I’m Not Political
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!