It comes every four years or so, but unlike the Olympics, many Americans don’t anticipate the major election season. What, idealistically speaking, should be a festival showcasing talented leaders sharing their promising visions for the future of our nation, unfortunately, ends up being more like a freak show of unsavory characters, name-calling, distortion and disgust. Are you over it yet? Or diving into the deep end?
This is that time of the year, where everybody not only has an opinion on who sucks, but needs you subscribe to their way of thinking in order to avoid being immediately dismissed as a, “libtard”, “wingnut” or “Kool-aid drinker.” It’s enough to want to make most of us delete our Facebook profile, turn off our phones and throw our TVs and radios in the river.
But at the same time, we all know this year is a critical year. Our nation is facing a lot of problems, some totally blown out of proportion, some much more serious than we hear. Nobody trusts the mainstream media to accurately report things any more. There’s so much hate everywhere. Everybody is calling everybody else crooked and a liar. How can we see through the noise and figure out what to do?
Many people are so turned off, they don’t even want to vote, but ask yourself, do you know somebody who has what you consider really crazy ideas? They’re probably going to vote. Should they have more of a voice in what happens in the future than you? Every vote counts!
Here are some non-partisan, common-sense suggestions on how to filter the wave of political discourse and survive with enough information to be an informed participant in the democratic process.
1. Focus on issues, not personalities
Everybody tends to line up behind one top-level representative. This is like “putting all your eggs in one basket” and if that basket fails, you just give up and say, “The system is broken,” feeling helpless. Instead, focus on particular issues that are of interest to you. These issues can be impressed upon any candidate in any party. And when talking to friends, you can avoid being dismissed if you talk about policy and not party. Instead of generalities like, “keeping us safe” or “saving the middle class”, zero in on elements of these objectives that are of concern and something we can realistically accomplish. Which gets us to...
2. There’s rarely a quick fix - most things change gradually
A lot of people expect, some even demand “instant change.” They want bad companies to be wiped off the planet, they want everybody to get free healthcare, they want the income gap to be instantly evened out, they want all illegal immigrants deported, etc. Politicians that make such promises attract lots of attention and interest. But this stuff realistically can’t happen in short periods of time, if at all. Progress is most often made in small steps. Don’t get disappointed if the major change you want is piecemeal. One step forward is better than two steps back, or even standing still, and in some cases, the sooner we start moving, the better.
3. Politics is all about Compromise
I don’t know if Mick Jagger wrote, “You can’t always get what you want” about politics, but the refrain in that song, “But if you try sometimes, you get what you need” is one of the most true statements ever about government and society. We live in a me-me-me generation. Most of us are totally fixated on our personal issues, and that’s just the nature of existence. So when something in our world doesn’t work right, fixing our thing is first priority. But what if your problem is someone else’s solution? Or vice-versa? It often is. You work for a company that does better when another group doesn’t do as well? Our society is full of these ebbs and flows. One group wants less regulation, but another industry, the well being of a different group, and a million jobs exist because of that regulation. There is no simple solution that will fix everything. Our leaders have to look at the big picture and often make tough decisions. And that’s why politics is at its core, about compromise. The idea that any political leader is “uncompromising” is actually a bad thing. We want leaders to change their mind to match changes in our culture, or new information that offers different and better choices. We can’t always get what we want. And that’s OK. In the end, what’s important is if our community as a whole is more healthy. Which brings us to the next point..
4. Regardless of how it seems, we are all one
Let’s face it. We live in a very large, diverse, multi-cultural society. Your uncle thinks all immigrants are a threat to our country? Really? But what of the people that love Thai food, tacos, pizza, sushi and Pho, and perhaps some of that nice French wine and Irish whiskey? The cultural diversity of our nation is what makes us great. Catholics, Jews, atheists, Muslims, blacks, whites, hispanics, Saints Fans, liberals, conservatives, vegans, carnivores, and yes, even people who root for the Atlanta Falcons are part of the gumbo of our society. We rarely see eye to eye on everything, and we most certainly have different ideas on how things could be better, but at the end of the day, each of us does make a contribution. Have you ever felt lost? Have you ever been totally unmotivated? We all have. Just because in one moment you see someone whom you think isn’t contributing, doesn’t mean they never contributed, or never will. Civil rights is an all-or-nothing proposition. If we can’t give it to everybody, then at the end of the day, we don’t really have it ourselves. Let’s focus on looking at our community as one. All the great things we’ve accomplished have always been when we worked together instead of against one-another.
5. Recognize where the real power is in government
Many people think our country is governed from the top down, and as such we attribute great significance to who sits in the white house, but the reality is, the president has very little to do with writing, funding and enforcing policies. The real power is in the other branches of the government and us: our ability to directly elect members to the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Despite how the presidential candidates claim they will change policy, the president does not write laws. He just signs/vetoes bills submitted by congress, that could become law, and only on a national level. And he’s not even needed if 2/3rds of Congress agree. With just a few exceptions, we wouldn’t even need a president to address and fix 99% of the problems most presidential candidates claim they are going to fix.
If you really want change, focus on local elections and work your way up. If you want something legalized, criminalized or changed, work on electing local members of your council and senate in your state. You will have much easier time actually getting things done; you can often meet face-to-face with these people and see your efforts pay off. In a time when most people feel government is useless, it’s often because they have an unrealistic, monolithic view of government as some kind of top-down dictatorship representing a different class. It doesn’t have to be that way if you fill your local government with people representing your interests, and work your way up.
6. Learn to recognize misleading arguments and fallacies
This doesn’t just help during election time, but just about everywhere in life. We are bombarded by information and editorial, often unable to tell which is which. Learn to think critically, look for evidence and remember just because one voice is loudest, doesn’t mean it’s most accurate. Here are some traps to watch out for:
Oversimplification of complex issues - We live in a complex society. Virtually all controversial issues are much more complicated and there is no simple solution. If a guy told you he can fix your leaking roof if you lend him your lawnmower, would you believe him? Some candidates expect you to.
Strawmen, name-calling and “attacking the messenger” - The last refuge of someone who doesn’t have a strong argument is to call people names and dismiss them wholesale. So if someone doesn’t want to hear from someone because they’re a “____”, recognize their case is weak.
Saying/hearing something repeatedly does not make it true - and likewise, in this age of information overload, being able to paste a cute graphic or URL to something that supposedly backs up your point, may not count for much either. Drill down into individual claims and not assume what someone says is accurate. If you want to know where a candidate stands, check their web site before some other, source.
Not all opinions are equally valid - Everybody has an opinion, but not everybody has the experience to make an informed opinion. Who knows more about what’s going on in a particular scene? A person who lives there and witnessed it, or some dude in front of a camera in a studio a thousand miles away, a scientist who’s an expert on the subject, or a lobbyist that profits by supporting a particular stand?
Beware of false equivalences - The media, candidates and everybody in between love to suggest, “Both candidates are ____.” But very rarely are they comparing two equal scenarios. When you think “both candidates are liars.. I don’t trust any of them,” not that there are big lies, little lies, and things people claim are lies that in reality are just unintentional mistakes. When one side gets caught and can’t weasel out, their recourse is often to say, “Well, everybody does this…” But it’s rarely the same degree of transgression.
These are just a few suggestions to navigate the crazy arena of political news and discourse. Cheers to you, participating in this process. Talk. Research. Vote!