Alexis de Tocqueville would be horrified to see the state of democracy in America today. Although opposition to President Donald Trump has motivated many on the left to engage in politics just as opposition to former president Barack Obama motivated many on the right, the majority of Americans hardly think about their government beyond national partisan politics. Just by voting in a midterm election, for instance, you would have participated in the political process more than many Americans do. Most of us focus on politics only when deciding whom to elect every two (or more likely four) years, and we assume the system will chug along smoothly the rest of the time.
Going further than this minimal level of political engagement can certainly be exhausting, but it can also make politics more comprehensible and more accessible. Politics, then, are not unlike school: Cramming for the midterm(s) is generally stressful and confusing, but paying a little attention all the time yields confidence and understanding. Procrastinating your engagement with government allows incompetent leaders and unscrupulous special interests to run the show, so in life even more than in class, it pays to do your homework consistently.
Perhaps the most important way to keep yourself involved in politics is to recognize the truth of the classic feminist adage that “the personal is political” and find the political issues that matter to you. Maybe heated debates on issues such as international trade policy and gun control seem mostly irrelevant in your daily life, but maybe the national minimum wage or the cost of your college tuition affect you enormously. Whatever your issue, it is far easier to stay involved when your political actions influence your life.
One of the best ways to stay involved in politics is to turn the tables on your elected officials and demand that they submit progress reports to you. Candidates always make big promises when they campaign; find some who have made promises you care about — affordable housing/rent control and local safety come to mind — and check up on them. Stop by City Hall or send them an email. (Nothing catches a politician’s attention like a highly involved, inquisitive constituent.) Events for issue-oriented civic groups or rallies outside city halls happen all the time, and if such events are lacking near you, host your own.
Rather than paying attention all the time to contentious national politics, moreover, it can also be easier to focus on local politics year-round, since local officials walk the same sidewalks as you. City and state governments tend to pass far more legislation than Congress does, so maybe Google new laws in your state once a month. Above all, learn constantly: Even if your engagement is as simple as turning on NPR in the mornings, our democracy benefits immeasurably when we pay attention. So, since the fate of the republic is determined continuously (and not quadrennially), let’s act like it — let’s make Tocqueville proud.
Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected] .