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The Light That 'Never Was On Land or Sea'

In a society where the 'government does not see the governed,' these pro-democracy marchers in Pennsylvania are on the move

POTTSTOWN, Pennsylvania—We are about a third of the way through the hundred-mile March on Harrisburg, a non-partisan pro-democracy Pennsylvania-based volunteer mobilization fighting for three bills already introduced in the state legislature. They span the gamut from gerrymandering reform to a common sense gift ban to automatic voter registration.

The march began in Philadelphia and, as the name suggests, is headed to Harrisburg. There, should the legislature not heed the demand to pass the widely supported reforms, the marchers will risk arrest at the state capitol building to push democracy onto the agenda.

I sat down with lead organizer Michael Pollack, a soon-to-be-graduating rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who developed the idea for the march last year while marching with Democracy Spring in April.

Adam Eichen: When did you come up with the idea for the March on Harrisburg?

Michael Pollack: It started during the Democracy Spring March last spring when one hundred and fifty people marched from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. Toward the end, we were out walking and began discussing how to take this national campaign back to the state level—and how to give it a more specific legislative focus. I personally was just really caught up in the excitement and energy of the march itself, and I realized that this is a great tool to bring people together, to form sustainable community, and to create momentum for legislation.

So why Pennsylvania?

Pollack: Because I live in Pennsylvania, and in a recent electoral integrity project, Pennsylvania was ranked 45th out of 50 states plus DC, across 11 democracy-related metrics. Pennsylvania is in really bad shape when it comes to gerrymandering—we’re 48th in the union. In Pennsylvania, you can gift anything to anyone. Only nine other states share this honor. And I admit, I am really fascinated in working with the Republican legislature. Pennsylvania has a double red legislature—Super majority in the Senate and a very strong majority in the House. Essentially we’re pushing one Republican bill, one Democratic bill and one bi-partisan bill. I wanted to know, can we do this? Is it possible to turn democracy into a true nonpartisan issue and have it culminate in legislative success?

That leads nicely into my next question. Some people saw last year’s Democracy Spring as a bunch of progressives. Is this the case with the March on Harrisburg? How are you trying to work with Republicans who will often times not support these measures?

Pollack: Our core leadership has political diversity banked into it. We have people who are registered with three different political parties. We are going to maintain our non-partisanship not only in our external communications, but also in our internal communications. We are focusing on the system, not parties, and the environment in which they operate.

We’ve met with almost all 253 members of the state legislature and have had wonderful meetings with the Republican legislators, especially regarding their gift ban bill. Many of us are truly optimistic that we can move some of these bills forward.

What would success look like for you?

Pollack: Success means passing the bills—banning unlimited gifts in Pennsylvania, ending gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, and creating automatic voter registration in Pennsylvania. Secondary to that, we want to inform the community that action is necessary for the first success—that until we get up and demand to be heard we can never expect our democracy to be fixed.

Third, we want to form a community among people who care about these issues. Our citizen lobbying days have been a great experience on this front. Not only were friendships formed, but people also stopped seeing the legislature as something “untouchable,” that they didn’t belong. It is called the people’s house for a reason.

The march itself also forms community. And we are already seeing this. Just like during Democracy Spring, as we walk and talk through Pennsylvania in the beautiful springtime weather, we are all connecting and learning a lot.

Lastly, and perhaps most ambitiously, we want to see what we are doing in Pennsylvania be exported to every single state. Every state has a deficit of trust and communication between citizen and state. We decided that when the march is over we are going to make all our materials open source, meaning that we will provide to anyone interested all the information needed to start your own March on Harrisburg. We’ll give you everything that we’ve learned and everything that we’ve collected. And hopefully this will inspire more people to act to save democracy and repair trust in our republic.

How have your rabbinical studies influenced your understanding of democracy and the development of the March on Harrisburg.

In the Jewish tradition, every person has a yetzer ha’ra and a yetzer ha’tov. These correspond to the sense of self and the sense for other.

The “self” is critical. It keeps us alive, for without it there would be no impetus to build a house, or get a job, or even heal yourself when you are sick. The sense for the other, on the other hand, is a sense of altruism, good deeds, and good thoughts. It is every time you act with a sense of responsibility and obligation to others.

The sense of self can provide very short-term happiness. I’m happy, for example, when my belly is full or when I get a new car. But that happiness is fleeting. The sense of the other, when acted upon, builds deeper joy, meaningful relationships, and a sense of connection and meaning. So in our short time in life, it seems wiser to satisfy the sense for the other, and not let the sense of self rule your life.

So I want to know how we can initiate the sense for the other. For my grandparents, eliciting this worldview was easy. For them, God commands you to love the other. So there was no choice. But now that Nietzsche has declared that God is dead, and George Carlin has closed the coffin with satire and ridicule, the question must be asked, why are we obligated to the other?

The best answer I have comes from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who said, “When you see the face of the other you are ordered and ordained to service.” When people see each other, when they hear each other, when they feel each other, a sense of obligation and care is fueled.

Herein lies the problem. We currently live in a society where our government does not see the governed. There is therefore no sense of service to these people. And when that sense of service is not present, the sense of self dominates. Leaders look after their self-interest, their parties’ interest, and the interest of those who support their self-interest.

March on Harrisburg is the marriage counselor. We are here so that the parties and politicians look at we the people. We want to create a sense of responsibility and open communication. And when this happens, amazing things follow. As philosopher and democracy theorist, John Dewey, explained, “When the emotional force, the mystic force one might say, of communication, of the miracle of shared life and shared experience is spontaneously felt, the hardness and crudeness of contemporary life will be bathed in the light that never was on land or sea.”

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