Getting over it and getting politically active

"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." - Plato

by Carolyn Chase
have spent the last few years trying to figure out how a community member can participate in politics. As part of this, I've managed to volunteer for or get appointed to serve on a few local boards and committees. Depending on how you look at it, these committees are either the front lines of community participation or the backwaters of local democracies. Actually, they are both.
There is a lot of lip service about "the people" and how the participation of "the people" is the key component that keeps a democracy healthy. As one of "the people," it's not really difficult to participate, but few do. And if everyone is too busy, running just to survive, "the people" will fall by the wayside. Then, only crisis or special interests force action.
One thing I've noticed about politics is that when I bring it up, many people get uncomfortable, don't know what to do or feel misplaced guilt about not doing something. All of this is disempowering and not useful for them or anyone else. So, in an effort at enlightenment, I've put together my list of useless reasons why people don't "do politics." I say "useless," because underneath all these excuses and justifications lies the fiber of the status quo. If you can find it in yourself to recognize and give up some of these excuses, you might just find the time and motivation to start doing politics in a way that works for you.

Carolyn Chase is chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon Citizens Advisory Council, a founder of San Diego Earth Day and recipient of the mayor's 1994 Spirit of San Diego Award for the Environment.

The Get Over It! List: Top ten self-fulfilling reasons why people don't do politics

1. Apathy

I don't care enough about this one to explain it.

2. Cynicism

It won't matter? Well, it definitely won't matter if you don't do anything.

3. Don't have enough power

What difference can one person make, really? This assessment keeps you from deploying whatever power you have. And how do you know until you try? However much power you've got multiplies when added to that of others.

4. Don't know what to say.

Say what you feel is important. Letting your concern for knowing all the answers or information about any issues only gets in the way of expressing yourself and ends up disempowering you. Nobody knows all the answers, least of all politicians and bureaucrats. Their job is to be accountable to us.

5. Don't have time

Everyone has the same 24 hours each day. It's the choice of what you do with your time that shapes your life. One or two minutes for a phone call, 5-10 minutes for a letter. Brevity is the order of the day for "citizen politics." Believe me, they aren't waiting to chat with you at length in Washington D.C. or City Hall. When you call, they won't try to keep you on the line to discover you innermost thoughts - which, by the way, you probably don't have time for anyway.

6. Don't know what to do. There are so many issues. I can't do them all, so I do nothing.

Right now there is a major opportunity to simply take a stand to support environmental health, protection and well-being. This is another version of #7. Pick an issue and get at it.

7. It's confusing. The issues are so complicated.

After seeing testimony in person and on cable-TV, I would say that the people are more complicated than the issues. If you're calling or contacting an elected representative for the first time, just communicate what's important to you in simple terms. Clean air standards, clean water standards, protected habitat. Just start there. You can keep it simple and only get as complicated as you want.

8. Too busy trying to survive, have a life, etc.

While you're busy doing that the culture and quality of life are steadily eroding. With the consequences of non-participation, what kind of a life will you end up with?

9. Politics is just too darn unpleasant, conflict-ridden, boring, depressing and definitely not fun!

True. The system can tend to wear people down - it's designed that way. Most people who are participating are playing for the big money stakes that make it worth their trouble. The more difficult and complicated it is for someone to participate, the more the system selects for only those who are there to get money or power, and away from the majority of people working for a living.
That's why its so important for more and more people to participate in the ways they can. Even if you can only vote, or call, doing that helps breathe new life into the process.

10. I'd rather be entertained

This about sums it up, doesn't it? Who wouldn't rather watch TV, go to a game or concert, play golf, surf - you name it - rather than go to meetings with uncomfortable chairs to listen and mostly wait while the wheels of government grind on and almost everyone there is getting paid for it while you're just trying to support your community. This is one of real blessings of CSPAN and local cable coverage of government: at least you get some real work done, follow the process, and see some of what's really going on.
Frankly, I think the use of electronic mail by more and more educated citizens is going to transform politics as we know it in the next ten years.
Why am I politically active? Bottom line is because I care that my desires to live in a better world get translated into reality rather than just meditated over or regretted in later years. When you can look ahead and see a future that holds a continued declining environment and quality-of-life, you can either ignore it, deny it, or do something about it. If you can get over some of your reasons, maybe you can do somethings to be part of the solutions instead of denial and ignorance and then remaining part of the problem.