The Role of Writing in a Democracy
Kelly Carty, Consultant
On Friday we witnessed what Barak Obama called a “hallmark of our democracy:” the peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. Donald J. Trump, to the horror of some and the delight of others, is now the 45th President of the United States. He will occupy the White House for at least four years as our Commander in Chief.
But you already know this. The details of the day have probably trickled down to you much better than the benefits of the wealthy. I’m not going to reiterate what you’ve seen on your Facebook newsfeed, Google News, or SNL. Instead, I would like to explore the role of writing in a democracy. I want to explore the ways in which we can write to resist, dissent, and call for change. I want to explore the relationship between writing and active citizenship.
Writing, as a political expression of our freedom of speech, is central to the functioning of our democracy. Even with its legal limitations (e.g. libel, slander, obscenity), the freedom to express ideas ensures that democracy, a system of government in which rule emanates from the common people, remains a democracy and does not morph into an aristocracy, an oligarchy, or a totalitarian state.
You may be thinking that writing can’t do much. That writing can be an expression of freedom of speech, but no one listens. I certainly felt discouraged when I wrote to Rand Paul about gun control and received a slightly off topic, pre-crafted reply in the mail. But writing is powerful. It has led to drastic social and political changes. If you are skeptical, Google any of the following:
- Foundational Religious Texts (like the Sutras, the Vedas, the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Qur’an)
- Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
- The Communist Manifesto
- Letter from Birmingham Jail
- Social media posts in the Arab Spring
- (and because I also think literature changes the world)
- Shakespeare’s plays
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- The Jungle
- (and because science can change the world)
- Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres
- Newton’s Principia
- Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
- Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers
While I don’t want to discourage you from attempting to write such dramatic pieces, I recognize it is difficult (and often situation-dependent) to write something so influential. So how can we still write politically effective pieces?
We can write to engage in civil discourse.
You may already do some of this. Writing a political Facebook status or commenting on someone else’s is a way of engaging in discourse. In order to do this effectively, however, you must be willing to engage with those who disagree with you. You must be willing to attempt to understand other views. You must be willing to practice rhetorical devices. (And we have a handout on this! Lucky you! Unfortunately, Facebook’s algorithms tend to isolate us in agreeable newfeeds.
If you want to work outside the bounds of social media, you can write letters or responses to your local newspaper. Here are links to the contact information for a few of our local newspapers:
We can write to our representatives.
If you want to supplement your civil discourse with direct interactions with the government, you may want to consider contacting your representatives. Before you do that, however, it’s useful to know a bit about our system of government. The United States is a representative democracy. This means that elected representatives, not the common people as is the case with a direct democracy, run the government. If citizens want something to happen, they have to go through their representatives.
Complicating this a bit further, the United States is also a federal republic. This means that we have representatives on multiple levels (the state government and the federal government). Thus, depending on what you want to be done, you may need to talk to representatives from one or both levels.
There are a couple of ways you can find your representatives. On the federal level, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have searchable databases. Each state will have it’s own website, but for Kentucky, you can find your legislators here. The website Common Cause is useful as well, as it provides more information on the specific actions of your representatives.
Hopefully, your representatives will be responsive. Some of them send letters. Some of them send emails. For example, I received this from Mitch McConnell:
We can write to supplement other political acts.
Maybe you want to do more than write. That’s great! Keep in mind that writing can supplement your other political actions. For example, if you want to march or protest, you can create a witty sign:
If you want to join a politically active group, such as Showing Up for Racial Justice or Black Lives Matter, you may need to write to support the goals of the group. If you want to create your own, you may want to write a mission statement or a list of objectives.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that writing can augment your voice.
I will leave you with something a friend showed me on the day of Trump’s inauguration. It’s an arrangement by Anne Carson in her book Nox: