Painless Politics

With next week’s election looming, I want to make a brief comment about political responsibility.

You hate politics

Hey, me too. I get it. There‘s not much to like these days about politicians, government, news, or politics on social media. Listening to the news coverage will eat your time and make you feel bad. Issues don’t matter to you personally, or seem like made up bullshit. And, you probably believe that there’s nearly nothing you can do about it anyway.

The outrage machine

One reason news is so awful is that there’s one thing that every politician, every activist, and every journalist wants from you: a strong emotional response. Ideally anger or fear. Republicans want you outraged over taxes and brown people. Democrats want you outraged over climate change, health care, and Trump. Politicians and activists hope your outrage will turn into votes and donations. Journalists hope your outrage will turn into views and clicks for their awful advertisers. They all may hate each other on the issues and the politics, but they all want you as upset as they can possibly get you. You’ve probably noticed this, and you want to get off the outrage treadmill. And you should — mostly.

But you still shouldn’t “ignore politics”

Despite that awfulness, unfortunately it is unethical for you to completely ignore the political process. When you are counted in the census, you empower political offices that can be used to hurt people. When you pay taxes, you deliver resources to police and military men which they can use to oppress and murder. No matter how down-trodden you may feel, you still have a minimal responsibility to direct the money and power that you are injecting into the system. Otherwise, you’re leaving your part of the political power on the default setting: “evil”. However:

Painless political participation

Although I feel strongly that you have an obligation to participate in politics in a basic way — and I’ll say below what I think that is — I think it’s fine to just do the minimum! You’ve surely been told that you should “get engaged”! Donate thousands of dollars! Go door to door! Hand out fliers! Run for office! And sure, it’s great if you want to do those things. But you don’t have a responsibility to do “as much as you can”. You have a life to live, and you don’t owe Facebook or Trump or CNN hours and hours of your time and emotional energy. That time isn’t well spent anyway. So here is my advice for painless political participation: pick a basic set of political actions, do them, feel good about doing your civic duty, and then forget politics after that. You don’t have to keep feeding the outrage machine.

Proudly do the minimum

In my view, these four things are all you have to do. (And that’s fine!) Together these might only take you a few minutes per year. That’s not too bad, right?

#1: Register to vote in every election and primary.

Usually this is only once or twice per year, or less. Depending on your state, registering to vote may be very easy, and in most states you only have to do it once, ever. It’s true that if you live in a vote suppression state like North Carolina or Georgia, it may take more effort, but there are tools that can help you. Overcoming disenfranchisement tactics is a simple thing you can do to prevent your local despots from subverting the democratic process and making off with your share of the political power. (And if you’re in a vote by mail state, that can make things even easier on election day.)

#2: Get informed: by doing your homework, OR trusting an advisor.

You should be informed about what you’re voting on, but it’s not particularly important to stay informed all the time. (And it’s damned miserable to read the news regularly.) So as long as you do research on each politician and issue right before voting day, that’s good enough. At the minimum, you need to know enough to avoid being fooled by the standard tricks: politicians who lie to get votes, ballot measures which are worded to scare or trick people into supporting special interests. Unfortunately this research can take hours, and I would not fault you for not wanting to do it. That’s why you might consider picking someone you trust to do the homework, and vote their recommendations. This should be a reasonable friend, family member, or local politician whose judgement you trust. Consider having one conversation with them about whatever is most important to you. (You should not trust an unsolicited voter guide from a mailer or advertisement.)

#3: Vote.

Once informed, you should vote every item on your ballot, and you should vote in every election and primary. Especially don’t skip primaries — there’s often more meaningful political decisions to make on a primary than in the general. (And since turnout is usually lower in primaries, your vote will count for more!) Also, don’t just vote for the President! Gerrymandering, vote suppression, and many other bad things that have undermined our democracy were accomplished by taking control of state and local offices which were further down the ballot. If you want your vote to be meaningful next year, vote for people who promise to keep your state democratic.

#4: Donate. (A little.)

Okay you’re not going to like this one, but I think it acknowledges an important reality of US politics. Campaign finance and political power in this country is fucked up, so it’s not quite enough just to vote. Fortunately, the rise of small-dollar donations has made it possible for honest, young politicians to beat the old white men without having to take any evil corporate money! When a candidate gets lots of individual donors, it shows that they can build grass-roots support even if the amounts are low. Their campaign then has a good chance of snowballing into a win, even against a well-funded party boss. You can do your part by donating small amounts of money (as little as $5) to say, 5–10 candidates for some political office each year. You should pick a budget that makes sense for you. Just $20-$50 seems fine if you don’t make much. If you have a tech job, think about donating $100-$500 or more. Don’t feel like you have to keep giving more and more, just pick a budget and stick to it. If you’re not sure who to donate to, lean on your trusted advisor. It’s good to donate a few months before each primary, and then again soon after the primary.

That’s it! Now you can ignore politics with a clear conscience.