Monday, September 14, 2015

From Apathetic and Powerless to Informed and Engaged

I'll be honest with you. I hate politics. I've spent much of my adult life trying to tune it out as much as possible. But over the last few months my attitude has begun to change. I still hate politics, but I now see it as an unavoidable evil that responsible citizens cannot ignore. We have a duty to be informed voters and engaged community members. This is the story of how that change of heart came about, and what I intend to do about it.

Why I Hate Politics

I've been pondering why, exactly, I hate politics so much. Maybe it's because I'm the middle child; I spent almost two decades of my life trying to make peace between bickering siblings, and have had quite enough of that, thank you very much! 

Or maybe it's because, as a child, politics seemed like something very important, but also very negative. Discussions turned into heated arguments with dire pronouncements about the future, which seemed completely hopeless. It seemed like the most important aspect of life, and was always going wrong, so it made me feel really insecure.

As an adult, I began to see God as the most important aspect of life, and politics became less and less important. Learning about the politics going on during the early church's history made modern politics seem less relevant. If the early church was persecuted by the government for their faith, why should I fear persecution from my own government? My attitude towards politics became fatalistic: whatever will be will be, and it's probably going to suck so I'm going to try to ignore it as long as possible. I figured, life is hard enough as it is, why bother adding to my stress and worry by caring about what goes on in politics, especially if I can't do anything about it anyway? If I don't care about it then it won't hurt me, right?

Ok, I wasn't that stupid. But I did have good reasons for disliking politics. Here are some of them:
  • The drama. There's so much arguing and yelling! People just get emotional instead of having thoughtful discussions, and act like it's ok to treat people as less than human just because they disagree about something.
  • The corruption. Power seems to be in the hands of unelected party bosses, and special interests and cronyism appears to wield more influence than the needs and will of the people.
  • The confusion. What are the facts? What do they mean? Getting beyond the spin put out by all sides of any issue is so difficult. And who has time to do that kind of research?
  • The helplessness. I mean, really, what can someone like me do to impact the government processes that impact me?

This is not an exhaustive list, and I'll bet you could add a few items of your own. Disgust with the antics of both political parties drove me to register as an Independent. I'll probably have to change that soon so I can vote in the presidential primary...but first I have to decide who to vote for.  More on that later.

Anyway, suffice to say that I've mostly tried to avoid politics for several years now, and I've especially tried to avoid discussing politics with least if I wanted to remain friends! ;-)

It's not that I didn't have convictions and opinions; I did! And it's not that I buried my head in the sand; I tried to stay aware of what was going on in the world. I scanned the headlines with the Google News and Weather app on my phone (best app ever! well, besides Evernote. And Kindle. And...okay, it's in the top 10 anyway.) and I even read articles sometimes!

But caring too much about what happens in government just seemed like a recipe for heartburn and headache. Again, I had enough of that just dealing with my own little life!

Overcoming Apathy with a Biography

One of my New Years Resolutions was to read more non-fiction. So one day in May I browsed through the Greater Phoenix Digital Library's available offerings  and randomly chose a biography of John Adams by David McCullough. I started reading it...and I could not stop! John's (and Abigail's) story really impacted me. I began reading more books about early American history, and was challenged and encouraged by what I learned.

I'd always had the impression that our Founding Fathers were all united in fighting for and forming a more perfect union and all that. That's one reason the discord in modern politics seemed like such a dire sign of impending doom--we used to have our act together, but good luck getting back to the good ol' days now! I didn't realize that the members of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the first Presidential Cabinet fought with each other almost as much as they fought the British!

Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. But the point is, they didn't all agree about everything, and they had to figure out a way to work together to solve the problems faced by their fledgling nation. Besides philosophical differences they had to deal with apathy, corruption, cowardice, and conflicting interests. A lot of times that "working together" entailed a lot of hyperbole and name calling--both in person and in the newspapers--and even fighting duels! 

Hmm. That sounds kinda familiar (minus the duels). I guess there really is nothing new under the sun after all. 

Anyway, I was actually encouraged to learn this, since it meant the acrimonious state of politics today isn't necessarily something unique to our generation; an indication that our country has devolved irretrievably beyond the realm of civil conversation. The state of politics today is nothing new, and it's exactly what's to be expected when there are human beings involved. 

And hey, at least politicians have stopped challenging each other to duels. We've made some progress.

So not only did learning more about our history give me hope, it also gave me a sense of civic duty. The way early Americans--not just famous and influential ones like the Adamses and the Washingtons, but also the ordinary farmers and merchants--served their country is so inspiring and convicting. They were well-read, stayed informed, thought deeply about history and current events, discussed problems and solutions with friends and colleagues, and were devoted to doing what was best for their country. 

Of course they didn't all agree about what was best. Disagreements were sharp and ran deep, and corruption and special interests and party machinations kept things interesting. But at least people cared enough to pay attention to what was going on and felt compelled to do something about it.

Also, many were motivated in this by their beliefs about God. Far from being fatalistic, they pushed for what they believed was right, while trusting God for the results. I found this especially convicting, and realized that God being in control doesn't mean I don't have to do my part. The difference is who is responsible for the results. When I recognize that results are God's job, not mine, it really takes the pressure off!

Fighting For Something

Then I came across the book The Conservative Heart, which I read about as quickly as I'd devoured John Adams' biography. I'll have to write a more in-depth review sometime, but the main takeaway for me was the importance of fighting for something, rather than against something.  

I determined that in this presidential election I would not vote against someone, but would find someone I could fight for. 

I've begun my research on the candidates by giving them the courtesy of speaking to me in their own words, at length, without a news editor choosing their soundbytes. Thankfully many of the candidates have written books to share their stories and ideas, and thankfully the Greater Phoenix Digital Library carries a lot of them, or this project would cost me a fortune! It's a good thing I started now, with over a year to go before the election, because there are a lot of candidates! 

So far I've read books by four candidates, and started two more (coincidentally, by the two Arkansas candidates, Huckabee and Hillary...that is an interesting juxtaposition!). While I haven't yet decided who I'm going to vote for, I have learned something from each of the books I've read.

Disclaimer: I realize that the candidates' books are written from their perspectives, telling only their sides of the story, and while I do intend to try to get the other side of the story as part of my research process, I haven't had time to do that yet. So I'm taking everything I read with a huge ol' grain of salt and not treating it as gospel truth. If you disagree with anything I say that they said, please point me to your source so I can add it to my growing list of research material. I would greatly appreciate it. Seriously. As long as you don't jump down my throat about it. :-)

From Ted Cruz's A Time For Truth I learned that grassroots campaigns can be successful. I will never again vote for someone just because they're "electable." It was encouraging to read about politicians who do actually listen to the people who voted for them, and stand for their convictions while trying to work with the opposition. Though my jaw hurt from continually dropping while reading his stories about the stunts being pulled by the leadership of both parties. 

I was inspired by all of the innovative ideas in Marco Rubio's American Dreams. Twenty-first century problems cannot be solved by twentieth century programs and ideas. Let's not keep doing things just because we've been doing them that way for a long time...if one approach isn't working, let's try a different approach.

Scott Walker's Unintimidated showed me the importance of local and state government--it has huge direct impact on people's lives. My big takeaway was to not accept false choices. If A and B are both cruddy options, look for (or create) option C. 

One Nation by Ben Carson impressed upon me the necessity of unity among the American people in tackling the problems we face today. That unity can only come about when we talk honestly and civilly with those we disagree with.

Looking Forward

It's been an interesting journey so far, and I know it's just begun. I've learned a lot over the last few months, and while I still find the backroom deals and hyped up headlines of modern (and not so modern) politics completely loathsome, I know I can't let that keep me from doing my civic duty and becoming an informed voter.

In many ways this political journey parallels the spiritual journey I've been on for the last year or so. I guess it's really just one manifestation of my growing understanding that God is in control, but he lets me be a part of his plan. I am responsible to take action as he guides and empowers me, and he is responsible for the rest. It's an encouraging realization--it isn't all on me, but there is something for me to do. 

The next step is getting engaged in what's going on. Emulating my early American heroes means going beyond just learning, thinking, and voting. Everything I've read has encouraged me to seek political change not by protesting against those I disagree with but by talking with them instead.

Wait. Talk about politics? With people you disagree with?  

I know, crazy, right? But people used to do it all the time, I hear. It was even considered normal in most circles, though it is now most definitely frowned upon in polite society.

Is it still possible? Or have we devolved irretrievably beyond the realm of civil conversation?

I intend to find out.

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