🎭 When we are the barriers to systemic change

How do we navigate a world of democratic inequality? Anna Drake argues that if we genuinely want democratic transformation, we need to confront our own behaviours, and ensure our actions do not undermine foundational democratic principles

Transformations require personal responsibility

How can we lead our lives in ways that respect everyone’s moral and political equality? At minimum, we need to stop engaging in actions that perpetuate inequality.

Hans Asenbaum proposes we 'transform ourselves in order to transform society'. This argument underscores 'an untapped democratic potential in who we are and who we choose to be'. The challenge lies in understanding the need to be these better versions of ourselves, and in taking the steps to make meaningful changes.

If we want structural, democratic transformations, we need to hold ourselves to account. We should, as Audre Lorde urged in 1982, be 'actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming'. Without these actions and effort in our everyday lives, we can’t reasonably expect democratic transformations to take root.

Each of us must find our work and do it. Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming

audre lord, learning from the '60s, 1982

Bridging the gap

Currently, there is a significant disconnect between people’s stated support for equality and the ways we lead our lives. Our silence and inaction in the face of daily engagements with unjust actions and structures speaks volumes.

We need democratic transformation — systemic change — for a reason. There is a collective refusal to focus our critical attention on injustices as they pervade every aspect of society. The failure to do this, and to enact steps to dismantle injustices, exists because the inequity we need to secure meaningful democratic equality is a structural problem.

Identity politics as structural transformation

A conversation on democratic transformations offers an important opportunity to push back against the weaponisation of identity politics. It is decades since the introduction of identity politics and its use as 'a source of political radicalization'. In the collective pursuit of freedom, we see people working to neutralise identity politics and discredit those mobilising for social justice.

There are, of course, people doing the work of confronting structural injustice. They have been doing it for a long time.

The Combahee River Collective of Black feminists introduced identity politics in 1977. The Collective noted the harms of 'interlocking oppressions' and emphasised the need for 'the destruction of all the systems of oppression'.

If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression

mission statement of the combahee river collective, 1977

Since then, people looking to discredit anti-oppression work have distorted identity politics in the public discourse. They have sought to portray groups mobilising around identity as selfish and as undermining equality.

Looking inward

The problem, however, runs deeper. Silence and a lack of critical self-examination is just as harmful when it comes to the collective failure to uphold democracy’s normative principles.

Take the following examples:

Climate change is a problem that we are part of. It is not just a problem in the abstract. Accepting this means we need to change our behaviour. Do we really need to fly? Doing so undeniably accelerates the climate emergency. Our world is literally on fire and yet we continue.

In another example, the 2023 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association proceeded in violation of the hotel workers’ strike and despite denunciations from some of its members. Thousands of academics whose literal profession is the study of power crossed picket lines. Actions like this do not speak well to broader principles of class justice, nor to dismantling structural racism and sexism.

In perhaps the most egregious and widespread failure of the mutual obligations that follow from core democratic principles, we have seen people, en masse, abandon core mitigations for Covid-19.

The decision to abandon masking protections, despite persistent transmission and evidence of both short- and long-term harm, is a clear failure of government, journalism, and public health. All of these are systems upon which we ought to be able to rely. However, responsibility does not stop there.

Social connections

In her article Responsibility and Social Justice: a Social Connection Model, Iris Marion Young tells us:

obligations of justice arise between persons by virtue of the social processes that connect them

iris marion young, 2006

Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the harms that arise when we fail to protect each other from Covid-19 by attending indoor events unmasked.

Of course, people bear different degrees of responsibility — and, in some cases, liability. But the failure to mask is ultimately a decision, and a harm, each person undertakes. The real cost isn’t the 'burden' to mask: it’s the ways public spaces and institutions are truly inaccessible to those with chronic health conditions because of those who do not.

Denying access to essential public services and spaces is a clear democratic failure. It is one for which many people bear responsibility.

If we want to have vibrant, inclusive democratic societies, we need to re-examine ourselves and our priorities. Instead of normalising ableism, we need to take responsibility for the type of democratic society our actions help build.

During the pandemic, we saw a glimpse of changes that can help dismantle ableist structures. As many forms of work, meetings, and communication went remote, disability activists noted that what they had been told was logistically impossible for so long was, in fact, quite manageable.

The necessity of transformation

Structural change might feel overwhelming, but the speed with which we saw our world shift indicates that much is a matter of will.

Amidst the magnitude of loss, suffering, and isolation, the transformations we saw in spring of 2020 also contained a moment full of possibility. Not only for genuine systemic changes in the ways we can live and engage with others, but also in the dialogue around the ways alternate forms of participation benefit people who would otherwise be excluded.

Since then, however, there have been jarring displays of the lack of solidarity and mutual aid necessary to undermine systems of oppression.

In this series, the word transformation isn’t chosen lightly. If the adjustments we needed to make were easy and popular, they would already have happened. We need to consider people’s needs, listen to difficult answers, and make the changes that reflect a genuine desire to transform ourselves, and our world.

Third in a Loop series on 🎭 Democratic Transformations

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Anna Drake
Anna Drake
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, Canada

Anna works in the area of democratic theory, with a focus on deliberative democracy, intersectionality, and activism.

Her current research examines structural injustice in deliberative theory and analyses ways deliberative systems might better respond to problems such as systemic racism and sexism.

Activism, Inclusion, and the Challenges of Deliberative Democracy

Activism, Inclusion, and the Challenges of Deliberative Democracy
University of British Columbia Press, 2021

Legislating under the Charter: Parliament, Executive Power, and Rights By Emmett Macfarlane, Janet Hiebert and Anna Drake

Legislating Under the Charter: Parliament, Executive Power, and Judicial Norms about Rights
with Emmett Macfarlane and Janet Hiebert
University of Toronto Press, 2023

Anna has published in a number of journals, including Contemporary Political Theory, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

She tweets @annamdrake

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