Civic participation isn’t a hobby

“Established political leadership doesn’t want increased participation,” he said. “We have a tendency to get people engaged when there’s an election and then forget about it for four years.

“We need to make it part of their lifestyle rather than something they do once in a while. We have to make not being involved socially unacceptable.”

The above snippet comes from a story about minority political leadership in Chicago and how there is a need for new blood in the ranks and an overall re-adjustment in the approach to community organizing, elections, etc.

But though it talks primarily about the black community in our city, there are lessons here for every Chicagoan, and indeed every politically involved citizen, no matter their skin color or national origin.

The lesson is that civic participation isn’t a hobby. Think of it like dental hygiene. You may go to the dentist once or twice a year for a cleaning or maybe even every couple of years. But you still brush your teeth every day. Political involvement should work the same way. You might vote every 2-4 years or maybe less frequently, but you should be maintaining your status as an involved citizen daily.

What can you do daily?

You can read a variety of news sources to try to educate yourself on the pressing issues of our time. Here I want to urge you, as much as possible, to focus on local matters. Because while national politics seems much more sexy and exciting, local politics is what most affects your life and it is also the strata of government that you have the largest degree of control over.

Can’t make heads or tails of the issues in your town? Read a few books. Learn the history of how things came to be as they are. It will help you understand what needs to be done going forward.

Once you’ve got an idea of the issues and of how you feel about them, join a community group in your area that advocates for an issue position you feel strongly about. If there’s an issue you feel is important but isn’t currently being addressed by citizens or elected officials, start a new group to address it.

Talk to your friends, co-workers and neighbors about civic issues in your town, state, etc. The old axiom to never talk about politics or religion is a terrible idea and is designed to keep citizens disconnected from one another. Hannah Arendt said that “opinions are formed in a process of open discussion and public debate,” and so it is. Frank and honest discussion of political matters is the lifeblood of our democracy. You may, of course, want to tread lightly if you don’t know much about the views of the person you’re conversing with. Start out by asking their opinion on a local matter that’s being debated or a major issue area in your town. If they have no opinion, it’s probably because they’re not familiar with the issue. Take this opportunity to sketch out the basics for them and explain why it’s important.

I’m going to mention one more time the importance of reading widely. When it comes to politics, whether you feel you identify more with a conservative or liberal world view, seek out opinions different than your own as much as you can. Challenge yourself to consider different viewpoints.

And of course when election time comes around, learn about the candidates and determine which one will best advocate for the issue positions you want to see advanced. Don’t like any of the candidates? Write someone in or better yet, work with local groups in advance of the next election to field a candidate who you believe will be a good and ethical leader.

Above all, learn all you can about the world and constantly scrutinize even your most closely help assumptions and beliefs. Determine periodically if you still believe them, if any new information has been presented to refute them, etc.

Got it? Now go forth and participate on your democracy. Don’t just observe it. Act. Do. Get involved.

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