Politics: Tactical and Responsible Citizenship
One day, a student watches a documentary about human rights abuses and decides to donate money to Amnesty International. Perhaps a few days later, an office worker reads an article about water shortage in Africa and brings it up in a conversation with a coworker shortly after. Maybe that night, a father and his daughter attend a science convention, learn about the impending and drastic consequences of global warming, and subsequently decide to lament the fate of polar bears while eating dinner. But shortly after similar experiences, individuals often retreat into daily life. Such sudden, sporadic, and short-lived impassioning of issues beyond one’s own immediate and quotidian life is an all-too common experience. Whether it’s one of the experiences described above, or a presidential election season that generates temporary interest and passion within a population, meaningful participation in worldly issues beyond local bubbles is at once meager and infrequent. It’s a common ailment that afflicts democracies, such as the United States: continual apathy and sideline observation, interrupted only by the occasional spike in fervor. A citizen does not have to devote life to the state, nor is a citizen prohibited from focusing on his or her own life. But if a citizen claims to care about the wellbeing of society and expects others to as well, then it is that citizen’s responsibility to participate, to practice what he or she preaches, to be informed, and to be conscious of how one’s own decisions and interests affect collective interests and wellbeing.
One of the most important political platitudes, as was emphasized in the 2016 election, is focus on issues, not ad hominem dogmatism or bigotry. Questioning someone’s character using such labels as, in the case of U.S. politics, “snobby and hypocritical liberal” or “racist and uninformed conservative” might feel good in the moment, but generates no progress and instead replaces platforms for meaningful conversation and compromise with emotional barriers built with closed-mindedness and disregard. Of course, a person’s character reflects values, which in turn reflects the direction said person would wish to see society and culture follow. But amidst discourse and debate, instead of attempting to attack character to discredit claims and invalidate viewpoints other than one’s own, discuss matters of policy through the lenses of personal values and factual information. This cliche is often preached but seldom practiced.
(One particular complication involved with discussing issues through the lens of personal values, however, is is religion, which the Constitution seems to separate from government, but which society often colludes with politics. On one hand, the government declares freedom of religion and supposedly is independent from religious beliefs. But on the other, every president in the history of the United States has claimed faith in God, and such issues as gay marriage and abortion are often rejected on religious grounds. But religion is an example that highlights the limits of political discourse in that it underscores not what political discourse cannot reach, but what it should not have to. Religious faith varies from person to person, and religion should not be imposed on anyone, but rather practiced by the individual separate from policy. A nuance is that many religious folk feel they are unable to distinguish their religious faith from government, because they believe that policy must be in line with the doctrines of their faith. Consequently, religion, as it often occurs with practices and customs from different cultures, can conflict with not just with other value systems, but also with policy proposals. But such conflicts should be treated uniquely, and one’s religion should not dictate policy for all.)
Learn the System
When it comes to getting things done, not just learning or informing, it’s no secret that democracy is woefully inefficient and unproductive. Much time is required for compromise to palliate widespread disagreement. But even a rudimentary understanding of politics can drastically speed up political progress. In general, a politician’s primary goal is not to advance cultural progress or generate meaningful change. The primary purpose of a politician is to stay in power. In a democratic society, the politicians that best maintain the façade of advancing the people’s best interests are the ones that keep their jobs; the politicians that attempt to create real change often do so at the expense of their careers. The status quo is ideal for politicians, because the status quo is what grants them power in the first place; without the problem-laden existing state of affairs, there is little real need for politicians. Inefficiencies and malfunctions in democratic governance come not from contrary ideologies, but rather from widespread apathy, corruption, and hypocrisy, which create a vacuum of genuine responsibility and accountability. Meaningful change in a democratic society can only occur if said society’s members hold their politicians accountable. Fortunately (or unfortunately), politicians are kept in power by the people. In a democratic society, if the people hold themselves accountable, then politicians must follow suit.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Democracy therefore starts with the self. One cannot participate in meaningful discourse and push progress forward without being self-aware, without recognizing one’s own inherent biases and attempting to overcome them when trying to understand the lives and concerns of others, and without holding oneself to the same standards of responsibility and accountability that one holds for others. Only after one eliminates apathy and mitigates prejudice and misinformation in oneself should one attempt to eradicate popular apathy and inform the misinformed. A democratic society is powered by the masses, but can only function effectively with thoughtful, educated, and reasoned discourse. Disagreements aren’t hindrances to democracy; they’re obstructions that make democratic governance necessary.
People do care. But caring is not enough if genuine progress is to be made. More important than temporary regard triggered by emotional appeal is action. And even small action goes a long way. Perhaps the student, after donating to Amnesty International, founds a chapter at his own school to further promote the fight against human rights abuses. Perhaps the two office workers decide to donate to Omaze and agree to raise awareness, starting with the members of the company. And perhaps the daughter convinces her father to purchase solar panels and grows up to be a chemist that works not for oil companies, but environmental research groups that attempt to discern pollutants and how to minimize if not reverse their effects. If a government notices a society with many such individuals, its politicians will have to mirror such thoughtfulness and care.