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My Fellow Citizens,

You can admit to jumping to your feet to join the standing ovation as you watched the Jon Stewart video this week. When the news came that the committee approved the bill unanimously, we all wondered if the system worked just this once. 

All of those edited clips skipped right over the harsh reality that it might now die in the Senate. The news made it sound like this story found its happy ending.

Stories told this way also smooth over the difficult truth that our outspoken champions often experience democracy at its worst. When you step into the arena, you risk everything. No one can tell you what happens next. The work of leading a cause requires a resilience that doesn’t get much air time either.

Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison and others who took the study of democracy seriously had a name for the threat—tyranny of the majority. As our electoral politics embrace the logic of winners and losers, our ideas of democracy get smaller and smaller. We lose sight of the threats. We celebrate symbolic moments and hope everything works out in the end. 

The whole project of American democracy would hardly work without those who take the lead and agitate for change. That same system, however, will see those agitators as threats. These individuals who see themselves a standard-bearers of democracy will have to withstand repeated attacks. Until they earn a standing ovation, they're a threat to the status quo.

We need to talk honestly about these attacks so the next generation of activists will know this is true about democracy too. It’s ugly sometimes. Consider how Tocqueville understood this democratic tendency:

“That is above all true in democratic states organized like the American republics, where the majority possesses an empire so absolute and so irresistible that one must in a way renounce one’s rights as a citizen and so to speak one’s equality as a man when one wants to deviate from the path it has traced.” 

Risking everything includes your rights and your equality. If you’re tempted to think we do better than that now, remember the security concerns of Dr. Christina Blasey Ford and her family. Consider how casually people in the public debate made assumptions about her and the baseness of her character.

Recall the “Five Second Rule” enforced in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful demonstrators had to be in continual motion to avoid arrest. They marched all night because they had to keep moving. This type of policy also aligns with the anti-protest laws recently adopted in several states to squash pipeline protests. In Texas, you will soon risk arrest and a year in prison for protesting on your own property.

Change often seems impossible from every angle. The obstacles are larger than you imagined and immovable too. You have to act anyway. Those factors will always be true. Standing up against majority opinion is some of the hardest work of democratic life. 

We also lose something important when we leave these difficult truths out of the stories we celebrate. Let's remember to appreciate and amplify these quieter acts of courage too.

Let's work together and tell the whole story,

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Questions of Civic Proportions

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator."

—Francis Bacon, English philosopher
and statesman

Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our Learning Studio)

What happens when policy defeats fail to write the end of the story?

Some problems persist through even the most severe policy defeats. You might have thought unions were dead, but one group of Instagrammers has decided to organize with the rally cry, “Memers of the world unite!” There’s a future for unionizing in the new economy and its “mediated work” where platforms hold all the cards even though creators bring the profit. The Trump administration has dealt some heavy blows to climate science but hasn’t convinced anyone else to abandon the shared concerns of a future swallowed by plastic waste. Check out this article announcing Canada’s plans to ban single-use plastics by 2021, and you will find a whole list of additional countries and American states who have decided to stick with the science and do their part.

Just in case you thought the fight for Equal Pay had stalled out, know that the U.S. Women’s Soccer team is fighting to win a round on that issue too. They’ve filed suit. 

What happens when an unexpected turn flips the script we all thought we knew? 

A Twitter challenge has sprouted bipartisan legislation banning members of Congress from lobbying after they leave. Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocaso-Cortez found common ground through a tweet exchange and now their teams have joined forces to propose legislation to ban lobbying and make access to birth control an over-the-counter proposition. Both teams have expressed a willingness to work with anyone of any party when it leads to “good policy.”

For another U.S. Representative, unconventional behavior has led to an entirely conventional conclusion. You’ve heard that Rep. Justin Amash read the Mueller report, concluded that it described impeachable offenses and has now had to leave the House Freedom Caucus. Amash’s personal story aside, that organization once celebrated their independence and willingness to vote against the party. Amash’s story shows how little support is left for strategies like that

Also, check out this long read from Esquire: An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That’s Exactly What the U.S. is Running at the Border. A thread of tweets from Andrea Pitzer (she’s the expert mentioned) inspired the article that brings in additional expert voices to show how the immigrant detention centers fit too comfortably within the broader context of U.S. History. The call to refer to these detention centers concentration camps comes as an Oklahoma Army base that formerly served as an internment camp for Japanese families and a boarding school for Native American children prepares to serve as “temporary housing for immigrant children crossing the border without their parents.” 


What happens when unconventional voices take the stage to show us who we are?

A new approach to civic learning started with a Broadway production that asks what to do with the U.S. Constitution. Art supporters have pointed to the success of Heidi Schreck’s (mostly) one-woman show, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” as proof that less conventional voices can find a stage today. That development has also taken the concerns of civic education to unusual places. Two teenagers who take turns debating Schreck at the end of the show talked to Teen Vogue about their off-stage opinions on the future of the founding document. New York City announced its new Civics and Arts Fund. The fund launched with $25,000 in seed funding and a mission:
“Creative expression has a unique power to spark meaningful dialogue. We look forward to introducing our city’s future activists, elected officials, and voters to how cultural creators help us understand social and governmental issues, opening their eyes to the opportunities civic engagement provides to shape the world we live in.”

—Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl

The Learning Studio is where we work to keep the conversation going. You don't have to dodge cat memes or endure eery advertising. It's free and just takes a minute to request an invite.  
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Our First Book of Summer: The Library Book
by Susan Orlean

You could describe this book as a story about the Los Angeles Public Library and the day it burned for seven hours. That single moment in 1986 serves as a portal to a story that's older than all of us. If we think of Orlean's book as a song, the chorus celebrates our public libraries as one of the biggest ideas of the civilized world.

Each week in the Learning Studio:
  • One quote from each chapter to serve as a sort of review or SparksNotes version of the text
  • Questions those chapters prompted about our own experiences of libraries, learning, and the daily quest to know
  • Prompts for appreciating and celebrating the libraries in our communities or the cities we visit this summer. 
Be sure to check out the reading plan. There's still plenty of time to play along. 

Good Work: A Wave of Change in Del Rio

“The same people who bullied me voted me into office.”

Bruno Lozano grew up in Del Rio, Texas. Describing himself as a teenager who could be flamboyant and feminine at times, he was often bullied. He left the machismo culture of south Texas to join the Air Force. Few would predict how this story ends, but Lozano now serves the city as its first openly gay Mayor. 

Serving in the military helped him get out of his hometown, but he served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Once he completed his tour, Lozano set out to enjoy life in big cities where it was a little easier to find acceptance. Then he decided to return to Del Rio, and, two years later, he ran for Mayor.  

So why return to Del Rio in 2016? Lozano says, “my community is here, and it’s important for people who are different, like myself, to be visible.” He ran his campaign on a platform of infrastructure, employment, and tourism, and he beat the incumbent by winning 62% of the vote. 

Few would have expected to find a story like this in a small Texas town where politics often turns to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Lozano not only returned to a community where he had faced difficulties as a gay teen, but he also opened himself up to public criticism by running for office. He explains his success with the idea that you can “win people’s hearts over as long as you are true to yourself and true to your mind and goal.” 

By staying true to himself, Mayor Bruno Lozano will help shape a future for the city as a “place where people are welcoming, are inviting, and are different.” Teenagers like Lozano will have the opportunity to experience some additional degree of acceptance without leaving the community.
Why do you go away? So that you can come back.
So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

—Terry Pratchett

Please share this email. Good questions make it possible to share the good, bad, and ugly stories of democratic life, and to learn from all of the above, too.

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