In 2014, I began writing a mid-term election “habits” post, trying to point out where I’d fallen short of good citizenship and what I might do to improve. Mid-term cycles since have produced different crises and different configurations of bad habits. Here’s this year’s version—
Citizens in a democracy are members of multiple levels of government, however we choose to view ourselves. Because voting is one cornerstone of democratic government, protecting the right to vote and participating in honest and fair elections are responsibilities we all share. As the political culture of the United States becomes more contentious, overheated rhetoric from multiple parts of the political spectrum threatens to overwhelm our common heritage and our common sense. I’m doing my best to stay engaged and informed, to reform my bad habits. Recognize some?
1) 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: voting rules and the placement of voting sites; budgets; tax rules and rates; school funding; zoning; the placement and maintenance of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures; environmental safeguards and incentives. In addition to “big” races, I also need to pay attention locally.
2) Politics is dirty. Most politicians are crooks. I don’t trust the system.
Our national, state and local political scandals can seem endless. Journalists make reputations by ferreting out officials’ misdeeds. “Dark money” (large, difficult to trace contributions) can distort our elections. I often hear unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. It can be tempting to walk away from politics entirely, or to act out my frustrations with the system violently.
Active citizenship demands both enthusiasm and restraint. I can play a useful part through small monetary donations, thoughtful social media posts, in-kind donations, and/or labor in support of candidates and causes of my choice. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (almost never impartial or complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, even when possibilities seem less than ideal, I CAN VOTE. The right to vote can be eroded through outright coercion, but also through disuse.
3) Government can solve all our problems.
I can let my expectations of government get overblown. Sometimes I fantasize that my elected officials can just snap their fingers and quickly reduce negative impacts of pandemics, globalization, or automation; can minimize unemployment while controlling inflation; can eliminate child poverty; can mitigate climate change; can usher in world peace. In more realistic moments, I acknowledge that expecting governments to do too much or too quickly can be self-defeating. I can nudge my elected officials in what I consider to be worthwhile directions. I can get and stay informed. I can make a small difference; many small differences DO add up.
4) Government is the problem.
Sometimes 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 damaged roads to providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’ benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Governing is complex. Getting it “right” takes both hard effort and principled compromise.
5) If we just elect the right candidates, all will go well.
Voting for a successful candidate is no guarantee that the policies he/she advocates will get implemented. Our political system was designed to have checks and balances. Since the U.S. first became a nation, our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold. Officials at many levels represent increasingly diverse populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. However much they want to serve their constituents and our nation well, the job is extremely difficult. (Personal attacks only make a hard job harder.)
If I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, voting is an important first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates of my views on issues—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.
6) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.
Of course it can matter which political party controls government appointments and legislative committee assignments. Of course congressional and presidential elections matter. However, 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. Many substantive changes take decades or even generations. Conversations and disagreements in our society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women have existed since our beginnings as a nation. They continue to this day.
I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of potential disaster from a single election, and of single-election long-term gains. However, it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. It is important to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time.
7) Politics is serious business, so we all need to engage in it with utmost seriousness.
One casualty of recent enhanced nastiness in politics is the decline of the “smiling candidate.” Too often, our media feeds and social networks send us scowling images of “those others,” whoever various media algorithms have decided they might be. We need to remember that successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. A wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”
As this midterm election cycle looms, please continue to do the vital work of reforming whatever your bad political habits happen to be. Above all, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!