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I’m Not Political

February 11, 2017

Over the holidays, I had a conversation with a good friend who, when asked to call his senators to support something, adamantly refused. I’m not political, he declared. I vote in every election, but that’s the extent of it. I expect my representatives to represent me, and if they don’t, I’ll vote against them next time.

I was certainly taken aback, but I was especially struck by that assertion that he was “not political”. Because I don’t think what I have now just begun to do is “politics.” I think it is what the founders envisioned when they designed our governmental system. It’s not “politics” — it’s “active citizenship.”

When I was growing up, it was reasonably common to hear Americans referred to in public discourse as citizens. As I got older, somehow this changed — now we are most commonly referred to as consumers or voters (except during campaign speeches when some of us become working families and the rest of us are disappeared).

When I was growing up, I learned the theory of how our government was supposed to work, with elected representatives who were responsible to their constituents. But I never had a civics class per se, and I never had anything like a practicum in active citizenship — so I knew the theory, but I didn’t have a good grasp on how the process actually worked, the nitty-gritty implementation details.

As an adult, occasionally there would be an issue in the news that I cared about, and so I would call my senator or representative, and what I wanted to do was talk to my elected official and argue the merits of my case. But I never got to talk to them – it was staffers who picked up the phone, and I generally got the impression that all they were doing was counting “for” or “against” on the issue in question. It was demoralizing and frustrating. I felt as if I’d called once, so I had had a chance to express my opinion on this issue and I shouldn’t call again.

In the weeks following the election, many people voiced their desire to do something but they weren’t sure what or how, and delightfully, a number of experienced people, including some who presently or formerly worked as staffers, have stepped up to teach us how this active citizenship thing actually works. They have been kind and patient, consistently encouraging people to ask even baby questions, and I am profoundly grateful to them.

So here are some baby lessons that this newly active citizen has learned in the last few weeks:

– It’s okay to call more than once. It’s okay to call every day. This is called keeping the pressure on. They’ll know we’re calling every day because this is an issue that is important to us.

– It’s better to call than to send email. It’s better to call during office hours when you can talk to a staffer than to leave a voicemail. But it’s better to do any of those things than to do none of them. Faxes and letters also work. The important thing is to do what you can.

– If you call and can’t get through because the line is busy, be encouraged! This means that you are not alone: plenty of other active citizens are also calling to express their opinions.

– But also, be persistent: keep calling until you get through. I used to become discouraged and give up after 2 or 3 tries, or figure that the lines were flooded now and I should try again later, or even that I didn’t have to call because obviously everyone else was. Now, I think of it like those contests that radio stations have sometimes, where the Nth caller who can answer the question wins tickets to a concert or so forth. Did you ever enter those? Then you know the key is to hang up and dial again if you get a busy signal, over and over, to try to get through. And it’s easier now than it was when I was a teen – now we have a redial button!

– The national level isn’t the only thing that matters. You’re a citizen of your state and of your city or county, too, and your voice is proportionately louder at the local level because each elected official represents fewer constituents than at the national level. Politicians typically get their start on the local level, so you want to encourage the ones you approve of.

There are plenty more things I don’t know yet, but I’m learning, and I’m determined to stay active even after (please God) things become less dire. Because I’m not political — I’m a citizen.

Tips of the Hat to:

  • Whoever it was that wrote something like “the era of armchair citizenship is over” somewhere that I could read it in December but have been unable to find it since for proper citation.
  • John Senior for his essay at Political Theology  presenting a transactional model of politics with voting as the last step in the process (and contrasting it to a liturgical model, which is the thing that made me read the essay).
  • @celeste_pewter as one of those patient, kind, and helpful persons who is sorting out for us what the process is and what are the most important things to do today.
  • Doug M, for saying the thing that prompted this essay.

And high-fives to all the other people out there who, like me, are trying to do this for the first time in their lives. I see you, trying to figure things out, asking questions, making calls, writing letters, gradually getting the hang of it. Doing it even though you’re scared. Doing it because you’re scared. I see you. Rock on!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2017 6:03 pm

    We’re all political, at the most basic level where we take positions on any issue it is political because we take a view or act in regard to the status of power. I often think of Edmund Burke’s comment, that when good people do nothing evil abounds. And my favourite reference person is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against Hitler and his policies. I’m not sure how anyone can say they aren’t political.

  2. February 11, 2017 10:04 pm

    it is political because we take a view or act in regard to the status of power.

    Power. Now there’s a word.

    I think you’re right, and I rarely hear discourse about civic issue that explicitly uses a framing of power — at least from/among white people. The American tradition seems much more comfortable talking about “rights” (and “wrongs”) and “hard work”, as if persons and their rights and their actions exist on a context-free green screen. The existing distribution of power, its configuration, uses, and abuses, seems to be discussed only in very particular circumstances.

    Perhaps we should interrogate every news story and every proposed governmental action in terms of power, as we decide whether and how to engage.

  3. February 11, 2017 11:03 pm

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  4. February 16, 2017 3:18 pm

    “the era of armchair citizenship is over” This is an important thought. I am struggling veteran teacher of social studies, who is new to wordpress. Please consider reading some of my posts. I welcome feedback and discussion

  5. February 19, 2017 10:10 pm

    So here’s my question: is it productive or helpful to call your Congressman or Senator if you live in a state where they’re Democrats? I mean, what can they do?

  6. February 20, 2017 11:26 pm

    Kristen, good question. Yes, it is productive and helpful to call your electeds even if they are Democrats. I gather that your final question (what can they do?) is predicated on the numerical fact that they’re in the minority, so they can’t outvote the Republicans assuming that both parties vote as a block.

    But I think it’s important to broaden our gaze, here. Don’t focus only on the outcome of each vote – look at the whole process.

    First of all, the Dems have a strong reflex for institutional politics as usual, to compromise and cooperate. If we want them to refuse to cooperate, to vote against administration appointees, to sponsor and support legislation that pushes back against administration actions — we have to tell them so. Frequently. And call to thank them when they do. Keeping their phones ringing and their voicemails and emails full gives them both encouragement (aka pressure) and political cover: it’s not that they’re being personally uncooperative, it’s that they are representing their constituents.

    Are they going to win those votes? Maybe not. But they will put up a good fight, which slows the process (important, considering that the breakneck pace of these votes is itself chaos-inducing) and, even more importantly, influences the narrative. It disrupts the administration’s claims that everybody loves their ideas and is behind them. All night sessions with Democrats expounding on their opposition makes for great news coverage!

    Also, enough visible public pressure can influence outcomes in other ways. Nominees withdraw. Executive orders are redrafted or not issued after all. Votes are rescheduled. Republican strategies are revised.

    If your electeds are on committees, it is especially useful to contact them when legislation or nominees are before those committees. Their voices have somewhat more weight there, and fewer people pay attention to committee votes.

    Finally, don’t forget that Dems can win votes if they hold the line and if just a few Republicans flip. Given that we’re seeing Republicans cancel or sneak out of town halls with their constituents, I think the red state folks are doing a good job of keeping the pressure on the GOP! But those of us in blue states have to keep the pressure on too, if we want the Dems to hold the line. It’s easier for them to go along to get along, and we’ve seen several cases in the past couple of weeks where the staffers of even staunch Dems say “S/he hasn’t taken a position yet… we’re not getting many calls.”

    The article I linked to above on transactional vs liturgical political models is mostly focused on the transaction that occurs once in the voting booth, but we mustn’t focus only on the transactions of each legislative vote, either. The civic liturgy (work of the people) is a work that expresses, reinforces, and forms our civic identity through every action: the legislative votes themselves are only moments in the perpetual liturgical movement.

  7. krwordgazer permalink
    February 21, 2017 12:43 pm

    Wow, that’s so helpful, Gaudette! You’ve given me what I needed to get more active. I wonder if you’d mind if I quoted your comment on my Facebook page and/or my own blog. If this is a question I’ve been having, I’m sure many of my friends are too!

  8. February 21, 2017 10:33 pm

    Certainly, please do Kristen — the more active citizenship, the better!
    Just please link back here or to my own blog for credit.

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