Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box

By Cal Colgan |

The midterm elections are over, and with them, the clamor for democratic participation.

In the run-up to what The New York Times proclaimed as the biggest Republican takeover of Congress since 1948, the American public was inundated with ads from both the GOP and the Democrats, urging their constituents to vote for one side or the other.

Here in St. Augustine, the roads downtown were littered with colorful posters demanding the locals re-elect Mayor Joe Boles or help Bill Proctor keep his seat in the state legislature. The few liberal contenders to the conservative hold on this county, like Proctor’s challenger Doug Courtney, gave public speeches to voice their opposition to the status quo of big business-friendly politics. Even Flagler College, with its usually apathetic student body, saw students campaigning for Charlie Crist’s bid for the senate or Alex Sink’s grab for governor.

A week has passed, and a lackadaisical attitude toward American politics once again looms over the public.

The Dems are still probably cringing at their crushing defeat to the GOP, and the liberals might still be lamenting the political power the Tea Party held in getting the more reactionary Republicans elected. But throughout the country, the middle and lower classes go about their monotonous lives of blue and white collar work, and the residents of the Oldest City pass their free time in bars and college parties, drinking away their dismay that despite going to the polls, their problems haven’t gone away.

I’m no less disillusioned by party politics than my fellow Flagler students. It’s precisely why I didn’t vote. In fact, I haven’t voted for any politician since the last series of midterm elections, in 2006.

For many politically minded folks, that last statement amounts to blasphemy. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” the saying goes. It’s a cliché that my parents tried to pound into my skull for the past four years, in the hopes that I’ll vote for the “lesser of two evils” — in their case, the Democrats over the Republicans.

But what will this past election, or any election for that matter, fundamentally change?

This past year, college classrooms, workplaces, and even the local gas stations were filled with Tea Partiers furious about the dreaded “Obama-care,” and newly-elected representatives like Ron Paul have vowed to defeat health care reform.

The Republican strategy, as outlined by Speaker-to-be John Boehner and the House Republicans website,, is to allow families and businesses to buy health insurance across state lines, end lawsuits that raise health care costs, and to allow the states themselves to pass healthcare reform laws. But with all the problems of the new health care laws, the GOP’s plan will do little to raise the U.S.’s status as the 37th country with the overall best health care.

The victorious House Republicans also want to extend the tax cuts to Americans in the wealthiest tier of the population, in the hopes that their spending habits will stimulate the economy and end the poverty and unemployment that have run rampant since the recession started. But “trickle-down economics” didn’t work during the Dubya years, nor did they even work during the Reagan administration, when the term was coined. All the tax cuts have done is raise the ever-widening wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

The Democrats are no better. When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he promised that he would not repeat the same draconian policies that occurred under Bush’s reign.

But more than two years later, some of the most sinister policies of Bush and his cronies continue under the Obama presidency.

The war in Afghanistan continues, after Obama sent 30,000 more troops to the country. Like Bush, Obama cow tows to Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government of warlords, human rights abusers, and drug traffickers.

Obama still has not closed down the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention center. He just relocated the majority of the detainees to Thomson Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison in Thomson, Illinois. Most of the prisoners still haven’t received a fair trial.

The list of Republican and Democratic blunders is too numerous for me to continue, but the radical activist Emma Goldman put it eloquently when she said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

This doesn’t mean that not voting will do anything to arouse the attention of tycoons who claim to represent our interests. Most voting-age Americans don’t go to the polls, and politicians don’t object as long as they get elected.

But democracy doesn’t die at the ballot box. There are far better things St. Augustinians can do to improve their community than merely placing an “X” next to a politician’s name.

“Direct action” is a term coined by the labor movement of the early 20th century, and it involves ordinary citizens directly impacting their communities by participating in causes that provide lasting, observable changes.

For the past seven years, the local chapter of the homeless advocacy group Food Not Bombs addressed the ever-growing problem of hunger and poverty by holding mass feedings in the Plaza de la Constitucion. FNB members also distributed free clothing to the homeless and organized mass marches to wake up other residents about the plight of the poor. Although the local chapter has dissolved, churches and charitable organizations have learned from its example, and have started to share free food in other public places.

The green movement in the Oldest City is thriving, with Flagler students and locals working together to promote locally-grown foods. Plots like the Lincolnville Community Garden at the Eddie Vicker’s Recreational Center in Lincolnville subvert the chemically altered nightmares at the big brand grocery stores.

But these two are just the more prominent examples of local St. Augustinians coming together to make the Oldest City a more tolerable place to live. The city is filled with creative and passionate people who can form groups to address pressing issues in their community.

By working collectively, ordinary people can create lasting changes in their towns that they would never see at the polling place.

2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Honorable Mention for Commentary

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