How to Get Involved in Politics
I’ve spent a good portion of the last year learning what it means to truly be politically engaged and to work toward change in a modern democracy. In hopes of encouraging some of you to become involved yourselves, and to save you a lot of time along the way, I’m sharing what I’ve learned thus far.
To summarize, the US political system is a representative democracy. It’s designed to have elected officials who are accountable to their constituents, and even though that relationship is grossly compromised by the influence of money in politics, it still exists. The big theme for all of these tips is finding ways to put pressure on your representatives, because that is how change happens. Democracy doesn’t work as intended if you only wait for election years, or especially if you only vote every four years. While elections and campaigns are powerful tools of influence, and votes are the ultimate way to make your voice heard, there is so much more we can and need to do in order to make our democracy function. Democracy is not a spectator sport that you play once every four years. You need to let your representatives know what you support and what you don’t. This goes especially if you disagree with your reps, but even if you agree.
Exhibit A: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/16/this-is-what-its-like-answering-all-those-phone-calls-to-congress/?utm_term=.6734e4d3ee6f
1. Keep yourself informed.
Of course, this means following reputable news sources. There’s been much ado about fake news in the last year, and I’ve heard some of my friends and family say that “every news source has their own bias.” You have a brain; use it. Read lots of different news sources on an issue. Evaluate what they say. Figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t. Don’t form an opinion and then go looking for facts to support it; look for facts, then form an opinion. Keep an open mind and be willing to change your view if you learn something new.
Once you find news sources that you like and are doing good work, consider supporting them monetarily. Donate or become a regular subscriber. We take for granted that so much news on the internet is now free, but good journalism costs money. It’s better to have the news in debt to its readers than to its advertisers.
More importantly, though, you have numerous federal, state, and local representatives. Almost every one of them has an e-mail list; sign up for it. You need to know exactly where your officials stand, what they’re working on, and how they’re voting. Here’s the list:
- Senators (2)
- Representative to the US House
- State Senator
- State Representative
- Mayor/City Council
The President is also on this list, though you probably don’t need an e-mail newsletter to figure out what he’s up to.
You don’t always need to read all of the news or every e-mail you get. Start small. Read headlines. Spare those e-mails a glance. When something catches your eye, read it. You’ll gradually start to absorb what’s going on around you.
2. Tap into networks.
You cannot join every organization. You don’t have the time. What you can do, however, is sign up for e-mail lists, join Facebook groups, and follow groups on Twitter. Even if you can’t become a full member, they will tell you when the group is undergoing some action that needs time or money, particularly when something important or dire is happening. If they’re calling a representative to support or oppose a bill, they’ll let you know and you can make a call too. If they’re holding a rally or protest, maybe you can join them. If they’re asking for donations to support some initiative, maybe you can donate $5. The point is, you don’t need to use your time organizing and figuring out what to do for every issue; there are already people doing that. All you have to do is tap in and lend what time/money you can.
I’ll divide groups into two basic categories.
First are groups based around a general political affiliation. These include political parties (Democrat, Republican, etc.), but also groups with other affiliations, such as the Tea Party on the right. They’re usually organized by locality, so your city/town/district will have a local chapter you can tap into or join. These organizations are great at getting out information and mobilizing lots of people on a broad array of issues, because they’re groups where people with lots of different interests come together. They’re also influenced by the members who join, so it’s absolutely worth it to join if you want to have some influence on the overall ideology of the organization. At the least, sign up for their e-mails so you know what they’re doing. For progressive groups, check out Indivisible and Our Revolution, both of which have local chapters all over the country.
Second are groups focused on advocacy for a single issue or set of issues. Examples would include groups working on the environment, civil rights, healthcare, education, and literally just about anything else you can think of. My advice is the same, though. For whatever issues are important to you, find the groups doing the work and tap into their networks.
3. Pick one organization and join them.
You can’t do everything, but you should commit to one thing. So after searching, pick an organization you like (either a general political group or an issue group) and join them. Go to meetings; make regular donations; get involved with their activities. If you pick an issue, it should be something you’re passionate about and think is important. Or you may find that a broader political action group or party is for you.
I’ll give my own example. After spending January and February attending a variety of meetings and information sessions on various groups and interests, I became a part of We the People Massachusetts, an organization working to get a constitutional amendment (in response to the Citizens United case and others) saying that money is not protected free speech and corporations are not people. It’s an issue I’ve long cared about and seen as the biggest root cause of what plagues democracy in the U.S. Currently, we’re working toward getting the Massachusetts legislature to pass a bill calling for Congress to propose such an amendment, and, if they fail to do so, calling for an amendment convention among the states (via Article V of the Constitution) to propose the amendment (34 states need to call for the convention before it occurs). In the past six months I’ve gone to the Massachusetts state house three times, twice to meet with my state senator to encourage her to support a bill and once to attend a public committee hearing and submit testimony on that bill.
These are small actions for now, but that’s how civic action works in democracy. I take solace in this story from Pete Seeger, which I encountered via a few friends:
“We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good. I tell everybody a little parable about the ‘teaspoon brigades.’ Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, ‘People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.’ Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, ‘How did it happen so suddenly?’ And we answer, ‘Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.’”
Grab your teaspoon.
4. Support Candidates in the Next Election Cycle
I hope I don’t have to tell you to vote. I hope I don’t have to tell you to also vote in primaries. But statistics say I might: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/01/us/elections/nine-percent-of-america-selected-trump-and-clinton.html?_r=0
It should also go without saying that you should vote in elections and primaries in midterm elections, as most of the power in the nation runs through the legislative branches. And you should pay attention to state and local races (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIMgfBZrrZ8).
If you’re upset about your officials but didn’t vote, or if you were upset about who the candidates were but didn’t vote in the primary, you can’t complain!
But going beyond just voting, candidates need money and support to be able to campaign. While money plays too large a role in selecting candidates, grassroots organizing still works. So when your next election cycle comes around, join up! If you like what your representative has done, donate to their campaign. Better yet, volunteer for them. Talk to your friends. Make calls. Knock on doors. And if someone knocks on your door asking for a few minutes of your time, give them a few minutes of your time. If you find that your representative hasn’t done what you want them to be doing, that should be even more incentive to find a challenger candidate whom you like.
If it’s a midterm election year and you can only vote in state or local races and you don’t know anything about any of the candidates, that’s where the groups and networks you joined can help you out. One of the major roles political parties and organizations have always played is to inform their members about whom to vote for. You won’t have time to meet or research every candidate, and information on who they are and all of their positions won’t necessarily be easy to come by. But one of the things groups do is screen those candidates for exactly those things. You join groups that you generally identify and agree with, and they tell you who the best candidates are. Don’t reinvent the wheel, they’re doing the work for you.
Again, the theme here is that change in democracy comes from exerting pressure/encouragement on your representatives. That starts with working to get them in or out of office. Next year, Massachusetts has a Senate race and a governor’s race (not to mention all my local officials). I don’t know whose campaign I’ll be joining yet, but it will be in one of those races.
I should have learned most of these things long ago, probably in my high school government class. Not that learning basic structures of government isn’t important, but that knowledge should be supplemented with lessons on how to make change happen in a modern democracy. In any case, it’s never too late to learn or too late to start.
At a minimum, we need to all make a commitment to vote in every election, as well as in every primary. We also need to put in a little effort to pay attention and keep informed so we know whom to vote for. Everyone should make a commitment to calling your representatives and showing your approval or disapproval (it’s very quick and simple!). Finally, everyone should choose one group or issue and make a small commitment to donate whatever money and time you can.
Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. If you only show up once every four years, you’re not only leaving those who are showing up with more power, you’re willingly giving up the very principles and rights our country is founded on. Self-governance isn’t easy, but if you believe in it, you need to participate.