming involved with others in creating fundamental change as an ongoing part of our daily lives after Nov. 8, our vote (or abstinence from voting) will only lead to disappointment when the elected 'leaders' respond to the more powerful voices of the wealthy, corporations and the military establishment."

Amazingly, in the midst of this bread and circus, Bernie Sanders was able to mobilize millions who donated an average of $27 to his campaign. His rallies drew thousands, despite the lack of mainstream coverage. I can understand why many of those who backed him are bitterly disappointed with Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic Party candidate and why they plan to vote for a third party or sit out the election. But I believe that the Nov. 8 election is important. The outcome will shape the possibilities for working for long-term fundamental change. I will vote to defeat the fear-mongering, racism and hate represented by Trump.

This is why I plan to vote for Clinton, not because she will bring about that change but because she has espoused more progressive policies in response to the amazing grass-roots support for Sanders. His campaign addressed income inequality, health care, student debt and climate change, and he was not dependent on wealthy and corporate donors. The nomination of Supreme Court justices also will be in the hands of the next president.

But I believe that unless we as individuals commit ourselves to becoming involved with others in creating fundamental change as an ongoing part of our daily lives after Nov. 8, our vote (or abstinence from voting) will only lead to disappointment when the elected “leaders” respond to the more powerful voices of the wealthy, corporations and the military establishment. We will be left to complain and become even more cynical about the possibility of a more humane future and wait for the next “great leader” to do the job for us.

As Sanders said in an interview, “We can elect the best person in the world to be president, but that person will get swallowed up unless there is an unprecedented level of activism at the grass-roots level.”

How can we as ordinary citizens become involved in meaningful action? Some may choose to run for local or state offices. But electoral politics has limits as we have witnessed, and it needs input and support from those most affected by the enacted policies. In order to ensure positive change, we can support some of the hundreds of grass-roots organizations working for an increase in the minimum wage, alternative energy, local food, Medicare for all, and against the racism and hatred that divides us from each other. We can join others by volunteering, donating, or simply showing up when called.

Because we know our individual and single issue efforts won’t be enough to create needed long-term changes, we can come together to affirm the power of our united efforts based on the values of caring, compassion and cooperation. By showing up, we can honor those, such as Guay, who, even when wheelchair bound, continued to speak out for justice and equality. We can become part of the process that is democracy.

© 2016 Ilze Peterson

Ilze Peterson was program coordinator for the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine for 20 years before her retirement.

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Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots