Can we have democracy without empty platitudes and hypocrisy?
Two years ago I set out on an epic quest to see if such a thing was possible. The culmination of this journey arrived June 7, 2022, when I was on the ballot as a candidate for Santa Clara County assessor after running an innovative, grassroots campaign in the spirit of public service. A campaign built to earn the trust of voters through educating the public about “the most important office, that you’ve never heard of.”
That fateful night I earned 98,459 votes, having run a campaign focused on serving my community first, rather than the typical cynical mud-slinging and name-calling, which we have mostly resigned ourselves to in our American politics. What happened next was remarkable: new opportunities for service that I could not have imagined presented themselves immediately after losing the election.
The opportunity that has had the most impact has been my subsequent involvement with one of the oldest civic organizations in Santa Clara County: True Fellowship Lodge No. 52 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), established in January 1856. The name “Odd Fellows” is 18th-century speak for “Diverse Peoples.”
This inclusive, all-gender civic society was in dire straits in June 2022, with the ravages of the pandemic leaving it struggling to meet its own modest five-person quorum requirement in its bylaws. The situation was so dire, this nonprofit organization was notified by the California Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows that if it did not grow membership by December 2022, its charter could be terminated. This would result in the utter waste of having its 6,000 square-foot civic hall, a community asset worth approximately $3,000,000, simply flushed down the drain.
This potential loss to our community was unacceptable: so my wife, Jane Beckman, and I joined the organization last summer. We worked with the skeleton crew of remaining members to create a plan, implementing the lessons from my campaign for assessor. This resulted in rebranding the building as the San Jose Odd Fellows Community Center Hall, setting up social media accounts and revamping the website. We also rolled out regular monthly community events such as our first Saturday board game days, second Wednesday potlucks, and for the warm season burger frys on the last Wednesdays.
We have brought in 16 new members in the last six months, as well as new community center renters. In recognition of my efforts in saving the community center, I have been installed as a trustee of this lodge.
While community building is praiseworthy for its own sake, saving the Odd Fellows Community Center is consistent with a deeper passion of mine, around which I had gained clarity through my run for office. There is an important difference between being interested in getting people to turn out to the next election vs. getting people to turn out to every election. While I want a nation of voters who participate in every election, the 2022 election stands in testament to which paradigm prevails in our own county with its million registered voters. Only 30.15% of voters expressed an opinion in the 2022 assessor race—with 699,753 registered voters in this county being silenced through their own self-disenfranchisement.
Understanding this behavior is explored in my article “Belonging on the Ballot – Rediscovering Democracy” published in the international Journal of the 2023 Conference for Global Transformation. One of the keys to unlocking this behavior is communicated in the aphorism, “If people cannot imagine themselves on the ballot, they don’t tend to pick up a ballot.” If we are going to shift this paradigm, then commonplace perceptions regarding one’s place in democracy must be changed. And while there are many answers I have heard put forward to address this matter, there is one that any of us can do: join a civic organization.
What I have become aware of in this past year is that participation in democratically administered civic organizations alters folks’ perceptions of voting on a visceral level. With civic organizations, one gets to live the experience of being at meetings where one’s vote determines everything that happens—including whether a community center lives or dies, as was literally the case with the Odd Fellows this last year.
Participation transforms one’s already existing relationship to voting into a civic routine, allowing a citizen to overcome the present voting paradigm where a ballot is treated like a restaurant menu—where we review what’s on it, and if we don’t see anything appetizing we don’t place an order. Indeed, through the visceral lived experience of the power of voting within a community, participants create a durable civic habit. When people know from their lived experience not only how important voting is, but also know that they belong in democracy, a citizen is created who votes in every election.
Now a year on since my campaign, when I wonder if we can have democracy without empty platitudes and hypocrisy, I know that we can. Not only because I experience it through my participation in democratically administered civic organizations, but because these civic organizations are the forgotten foundation on which our political life sits. If we want to build a vibrant, democratic future with space for all of us in it, I ask you: what civic organization will you join this year?
Andrew Crockett is a CPA, trustee for True Fellowship Lodge No. 52 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and former candidate for Santa Clara County assessor.