Turned Off By Politics?

How about by being a citizen?

by Stephen Harlan on Unsplash
You may not be interested in politics. But politics is interested in you

That’s a version of a saying often attributed to Leon Trotsky, except with the word “war” replacing “politics.” I did a little fact-checking, which revealed that maybe the saying originated with Trotsky and maybe it didn’t. Either way, the truth of it holds — for both war and politics.

It seems that for many of us, our feelings about politics are nearly as negative as about war. Increasingly we associate the very term “politics” with division and conflict. Politics is the topic you don’t bring up at family gatherings unless you have a perverse taste for bitter and pointless arguments (we all have at least one relative like that, right?).

Almost any topic is safer, even sex — which you can always deflect with a joke — or religion, for which there’s always the pleasantly meaningless and conveniently topic-deadening “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” response. Even rudimentary social skills will allow you to segue from either one into something safer, like health or sports.

But bring up politics at a dinner party, and even the most genial guests will clutch their wine glasses a little tighter while their best company smiles reveal signs of strain. Somewhere under the dinner table, someone is kicking someone else in a desperate attempt to throttle the conversation before it goes completely off the rails.

The only way this doesn’t end up in raised voices and morning-after sourness is if it turns out that everyone present is on the same side of the divide.

And even then, you’re probably in for a tedious round of spluttering, vehement agreement involving a lot of statements that begin with, “And can you even believe . . .”

Who needs it?

After the last two years — no, make that five — no, make that since 1977 when broadcast news went from being a public service by the networks to a profit-making enterprise and we went from getting relatively objective hard news reporting to being awash in blood and circuses, anything to amp up ratings — but I digress. My point is, we’re exhausted.

We’re sick of the wrangling. We know we’re being manipulated and we’re fed up with it. We don’t know who to trust, either in our leadership or in our media. We can’t even settle arguments with facts anymore, because facts have stopped being, well, facts.

And we hardly get a second to catch our breath before the next election cycle starts.

It’s tempting to just turn a blind eye to all of it. The campaigning, the news, the robo calls, the yard signs, the fundraising appeals, the endless yammering of way-too-slick political ads, the bottomless wanting.

And yet.

Citizenship carries obligations

If we want to maintain a representative, participatory democracy, we don’t get to just live here. Paying taxes, obeying the law, and keeping our yards up aren’t enough either. If we don’t use what voice we’re given — if we don’t involve ourselves to some degree in the process of government — there will always be others who are eager to speak for us. Or decide for us.

And they are far more likely to guard their own interests rather than ours. I think of civic engagement — citizenship power, if you will — like cash. We each have a certain amount of it. If we invest it wisely, over time it can have a positive impact. But if we leave it lying around, somebody is sure to come along and grab it for themselves.

I don’t think of myself as political. I don’t have a zest for it, like a few people I have known — friends of mine who’ve been community organizers, for example, or who have run for and served in public office.

I myself served for nine years on the city council of the small Southern California town where I used to live, including two terms as mayor. But that was more a matter of being willing to step up than any kind of personal aspiration. I was appointed to the council when one of the other members stepped down mid-term, and nobody else ever pulled nomination papers when my terms came up. In our city, the position of mayor rotated, so my being mayor was a matter of my turn coming up twice in those nine years.

Council members received no salary. I thought of myself as a volunteer rather than a politician. But it sure did teach me a lot about local government — and the truth of the saying, “all politics is local.”

What that experience brought home to me more than anything since my high school civics classes, was that participation in the process makes a big difference — all you have to do is to show up to a town council or local school board meeting to learn how true that is. Also true is that not enough people do it. Being an active citizen really does matter.

Yes, that means voting in every election, from dog catcher on up to POTUS.

But that’s not enough

If the thought of attending rallies or carrying signs in marches horrifies you, relax. There are plenty of other ways to be involved. Does your state assemblyman or representative know how you feel about the upcoming vote on some legislation you think is bonkers? They should. If they’re doing their job at all, they want to.

It doesn’t take much time to find out how to contact them and send them an email (respectful but to the point works best: anger and insults get you nowhere, and I can tell you that from experience). It took me all of five minutes last week to let both of our senators know what I think of their “no” votes on the PACT Act, in which they withdrew their support for a bill that would have extended support to veterans harmed by exposure to burn pits and other toxins as a result of their service.

I’m not at all happy about it, by the way. And now they know how this constituent feels.

My concept of good citizenship runs largely along the same lines as the admonitions you hear about public safety: if you see something, say something. If there’s a big development planned for your end of town and you think the developer should foot the bill for some open space, show up to the planning commission meeting. If there are a couple of loudmouths hijacking the school board public sessions to insist on banning yet more books, make sure you’re on hand to calmly present your opposing viewpoint.

Is it always fun? Or convenient? Of course not. And unless it’s your jam and you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, you’re not going to involve yourself in every single civic issue that rears its head.

But you do need to show up for the things that matter to you most.

To do that, you have to pay some attention

While I’m all in favor of setting boundaries around the consumption of news media — we could all drown in the spew of hysteria that will flood our devices and our brains if we allow it — as citizens, we do have to stay reasonably informed.

It takes some time. It takes stepping back from the initial emotional reaction that the news is engineered to provoke from us. It requires the application of critical thinking and the willingness to look deeper than the headlines. And when we do find ourselves deeply outraged, or concerned, or scared, or even inspired, we have to figure out how to channel that energy in a way that is positive, appropriate, and hopefully, productive. None of that is effortless.

If you don’t get your way, you still have your say

Citizenship carries with it a sense of duty and determination, but also a certain humility. Each of us gets a vote (which, by the way, we should be using to ensure that each of our votes counts equally, something that is by no means guaranteed considering the current enthusiasm for gerrymandering and voter suppression. But I digress) and a voice.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that things will always go the way we want them to. I believe one reason people are disengaged from the political process is that, like anything in which you’ve got an emotional or personal stake, it hurts to lose. Especially when that loss has real consequences for us, or our futures, or our kids’ futures.

But as long as you can pick yourself up and continue to do whatever you can in service to what you believe is the highest good, you don’t have to marinate in apathy or despair. There is some peace in knowing you’ve done what you can.

It doesn’t have to be heroic

Because I’m so (very, very) concerned about the midterm elections coming up, I spend two hours a week phone banking with an organization I support. Yes, I am one of those people who calls you at dinner time to find out if you have your ballot yet, or if you’ll support Candidate X and why I think you should, or simply to exhort you to vote.

Do I love doing it? Not so much — although I have had some amazing conversations with people I’d never otherwise get to talk to. But honestly, I mostly get outgoing messages.

In a typical session, I might make 75 calls, the vast majority of which are to folks who aren’t home or don’t pick up. Maybe I talk to five or seven people. Out of those five or seven, though, four will be further motivated to get their votes in, and two or three may even be willing to volunteer to do the same kind of thing I’m doing. That’s great, because it takes a lot of people to staff the phone banks, and unlike some of the real go-getters who do multiple sessions during the week, there are weeks where I don’t get to it at all.

Are the people I call ever rude to me? Surprisingly, very rarely. Do I feel like I’m making any difference?

To the people who speak with me about their concerns for the upcoming election, or who want to vote but are housebound and don’t know how to get a mail-in ballot, or who really would like to be more involved in the process but simply need someone to invite them along — yes, my few hours a month spent dialing strangers does make a difference.

Anyway, it’s what I can do. We live not far from an Air Force base. Every time I see men and women in their military fatigues at the grocery store or the airport, I think about what they’re giving up in service to their country, and what may ultimately be asked of them, on my behalf.

Compared to that, the things I do to support my citizenship feel like pretty light duty.

4 Comments

    • That certainly wasn’t my intention! If more people emailed their representatives, we’d be a lot better off. A lot of people vastly underestimate the impact of communicating with their elected officials — so good on you. Thank you!

  1. Even though at times I get discouraged from a seeming lack of progress, I agree with you, Jan. The hours I spend donating my time and effort towards maintaining our democracy are worth it.

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