The Role of Collective Power in Democracy


Photo by LaTerrian McIntosh | Unsplash

Photo by LaTerrian McIntosh | Unsplash

As the public relations officer and assistant to the superintendent and board of education in a suburban Chicago school district, I have a bird’s eye view of the collective power of the local teachers’ union as our nation prepares to open our schools.

The last few weeks, I have participated in several bargaining meetings between the union’s executive board and the district’s administrators regarding the details of a plan for a return to in-person learning. Administrators and union reps throughout the U.S. are sitting in similar meetings, and not far from the district where I work, the Chicago Teachers Union recently made national news for refusing to return to in-person learning. Their president was quoted in a Washington Post story stating, “Our collective power is our greatest strength.”

While I am not in the position to publicly analyze the power of teachers’ unions and their role in decisions regarding school re-openings, these scenarios do serve as a poignant reminder that collective power has the tremendous capacity to influence the decision-making and future of various institutions and sectors of our society.  

Another contemporary example of the influence collective power can have on institutional decision-making is the many rapid changes in policies, procedures, and even laws that resulted from last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The protests were sparked by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. As millions of Americans took to the streets to protest unfair and racially motivated policies, practices, and laws, their collective voice was heard and, in many cases, swift action was taken by decision-makers.

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, along with the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, successfully used the collective power of their memberships to challenge their state’s election practices. The groups jointly brought a lawsuit regarding the rejection of mail-in ballots and the suit resulted in uniform guidance to counties from the secretary of state before the 2020 general election. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling in the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, resulting in an order for state lawmakers to draw new, fairer voting maps in advance of the 2018 mid-term election.

While union negotiations, protests, and lawsuits are all great examples of the power of collective organizing, the most prized and prominent demonstration of collective will in American democracy is surely that of the vote. It is our collective power at the polls that determines who will become or remain the decision-makers of our democracy at the federal, state, and local levels. This year’s U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia is a powerful demonstration of this principle. The collective power of voters shifted the Senate majority from Republican to Democrat, arguably changing the course of U.S. policy and legislation for the next two years.

Our collective power at the polls is to elect qualified legislators who hold our core democratic values as the highest priority in their decision-making. Core values such as justice, equality, the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, free and fair elections, separation of powers, and the peaceful transfer of power are defining virtues of democracy that should be embodied by our candidates for elected office.

In reality, however, ‘We the People’ are electing some individuals not based on their demonstrated and unwavering commitment to democracy, but because they have proven they will do our partisan bidding, even at the expense of democracy. When  147 members of Congress voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results even after pivotal swing states had counted, recounted, certified, and defended their results in court,  we saw a glaring example of partisanship taking precedence over principles of democracy.

Yale University political science professor Milan Svolik and political science Ph.D. candidate Matthew Graham recently conducted a study to determine whether support for democracy in the United States is “robust enough to deter undemocratic behavior by elected politicians.” In other words, the researchers wanted to know whether American voters are willing to punish elected officials for demonstrating undemocratic principles in their decision-making. In a Yale News story, Svolik reflected on the outcome of the study, “Our findings show that U.S. voters, regardless of their party affiliation, are willing to forgive undemocratic behavior to achieve their partisan ends and policy goals.” The study, published in April 2020 in the American Political Science Review, concluded that “only 3.5% of U.S. voters would cast ballots against their preferred candidates as punishment for undemocratic behavior, such as supporting gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, or press restrictions.”

It is no wonder that the conviction “country over party” is not the standard in the halls of Congress. The majority of voters won’t support it. How can American democracy survive if such voter prioritization continues? If we demand from the voting booth that elected officials firmly uphold the standards of democracy above all else, they will have no choice but to do so if they want to keep their jobs.

While my political leanings have moved from right to center and increasingly left over the past five years, my top priority as a voter is to hold candidates and elected officials accountable for how they speak about and enact democracy, regardless of party or platform. This means that, at times, I have to prioritize the principles of democracy over my partisan preferences when it’s time to vote.

Here are two examples of what prioritizing democratic principles over partisan platforms have looked like for me in the voting booth:

As detailed in my piece, “The Role of Critical Thinking in Democracy,” I departed from a lifelong loyalty to the GOP upon the 2016 nomination of Donald Trump. In a debate against Clinton, Trump would not commit to accepting the 2016 election results if he lost. A few months ago, Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State under President Clinton, and Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, penned an opinion piece in USA Today examining multiple ways in which Trump’s behavior has threatened democracy. They note the demonization of journalists, calling for political enemies to be jailed, and pardoning poli
tical allies. Any one of these behaviors should be alarming enough to prompt an American to steer clear of a candidate, no matter how close that candidate’s platform aligns with their own policy preferences. The refusal to commit to accepting election results alone was sufficient for me to withhold a vote for Trump in 2016.

At the local level, an elected official that I have supported for some years suddenly stopped inviting me to fundraising events, stopped speaking to me, and did not respond to my emails after I supported my biracial daughter who helped organize and speak at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in my town. I will not repeat a vote for a candidate that does not legitimately support peaceful protests, citizens’ pursuit of racial equality, and who refuses to speak or respond to a constituent who has differing political viewpoints. The pursuit of equality and the right to peacefully protest are foundational principles of democracy. I cannot support a candidate that demonstrates resistance to either, even if my overall assessment is that they are performing their role with competence.  

Elected officials have power only because of the many individuals who come together in the voting booth to grant their own power as a citizen to that elected official. Perhaps electing a candidate that panders to one’s partisan preferences feels good in the short term, but at what long-term cost to democracy if the candidate is not firmly rooted in the soil of democratic principles? The anti-democratic collective power of the pro-Trump insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is a sobering example of the far-reaching consequences of granting power to leaders who do not value, adhere to, and promote democracy.

If American voters will not prioritize a candidate’s commitment to democracy over partisan preferences, we are utilizing the collective power of the vote to undermine the very democracy that has granted us that cherished right to vote.

To preserve and protect our democracy, we must use our collective power to apply political consequences for candidates and elected officials who undermine democracy, and we must reward candidates who are exemplary in their commitment to the ideals of democracy, even if that occasionally means sacrificing partisan preferences. This is our privilege, our duty, and the only way to ensure that our democracy endures.

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