Bending the Arc

T.A. Barnhart

Bending the Arc

Black Lives Matter, and so does local action

As a white male, I make it a practice to not speak for people of color. Or at them. Instead, I talk about democracy as it affects all Americans. Because while there are differences in how our political system impacts different people, there are some basic truths (as I see them) about the democratic process that are universal.

First, politics and democracy are not the same thing. Democracy is not just another political system. Democracy is an idea, a belief that the people who live together in a society are the ultimate source of power. “We, the people” as Jefferson wrote (leaving aside the 1776 understanding of “we” which we have outgrown). The foundation or American politics is a belief in and a commitment to the democratic ideal. How we implement that ideal is what American politics has always been about.

The failure of our politics to implement that ideal is not a failure of democracy. It’s an incentive for “we, the people” to fix our politics, to move the current system closer to the ideal. This is real meaning of Dr King’s statement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We don’t give up on a system because it has flaws; we apply ourselves to pushing that system closer to the ideal. The arc doesn’t bend itself; that work is done by us.

The work of fixing politics, of bending the arc, is most effectively done by starting with the local community. It’s not as exciting as “big” campaigns, but it’s more crucial. I understand the excitement that a presidential candidate can generate. For me, in both 2003 (Dean) and 2007 (Obama), I couldn’t do enough to promote my candidates. In both cases, my excitement and energy paid off: the former went from a failed presidential campaign to lead the national Democratic Party and take back the Congress; the latter didn’t do too badly, either.

But in neither case did we see our political system fixed. Dean’s “50 State Strategy” is a great concept, but it’s a partisan strategy (and a partisan ideal: all Democrats in all parts of the country matter). And Obama’s presidency has resulted in the Republican Party turning into a hate-filled, anger-fueled, anti-American mess, giving fewer and fewer voters a reason to have hope for anything better than government.

The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of this mistrust – in their case, a well-earned mistrust. The endless string of unpunished executions of black Americans by the police makes belief in government seem foolish at best. The solution isn’t to destroy government, abandon democracy, or quit on the system. These choices are flawed for one fundamental reason: The concept of democracy stands above the failures of government.

The solution to political failure isn’t to quit politics but to step up your game locally. In Ferguson, in the year after Michael Brown’s murder, African American voters used the two most important tools of democratic politics to make significant changes. One, they voted. They rejected the lie that politics doesn’t matter, that elections change nothing; they got involved in the political process, and they changed their local government. This, though, after they did something even more vital: they put their own voices and bodies into the fray to show that they’d had enough and change was no longer an option but a necessity. A necessity they would fulfill themselves.

They retained their belief in democracy, they acted locally, and they got results.

As someone who has lived with depression most of his life, I understand what hopelessness feels like. If I was a person of color, I imagine I’d wonder if spending my time and energy on politics was worth the effort. If I could be stopped by a police officer for the grave offense of not being a white person, would I believe in democracy? Would I give a damn about politics?

Not quitting on democratic politics is an act of faith and courage. Quitting is surrender, whether to the belief that life, however difficult, isn't worth living; or to the regressive, uber-conservative forces that stand against the democratic ideal. Working through the political process, including elections, is frustrating and slow. But it’s the only way to bend the arc and not destroy democracy. Liberty cannot be imposed; it has to be earned, over and over again.

The Boss sang it true: “No retreat, baby, no surrender”. We either keep working to implement democracy in our own communities, or we bow our knees to tyranny.

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