Segal: Take the citizenship challenge
More Americans than usual seem attuned to politics right now. From the Election Day protest vote to the protests that followed Inauguration Day, many people, including those who normally avoid “talking politics,” are making their voices heard in public life.
This is a positive trend, but there are healthy political habits and then there are counterproductive ways of engaging. In that spirit, below are some ideas for ramping up our citizenship. In keeping with Aspen’s ski culture, I’ve divided each topic into three levels of difficulty and commitment — green, blue and black diamond. There’s something for everyone. Like a skier, push yourself but know your limits.
Elected office. Green: Learn who your representatives are at every level of government — neighborhood association, town, city, county, police and sheriff, state, federal. Vote in every election, not just every four years in the presidential. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the person who does not vote has no advantage over the person who cannot vote. Blue: Don’t wait for elections to hold officials accountable. Study their positions, call and write to them, show up at their town hall meetings and offices. Black diamond: Run for office. We need decent, committed people to represent us in public service. It need not be a lifetime commitment. Some would argue that we’d be better off with fewer career politicians and more citizens of diverse experience and skills taking turns in public service. The ancient Athenians decided by lot who would hold temporary office. I’m not advocating for that extreme, but maybe it’s your turn.
Civic life. Green: Volunteer regularly with at least one civic or charitable organization. Blue: Make an effort to meet your local public employees — police, fire, sanitation, social services, educators, etc. Make personal connections outside your usual neighborhood, ethnicity, class or faith. Black diamond: Chair a board or found an organization where your passion and talent can fill a local need.
Social Media. Green: Spend less time on it. Talk to people in person. Go outside. (And please don’t ask my wife how much time I spend on Facebook.) Blue: Use the Wall Street Journal’s alternate timeline reader or another tool to read sources that do not confirm what you already believe. Black diamond: If and when you enter a political argument on social media, do it with the goal of changing your own mind or sharpening your own thinking. Be forewarned: You might learn something and learning can be disruptive. (Also don’t underestimate the fun of confusing an opponent by validating their argument.)
Faith. Green: Don’t glibly blame all our problems on religion or excuse bad behavior with religion. Blue: Study the Bible. Don’t be among the vast numbers of Americans who revere the Bible and don’t read it. Whatever your spiritual path, take it seriously. Consider, for example, that yoga is an ancient religious practice, not a trendy way to show off your fitted pants. Black diamond: Find a congregation that feels like a good fit for you — one that both welcomes and challenges you — and get involved. If you already are, talk and listen to folks who are turned off by organized religion. Try to learn and not judge.
Civil discourse. Green: Avoid the three “ugs” of conversation — don’t be smug, ugly, or thuggish with words. Blue: Treat ideas critically and people generously. Talk to people who think differently than you. This is harder than it sounds. Black Diamond: When you hear a convincing argument, change your mind! It’s countercultural, I know, but don’t knock it until you try it. It can be surprisingly pleasant. Oh, and our very democracy may depend on it.
When citizens give up on politics — understandably turned off by corruption or hyper-partisan gridlock — our political life becomes unmoored from people’s real lives. The root of “politics” is “polis,” the Greek word for city-state, but the Greeks also used it collectively to refer to the citizenry — the people. Politics is a matter of how we the people relate to each other and organize ourselves. It is “easier” to let a sovereign dictate that for us. Democracy is not for the lazy. Citizenship is hard. It requires practice, which in time can turn into healthy habits of public life. Aristotle called politics a “noble profession.” It can be, if we get to work.