Hillary Clinton’s closing argument at a weekend rally in Philadelphia appealed to the historic nature of this election. "When your kids and grandkids ask you what you did in 2016,” Clinton told the crowd, “when it was all on the line, I want you be able to say, I voted for a better, stronger, fairer America.”
I have to disagree. I don’t want you to be able to say you merely voted for a better, stronger, fairer America. I want you to be able to say you fought for it. In a democratic society, that has to mean more than voting.
Our conception of politics must go beyond focusing all our energies into a 24-hour period on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Such a transitory moment of democratic accountability corrodes our political structure, ensures corruption and generates soul-crushing election cycles like 2016. There’s too much at stake in America to walk away the day the polls close. So I’m asking you to do more.
Our culture processes politics through a comforting cycle resembling the arc of a television program. In this world only the presidential election matters, with its defined crescendos, from primaries to conventions to debates to the general election, conveniently located in the middle of November sweeps. You can mark your schedule every four years, like for the Olympics or the World Cup. And because every societal cue signals this as the defining moment in politics, you can feel free to check in quadrennially, and check out in the intervening period.
The problem with this approach is that the intervening period is when everything in politics happens. It’s when federal agency heads get appointed and legislation gets introduced and chief executives make decisions on what bills to prioritize and what wars to initiate. It’s when members of Congress decide how to please their constituents, and in the absence of constituents they’ll take that to mean donors.
Public opinion can shape political trends in subtle and also far-reaching ways. To use a couple of examples, a majority of Americans didn’t wake up one day and decide to support same-sex marriage; activists worked for decades to make that reality. Walmart didn’t decide in a moment of generosity to give its employees raises; pressure from OUR Walmart and the Fight for $15 created the environment for change to happen.
Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. Far more of American life — decisions of both government and the private sector — rumbles forward with little or no public input. A large reason for that is that our culture induces people to think of Election Day as an ending rather than a beginning.
When Election Day ends, political reporters walk off the trail and speculate about the next campaign to occupy their time. The campaign offices shut down, the bunting gets puts away, the phone calls and house-to-house canvasses end. Political leaders take on the business of governing, mostly in the dark, while we all binge-watch Stranger Things.
This rapid switch from high accountability to low accountability serves the interests of politicians. They only need to get through the campaign to have a relatively free hand. The concentration on one big election spectacle signals to special interests when to spend their money to influence outcomes. It teaches citizens that voting is our only shot, our only opportunity to have a voice in the process. Politicians tell us “this is the most important election of our lifetimes” every couple years, and when that’s described as the only inflection point, they’re right.
This precipitates the hair-on-fire frenzy when a demagogue approaches the cusp of power. If voting were just one of many acceptable, widespread political acts in America, the temperature of Election Day could be lowered. But the view of politics-as-quadrennial-sporting-event has grown only worse over the last decade, and public engagement has suffered as a result.
I’m not saying the presidency and the makeup of Congress and state legislatures and city councils aren’t important; of course they are. But selecting them does not represent the only way you can get involved in matters you care about. Politics is everywhere, and it most definitely matters to your personal life, even if you’re not a Koch brother.
You can call your legislators and attend town hall meetings (yes, they actually pay attention to these things before a critical vote). You can get involved in local decisions in your community. You can join advocacy organizations on issues as varied as climate change or equality. You can express your values — not by posting a screed on Facebook, but through actual conversations with friends and neighbors.
Your choice of what products and services you decide to buy, and what investments to make with your savings, is a political act. Your choice of how you eat and what type of power you use to charge the battery on your laptop is a political act. Your choice of speaking up against injustice is a political act. Your choice of pressuring businesses to respect their workers, or joining a union, or helping someone going through a rough patch, is a political act. A community clean-up or day of service is a political act. What you believe is a political act. You can live your life in a political fashion and do your part among 300 million to change the country. That’s my definition of being a citizen in a democracy.
The other option is leaving it all on the field (or on Twitter) in the days leading up to an election, and then leaving the field. Our country needs more engagement than that. People are told they’re only needed once every two or four years to change America. That’s not how America has ever changed. And propagating that myth explains in part why so many Americans feel powerless.
But we have power. We don’t have to limit our political acts to watching a reality show called The President. Lobbyists don’t. Special interests don’t. The civil rights and antitrust movements didn’t. The women’s suffrage and gay equality movements didn’t. So many have felt frustrated this year about their choices for president. I’m frustrated by their learned belief that a president comprises their only choices. Please, please, do more than vote.