The Hard Work of Democracy

"For 18 days we have withstood teargas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, Molotov cocktails, thugs on horseback, the skepticism and fear of our loved ones and the worst sort of ambivalence from an international community that claims to care about democracy. But we held our ground. We did it."

These are the words of protester Karim Medhat Ennarah, who spoke with tears in his eyes, responding to President Mubarak's resignation Friday.

Mohamed Gamal, one of Egypt's embattled bloggers, captured the idealism of a new generation willing to risk their lives and freedom for the hope of democracy.

"We were dreaming of democracy and new governments."

The inspiring images of peaceful protestors spontaneously assembling by the hundreds of thousands, in pursuit of this dream, should remind Americans that the freedoms we so often take for granted, rest precariously on our willingness to engage in politics.

One protestor told the New York Times: "We need democracy in Egypt... We just want what you have."

But what do we have?

America once believed change happened through politics, but the rising generation isn't convinced. Those under 30 are not simply tuned out; they volunteer in record numbers. However, public service once meant serving the government; it now means joining a nonprofit.

A Harvard Institute of Politics poll reports: "Whereas 85% of students under 30 saw serving in a nonprofit as the path to good public service, only 15% saw elective office in the same terms."

In fact, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteerism in America is at a 30-year high. Yet volunteering is decreasing dramatically in only one area: politics. Since 1989, the percentage of those volunteering in politics has dropped 48%.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw record levels of new and young voters, but two years later, only 22% went to the polls. As John Della Volpe, Director of Polling for Harvard's Institute of Politics, said, "Millions of young people are losing faith in government, politics and in many cases -- the American dream."

I've personally encountered that those doing public service aren't just indifferent to politics; they are repelled by it.

Recently, when I told a group of young nonprofit volunteers in California that I train nonprofit organizations how to engage in policy, one guest responded with, "Yuck!"

At another meeting in which I spoke on how to engage politically, one participant asked, "You work with politicians?" and mockingly wiped his hands as if tainted by having shaken my hand.

But the reality is that politics still matters. In fact, you can't change the world if you don't change the policy. Laws and regulations are still significant. Changing one small bit of legislation in Washington can change the lives of millions.

Those who turn their backs, and wash their hands, of politics are forfeiting the arena to interests with the tenacity to stay and fight. Chances are, those interests probably aren't fighting for justice.

All of the great social changes in our history have occurred only when citizens have combined their vision with direct involvement in public policy. In the 1980s, when a diagnosis of AIDS was a virtual death sentence, the political system and much of society at first turned its back, renouncing responsibility. This too often left victims to die alone and in pain.

Then, something remarkable and unpredictable happened. A generation of activists refused to sit and watch. Instead, they decided to fill the vacuum. Many volunteered to help with weekly visits. Others took to the streets with slogans such as "Silence = Death" and "Words are Not Enough."

We also realized, however, that if we were going to secure the resources, laws and policies needed to effectively combat this epidemic, we would have to fight for them in the policy arena.

We organized and mastered the inner workings of government agencies, such as the FDA, where we learned the rules, made allies and succeeded in "fast tracking" experimental drugs.

We built a bipartisan response from our federal government. We informed our leaders and persuaded them to act. It didn't just happen; it took planning, strategy, scores of meetings and tough arguments and compromise.

It takes real work in the real world, which is the only way anything worthwhile is accomplished in a democracy.

If AIDS activists had decided that politics was too dirty or too pointless to engage in, we would still be burying our young in record numbers. Imagine how Africa would look today, if members of the AIDS generation had turned their backs on politics and policy-making.

Politicians' egos, disappointment with the president, and the narcissism of television talking heads alienates Americans from their democracy. However, there are signs of hope.

New leaders are emerging from the Facebook generation. One is Cole Bockenfeld, a 24 year old working to strengthen support for peaceful democratic reform throughout the Middle East at the Project on Middle East Democracy. He states, "What's going on in Egypt is incredibly exciting. Young people in Egypt are driving the movement for change and a new democratic political system, while America's youth are apathetic about our own. We need the same energy back at home."

Allen Gannett, a junior at George Washington University, also sees the power in this new movement. He argues, "Many in my generation wrongly believe it's too hard to affect change in the world through politics. Imagine if we all just used the power of our Facebook and Twitter networks to change politics." Allen is putting his vision into practice. At the age of 20, he is the founder of Future Civic Leaders, a program that provides training to low-income high school students in the power of engaging in politics.

We do not know how the pro-democracy protests sweeping through the Middle East will play out; but, they should remind citizens in the United States that our democracy is only as good as each generation's willingness to engage in it.

Let Egypt's dream of democracy remind us of the importance of fighting for our own.

Rich Tafel is the president of Public Squared, a public policy training program for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs.