The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In 1989, nearly a million people in the former Czechoslovakia—where I was born and raised—took to the streets to peacefully overthrow the totalitarian dictatorship of the Communist Party.
That euphoric fall changed everything for me. I would not be here today, having served on the Flagstaff City Council for four years and now running for Congress in Arizona’s first district, if the young people had not believed in the power and righteousness of their demands for sweeping reform and freedom.
Everyone was on board with taking power away from what we called the old structures — Individuals connected to the ruling party, which lacked the moral authority to govern after failing us and betraying us for 40 years.
I was 12 years old; just old enough for my observations to inform my permanent politics. Life before the Velvet Revolution was not unbearable, but it was grim. Our air and our rivers were polluted. Common areas were littered with trash. Everybody owned everything; therefore, nobody owned anything. Our environment was colorless, gray and uninspiring.
As a child, I didn’t know what we were missing under our state-run economy, where 99.9% of the population was equally disadvantaged. My parents were loving. They didn’t worry about losing their jobs, paying medical bills or rent, or how they’d pay for my college education. As a teacher, my mom never had to buy supplies for her students.
They didn’t have some of the concerns millions of Americans do, like paying for health care. But, under that state-run economy, my parents were part of a lost generation: an entire generation whose potential and dreams were never quite realized.
A very small portion of the population had it better. The Communist Party elites were the equivalent of today’s American billionaires — living in extreme wealth made on the backs of the working class.
Growing up in a state-run economy, experiencing the transition to a political democracy and living my adult life in a developed country with a high per-capita GDP but also some of the most egregious incidents of inequality, I became a fierce fighter for progressive policies and against political oppression. I realized corruption can come from the left or the right. I realized having one party in control of all branches of government is oppressive, and that while a two-party system is better, it’s still not enough for a true democracy.
In his book “Disturbing the Peace,” Václav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president, wrote something I subscribe to more and more: “Parties should not take direct part in elections, nor should they be allowed to give anyone, a priori, the crutches of power, since when they do they inevitably become bureaucratic, corrupt, and undemocratic. They should instead provide those who participate in power — having been elected — with an intellectual base, with opportunities to hone their own opinions.”
Today’s big corporations are not dissimilar to state-run economies. Their employees and small shareholders are not personally invested. They see little meaning in their work. Meanwhile, our dreams as humans are universal. Whether it’s 1989 in Eastern Europe or 2019 in the United States, we need more than just the consumption that drives our everyday lives — we need meaning, peace, fairness and the ability to negotiate our differences without the interference of powerful interests that silence us.
In our current system, I regularly remind myself what we really wanted in 1989: freedom, equality, fairness, access to opportunities and an end to oppression. We wanted the beauty we’d been deprived of; not in a trivial sense, but in the sense defined by writer Sandra Lubarsky — “sustaining and flourishing of life-in-relationship with life.”
As we head into 2020, I hope young people in this country will find the courage to demand transformation, and, like they did in 1989 Czechoslovakia, the older generations will allow them to lead. We must do the same thing here that we did there — remove old structures from power — in order to get out of the climate, health care and housing crises while re-envisioning a new democracy — equal, inclusive, just and generous.