Once upon a time in American politics, during my lifetime, a citizen like me could be apathetic, wishy-washy, uninformed, lazy, ignorant, disinterested… I know because I, myself, was. I could afford to be because I was among a particularly privileged group: middle class, white, American born, Christian raised, heterosexual, healthy, of average intelligence. I wouldn’t call life at that time particularly idyllic for me as an average American, but it was acceptable; there was some good and some bad and it somehow seemed to all balance out over time.
In case you weren’t around or don’t remember, this is what living in America felt like as recently as a couple decades ago: Imagine, if you will, a time when young, educated people were without crushing student debt. The idea of eventual home ownership wasn’t a pipe dream. The planet wasn’t in the throes of its own death. The president was far-removed from everyday life. When you heard from him, he spoke coherently and with dignity about important things. He consulted with and learned from experts before claiming to know more than said experts. I didn’t always agree with the powers that were, but nothing that happened in government ever seemed to affect my day-to-day life to any significant degree. Governing happened “over there” and I was “over here.” It was as if the “adults” were handling the important stuff (which is what we elected them to do) and we went along our merry way, reaping the benefits and privileges of being inhabitants of the most powerful, diverse, free, economically strong country on earth. I’d vote in the presidential election every four or eight years but a local race? You’ve got to be kidding me! I couldn’t be bothered. Besides, what did I know about these people or the issues? My life and government were two completely separate entities and never did the twain meet.
Ahh, back then, my life seemed so much simpler than it does today. I had relationships with people of whose political affiliations I was blissfully unaware. No one ever criticized me for being overly sympathetic/empathetic (aka, “a snowflake.”), or referred to me as a socialist as if they were insulting my parentage. I, in turn, never judged a person by the words stitched on their cap, or feared that democracy was in danger of being taken down by a president who thought he could write his own rules for leading America.
Decades ago, I switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party because, well, my worldview had changed and their approach to governing better reflected my personal values. But even when there was a Republican president, I’d grin and bear it. While I might not have loved who was in charge, I never considered the country as a whole was in peril under his governance. Now I do. Donald Trump is why I’m compelled to write this commentary on the importance of giving a shit about our nation’s leadership and inner workings.
Years have passed, times have changed and recently, they’ve changed more quickly and significantly than ever before. We live in a society that’s more global, more diverse, more connected than ever before. We don’t have a roadmap for where we’re headed. One place we won’t find the recipe for moving forward, however, is in the past. We’re headed into uncharted territory; the old playbook no longer applies. Nor should it. We’ve evolved as humans a lot in, say, the last couple decades. I resent those who fail to embrace these changes, insisting that it’s better to hearken back to a former sense of national “greatness.” That shirt no longer fits. It’s time to update the wardrobe.
Since the presidential election of 2016 I have felt ashamed to be an American. Our leadership is trying to drag America back into the later years of the previous century. They are using the power of our government not as an instrument for the public good but to broadcast and promote an extremely narrow-minded, self-serving narrative. Our leader and those he has enabled into power stoke fires of division, cruelty, pettiness; they celebrate the lowest common denominator of humanity. They prey on fear; incite and encourage needless drama. And that narrative isn’t based on truth; it’s based on what the president wants you to know. You know who controls the narrative a population gets to hear? Dictators. And then they tell you that you can’t trust any source than them (“fake news!”). That’s some scary shit and it’s happening here in plain sight.
This is (sadly) our new reality. Our government is broken and has been hijacked from right under our noses. And I’m ashamed to admit that, all those, like myself, who were apathetic, uninvolved and who let things churn on, unchecked, for decades are the ones to blame. It was on our watch that this happened. We dropped the ball on democracy by our complacency. We didn’t have its back and, in the dark, icky places where greed, corruption and self-serving reign, it metastasized into a monstrous machine, feeding only itself.
And now it’s up to us to fix this fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take difficult decisions, it’s going to take A LOT compromise. Most importantly, it’s going to take getting involved. Yep, you and me, no matter how busy or distracted we are. No matter how inconvenient or distasteful it feels. We have to get off our complacent asses and get involved. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that issues are too complicated for you to comprehend. They’re not. You are an equal to every other American, with a right – and a responsibility, I might add – to express your opinion. Feeling uncertain as to your qualifications to make political choices? Don’t let that stop you. Learn about the issues – that’s why we went to school – to learn how to learn. Even things we didn’t want to learn, like Geometry. Even things we didn’t think we’d ever need in real life, like History. We resisted learning this seemingly random material, but in learning it, we learned how to learn. Now, for the sake of keeping our democracy alive and well, we need to read, remember, do some critical analysis and yes, follow it up with some old fashioned homework.
Please, as you learn and form opinions, remember that part of being informed is being aware that everyone has a unique frame of reference, personal biases and prejudices. Recognizing this fact will help you avoid overgeneralizing or completely overlooking certain people’s needs and concerns. Avoid this bias by:
- Getting your news from a variety of sources
- Verifying information before believing and disseminating it
- Steering clear of “us vs them” mentality
- Considering unfamiliar viewpoints with respect and an open mind
- Not being afraid or ashamed to change your mind in light of new information
Recent years have added a new and unique benefit/obstacle to being an informed American: Internet technology. The current dissemination of information is unprecedented; some of it reliable and truthful, some not so much. And the spin is positively dizzying. The information is literally at your fingertips, so put on your big American pants and educate yourself – to the best of your ability (because that’s all anyone can do, right?) – on the world, our nation and the people who decide our fate. Sift through the information, apply your best logic and critical thinking skills, and be confident in your ability to make sound, wise decisions. Because this is no longer an “arms length” situation; it’s a hands on project.
If the last four years has taught us anything, it’s that, when left unchecked, our government officials forget that they work for us. Why wouldn’t they? We failed to remind them. We weren’t paying attention. “Not paying attention” to politics (as dry and mind-numbing as it can be) is no longer an option. We, the Americans who live at THIS point in time, need to do this – or the luxury of democracy will be lost not only to future generations of Americans, but to we ourselves. Democracy isn’t a “set it and forget it” operation, even though we acted as if it was. We officially manifested the, “You snooze, you lose” adage.
We can’t go back to those halcyon days; the belief that government works best when left to the “professionals” is long gone. And that’s actually good, methinks. We’re lucky to get a chance to learn from the mistakes and sins of omission we’ve made and snatch our country back from the precipice of disaster. We have to do things differently, but we have to move forward acting as if we have something to lose. Because indeed we do. If we fail to educate ourselves, form opinions based on more than our own self interest and VOTE accordingly, we don’t deserve to live in this (yes, flawed, confusing and scary; yet also inspired, fortunate and hopeful) country. It’s worth dealing with the flaws, confusion and fright to rediscover the inspiration, fortune and sense of hopefulness to which we are privileged to aspire as Americans.