As the old saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport


Recently fellow editor Chris Faraone asked DigBoston’s social media followers to tell us what they think is wrong with Boston. Just in time for the holidays. So, this week we’re running some of the best (and most amusing comments) that came in. Then next week we’ll run what readers think is right about Boston.


Naturally, he asked me to write on the same themes this week and next. Making this week’s task particularly amusing. Because I’ve been writing about what’s wrong with the Hub for over a decade—first with my former publication Open Media Boston, and then for almost four and a half years with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Dig.


And sure, I could just run through several of the policy areas I write about regularly (like transportation, housing, or education) and review what I’ve said before, point by point. But I don’t want to do that.


I’d rather focus on the theme that runs through all my writing, democracy, and reflect on how we could have more of it in Boston.


Naturally, it should be taken as given that I understand we have a form of representative democracy in Boston—as we do at the state and federal levels in the US. Yet it’s also true that most Bostonians don’t have any say in how policy that affects their daily lives is made. The idea that the average person might find it preferable to have a more grassroots form of democracy is paid lip service in many settings in government and commerce in the city. People are invited to give their opinions on matters large and small in “focus groups” and “town hall meetings” and the like. 


But most people understand that giving one’s opinions is not the same as having those opinions listened to, and more importantly, acted upon. So most people don’t bother to show up to such events—correctly understanding them to be window dressing. Dog-and-pony shows staged so that the people that actually hold the power in Boston can advertise that the decisions they generally make arbitrarily in their own self-interest have been agreed to by the people that have no power at all in the present political economic system.


Most people also understand that most protest campaigns aimed at changing that status quo in one policy area or another fail most of the time. And organizations with grander ambitions to reform our political and economic system in more fundamental ways continue to fail rather more grandly. Unless they are backed by powerful institutions. In which case, a reasonable person might be concerned about what might happen should they succeed.


So what of grassroots democracy in Boston? How might Bostonians have more say in their daily lives? At home, at work, and at school.


Well, I’ve said this before—directly and indirectly—but nothing’s going to change for the better unless people step up.


That said, what do I think is wrong with Boston?


Most people don’t step up.


Most people, especially the working people with the most at stake, keep noses to the grindstone, take orders from people with political and economic power no matter how problematic they may be, and don’t fight back. Even when they suffer more by not doing so.


And, yes, I’m often the first to say that most people’s lives are hard and getting harder these days; so they can be forgiven for their inaction at times. But if that inaction continues to be endemic, then we can kiss even representative democracy—flawed though it is, bought off by entrenched corporate power though it is—goodbye. Not just in Boston, but nationwide.


Changing that situation requires each and every Bostonian to find time to act in your own self-interest. Even though you may work two jobs. Even though you may be a single parent. Even though you may be caring for a loved one who can’t take care of themselves.


You need to keep up with the news. You need to find out what political and economic policies are hurting you, your family, and your friends. You need to find decent democratically run organizations that are working to replace broken old policies with better new policies. And you need to join those groups. Or start new ones if no good groups are working in your areas of concern already.


Yes, rich and powerful people control the city. Yes, it’s hard to change anything. Yes, most efforts to do so fail. But the biggest reason they fail is because enough people don’t join them and fight.


So step up, Bostonians. You want better transportation, housing, and schools? You want more say in your daily lives? You want a more democratic political and economic system where your opinions will really be valued and acted upon?


Then carve some time out of your already busy schedules, and act.


Because democracy, as the saying goes, is most certainly not a spectator sport.


Especially now.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.