Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits —by Jinny Batterson
(I’ve expanded an earlier version of this post that was written in 2014. Many of the issues remain the same; my wordiness has increased. Please read and pass along to anyone you believe would benefit. Thanks!)
As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, it is often said, is imperfect, but still better than the other options. Recently many opinion leaders in the United States have questioned whether we Americans are losing “the habits of democracy.” Over the years, I’ve sometimes exhibited bad political habits. I’m trying to reform, to become a more effective member of a democratic society. Below I’ve listed seven of my bad habits, with possible correctives. Recognize any?
1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness.
Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake our sense of humor and proportion. Whenever I’ve done this, often I’ve tripped over my own earnestness or outrage, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials, carrying protest placards, scowling. Successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. There are good reasons why campaign photographs show candidates smiling.
Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. When I’ve taken the time to cool down before approaching officials at any level, I’ve had better success at getting them at least to recognize my perspective, even if they may not entirely agree. As a wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”
2) Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.
The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. I can find it tempting just to walk away from politics to avoid being tainted, too. I hear about “dark money” (large contributions that are difficult to trace) and its influence on elections. Not surprisingly, some politicians in all political parties have accepted large sums from PACs, superPACS, possibly even foreign sources. I could not compete with large donor groups, even if I won the lottery.
However, that does not exempt me from making my small contribution—money, in-kind donations, and/or labor—to support candidates and causes of my choice. I can research the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions through public records and watchdog groups. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (neither impartial nor complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, I CAN VOTE, even when my possibilities seem less than ideal.
3) Government can solve all our problems.
I can let my expectations of government get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where I have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly reduce any negative impacts of globalization and automation, reduce unemployment to zero, eliminate poverty, and mitigate climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.
My most visibly effective actions have been at the local level—lobbying for enhanced facilities at a nearby park, or speaking out to oppose the rezoning of a small stretch of undeveloped green space. I can get informed and make a small difference; many small differences DO add up.
4) Government is the problem.
On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level.
It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’ benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Sometimes I may need to give the “faceless bureaucrats” a pat on the back.
5) Local politics does not matter.
I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures.
To be most effective, I need to focus much of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home. This was hammered home to me shortly after I moved to North Carolina, when a school board election that drew just over 10% of the county’s voters created a temporary majority opposed to diversity. They reversed a decades-long pattern of economically-based integration in the county’s schools. in the next election cycle, turnout doubled, though still low in an odd-year election. A more moderate school board took office.
6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.
In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country. When little immediately changed, I got disappointed. Partly because our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold since the U.S. became a nation, many officials at all levels represent increasingly large populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole.
Therefore, if I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to do more than use my vote to support candidates whose views most closely reflect my own. Voting is a necessary first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates, once elected, of my views on issues that affect me—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.
7) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.
As I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Of course presidential elections can matter. Of course it can matter which political party controls national appointments and committee assignments. Many substantive changes, though, take decades or even generations. It took 58 years from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that established a “separate but equal” doctrine for public facilities to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation of public schools. An initial national Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. A U.S. constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920. Conversations and disagreements in our broader society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women continue to this day.
I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of single-election disaster potential, and of single-election long-term gains. At the same time, I’ve concluded that it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. Also, I need to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time—I need to remember that truth is always eventually more powerful than a lie.
After especially bruising mistakes or defeats, I pick myself up and start again. If each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we CAN change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the polarized extremes of political culture we are too often exposed to, we can move toward the “more perfect union” envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution.
As you work to reform whatever your bad political habits happen to be, first and foremost, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!