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A Letter to the Politically Disengaged

Dear Politically Disengaged,

Yes, I’m referring to you. As you know, the world is complicated, politics is a far-from-perfect mess and life is just busy. Your interests probably don’t concern investigating the latest political scandal or getting bogged down in the rat race that are elections. Maybe you were once politically engaged; however, somewhere along the line, you lost faith in politicians or in the institutions tasked with representing your interests, your beliefs, and your views.

And maybe you think, “Well why should I care? None of it matters anyway."

"My voice won't make a difference.

You wouldn’t be the only one with such an outlook. Civic engagement in the US is suffering a historic low, as polarization sweeps across the country and divisive rhetoric paired with identity politics has infused a particularly raw tone into politics.

According to a study in 2018, nearly 70% of Americans, when asked to express their emotions about the current political state of the nation, expressed negative emotions ranging from “sad”, to “angry” to even “fearful”. Considering the picture this paints of American politics, it is easy to see why politics isn’t seen as particularly exciting among Americans. In fact, in the 2016 election, voter turnout reached a 20-year low, with only 55.4% of the American electorate feeling civically compelled enough to cast their ballots. This is, of course, excluding factors like voter suppression and gerrymandering (topics for another time), nonetheless, the perception of American politics is bleak.

A Hard Pill

Another reason why people aren’t engaged may be a hard pill for some to swallow. And it has to do with a word that has been increasing in relevance and misuse recently. Privilege. Chances are you are less likely to be engaged because you feel like politics doesn’t influence your life. And for some people that is true. There’s a higher likelihood that if you are white, male, middle/upper class, straight, Christian, and/or cis-gendered, politics won’t touch your life as profoundly as others. On the other hand, there are some people that simply don’t have a choice whether or not to participate in politics. In some cases, their way of life depends on decisions made in Washington. Point blank.

Why should I care?

There are a lot of reasons why people aren’t civically engaged. But there are a lot of reasons why you should be:

You'll feel better.

Being more engaged means you're closer to understanding the complexities of our world. Those feelings of being lost, confused, burnt-out and uninformed will begin to fade as you take some of your power back.

Democracy needs you.

The American democratic project is just that. A project. It's not perfect, nor does it serve all of its citizens equally. But it is a democracy and democracy functions best when everyone adds their (informed) two cents. Think of democracy like a machine. Every machine needs fuel to function. The fuel that feeds democracy is participation. It’s input. It’s voting. So, either you fuel democracy or someone will fuel it for you.

If not for you, for those you care about.

Maybe you think politics just doesn’t impact your life that much. That’s fine but look around. Does it impact your friends? Your family? Humanity in general? Consider the implications further than just yourself when casting that vote.

Danny Casey/EPA-EFE via REX/Shutterstock

Civic engagement can take many forms. Find yours.

The form it takes for you is for YOU to decide. As a human living in an increasingly complex world, you have to be wise with how you decide to divvy up your cognitive bandwidth. Family, friends, errands, work, hobbies, social media, and politics (among many other things) all take up a certain amount of your brainpower.

Being politically engaged does NOT mean being an expert on every topic, nor should anyone expect that. For some people, economic policy grabs their attention. For others, the word “economics” is an immediate turn-off. Maybe for you, it’s women's rights, climate change, foreign policy, criminal justice reform, immigration or healthcare that sets your heart ablaze. Find that passion. Engross yourself in it. Inform yourself on what stances the names on your ballot sheet have on that issue.

How do I get more engaged?

Getting informed is the first step to becoming more politically engaged. Getting informed doesn't mean scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. While it depends on the source, most of the "news" on social media is a sore excuse for journalism. Once you've narrowed yourself down to a few interest areas, you need to start looking at credible sources. The media world is a complex maze of different publications with differing levels of bias and agendas. Looking for truly unbiased media sources is like looking for unicorns; they don't exist. What you want to look for is fair, fact-based coverage with good analysis by skilled experts and/or journalists.

Wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters give good fact-based reporting. Legacy institutions like the New York Times or the Washington Post are usually a good bet. Yet for more tailored, detailed information try considering some of the more specific publications. For example, if you're more into business, the Wall Street Journal or the Economist are good bets. If you're more of a science person, try something like Wired. What I'm trying to convey is that are a good number of smaller, more specific publications that can help you in your quest.

Here are some overall tips for incorporating reliable media into your daily life:

  1. Follow the social media accounts of some of your favorite publications, so that what when you're scrolling through your feed, you'll receive good, reliable news, too.

  2. Download some news apps on your phone and allow push notifications. You'll get periodic updates throughout the day in real-time to your phone without even trying.

  3. In that vein, I recommend the app "TheSkimm", which takes the biggest news stories of the day and "skimms" them into easy-to-read summaries. This isn't a replacement for quality journalism but makes starting out easier.

  4. Good journalism costs money, so invest in it. Get a subscription or two to some of your favorite media outlets. A lot of outlets even offer student discounts, making them super affordable.

[Read my post on "How to spot 'Fake News'" here]

Encourage conversations with friends and family about these things. Polarization has caused us to live in camps with members that think like us. Challenge your preconceived notions. Debate well-researched ideas and exchange perspectives in ways that are productive. Attacking someone personally for their views on policy isn’t productive (trust me, been there, done that).

Enlighten, don’t belittle.

What’s next?

Hope. Whether out of sadness, fear, anger or just a longing for change, millions of people have taken to the streets to protest, many among them, young people. From women’s rights to climate change to gun control marches, we may be experiencing a generation, galvanized by political lethargy, coming to terms with the magnitude of their political power. To that effect, the midterm elections in 2018 saw the largest turnout in decades. Young voters, ages 19-28, saw the biggest increase with a 79% increase in voter turnout compared to the last midterms. Is this a sustainable trend in civic engagement or just a flash in the pan? Well, that’s for you to decide.

Best of luck,

Max Honzik


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