“All candidates are the same.” “My vote doesn’t matter.” “Nothing will change anyway.”
To the person who has lost faith in government,
Hello, I see you there: feeling alone and unheard. Nobody’s taken the time to crouch down to exactly where you are, and when you speak up it probably seems like all anyone wants to do is argue. “That’s wrong! You’re a fool! How could you think that?” Maybe it seems there are way too many issues, that it’s too late for you to catch up. Maybe it’s extremely difficult to be civically engaged when you’re holding down a job (or two…or three…) just to afford your kid’s insulin. Maybe there’s comfort in defining yourself as “not political,” and you know what: I get it.
That’s the lulling comfort of the world in which many of us were raised. From a young age I internalized the idea that “politics” were something that could be set aside, a grand magician’s cloak I could wear to the polling place when the mood suited, but which could then be hung alone in my closet the rest of the year. As a kid I had no reason to think this might be a cloak I would actually need to wear year-round—so itchy, so much weight—because everything in my life seemed to tell me it didn’t really matter. I grew up during the roaring economy of the 1990’s. I was an elementary schooler on the outskirts of Billings when the US was relatively war-less and the future of the planet not-yet bleak. In that world it makes sense that civic education was de-emphasized, or flat-out cut, from so many of our public school curriculums. Maybe we needed to know about City Council in the distant past, but with so many families now thriving off the fruits of the freshly-booming technology industry, it seemed like there were way more important issues for us kids to focus on. Like dinosaurs and Young Authors’ Club and Presidential Fitness Awards.
Those things are important too, don’t get me wrong—this isn’t a complaint about my elementary school. Like most kids in Montana I received an outstanding education from professionals who were dramatically underpaid (and continue to be—our state has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation). I merely want to acknowledge that many of us became adults with little-to-no understanding of the lines between federal, state, and local governments. Who votes for war, regulations, highway names, the price of insulin, snowplowing routes? Who votes for adoption laws, recycling programs, the parks department, and healthcare regulation? And how do all these issues intersect?
If that’s where you are, you’re far from alone: hello, new friend. Like many 1990’s kids—maybe you too?—I grew up believing that politics affected a mere *segment* of my life, but not all of it. And therefore my vote didn’t really matter that much—because whatever laws/regulations/ordinances eventually passed, I didn’t see them actually Big-Footing their way into my living room, throwing my life into disarray. Little did I understand that’s not really how “politics” works.
Turns out it’s easy to miss the changes politics manifest in our lives because most laws/regulations/ordinances move glacially slow in human time. It takes years of activism and smoke-and-mirror back-room meetings followed by bill-writing, litigation, budget cuts, and appeals. By the time laws are either shot down or enacted, it’s hard to remember the exact trail of how they came to be. Sometimes half a generation has gone by and everyone’s like, “How in the world was this totally normal idea ever controversial?” Well, it was. And the only reason it’s not now is because someone filled an oval on a ballot. Someone like you. That’s the reality: the rules of our society are all bartered out in the public square—but the catch is that sometimes this bartering takes half a century.
“All candidates are the same,” it can feel like, because the effects of their policies are rarely felt immediately. Our reps are obviously voting, but on the ground it can feel like nothing is actually changing. So why should any of us go out of our way to advocate for changes we may never even experience in our lifetimes? I mean, I get it. And then I became a parent. And then I became a teacher. And then I became friends with someone younger than me, I got a job at a nonprofit, I moved abroad, I realized that the game of politics, of candidates, is not necessarily about who makes decisions for *my* tomorrow: that was largely determined by my parents’ generation. Deal done, those votes happened when I was a kid, long before I could even vote. But just as my parents’ votes determined the economic alleys my generation’s limping down today, my vote determines what the next 30-40 years will look like for my kids. To sit on those sidelines is to resign them to the current status quo.
By and large, “politics” aren’t actually about immediate results: they’re the long game. And we’re all playing that game whether we like it or not. “What should our downtown look like?” and “Why are so many people in jail?” and “How do we keep taxes fair while making sure our streets and schools are safe?” Like dandelions or random legos, politics are everywhere all the time: they’re the reason we have street lights and clean water and affordable alarm clocks (think: tariffs, taxes, trade incentives). Politics are the reason our cars have seatbelts, they determine our neighborhood’s public safety budgets, and they set the federal minimum wage. Daily, “politics” cause us little joys and pains even when we’re just picking up the kids from swimming lessons. Wish your city had more bike lanes? A stop sign down the street? What about a designated urban renewal program to help local mom-and-pop grocery stores get off the ground? How about curbside recycling? Ever think about what it’d be like if your best friend could easily find a job here, or wish you could build a mother-in-law apartment in your backyard, plant a cherry tree in your local park, or get a (small, kindly) flock of chickens? The route to almost any change you wish to see in your community life—however small—almost invariably runs straight through local or state government.
To be “not political,” by contrast, is to be content with everything exactly as it is for your friends, your family, every person you encounter as you walk to church in the winter. Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not political because there is truly nothing you wish to change, and you’re wholly content with the ratio of joy-to-pain currently being experienced in our society.
But if you’re not—if you wince at the news, if you can’t afford rent while working full-time, if you drive around town thinking, “That was sure a dangerous intersection, someone should do something about that,” these are all examples of skin you’ve already got in the political game. You are already being political just walking around as a human in the world, because politics devised the very roads upon which we get from here to there, and politics decides whether they’ll be kept up or abandoned, and who will pay for it. What frustrates you about the way the world works? What would you change in your city if you had a magic wand? Caring about politics isn’t at all like donning an itchy, ill-fitting cloak in the sweat of summer—it’s about recognizing the issues you *already* care about in your daily life.
I’ve written “politics” more here than I’ve probably ever said it in my life and I still have to keep reminding myself that it’s not a dirty word. It is instead a way for me to remain connected to 1990’s Kendra who grew up in the golden dream that the economy would never shatter, a way to stay connected to the impish spirit in my 7-year-old that makes her say, “I’m making improvements upon improvements upon improvements” while digging out her fairy city. Hope, that’s what it is. One spade at a time. Because when you boil it down, “politics” is nothing more than our thoughts on the way the world should improve. More tulip houses, fewer daffodil fountains, over here let’s plant the recycling center. What’s the best way to scale the aqueducts? Is gladiator-battling really humane? How do we rekindle what made (some of our) childhoods golden while recognizing that while we were growing up in our tulip houses, plenty of other people were scrabbling in the mud due to the mis-luck of having been born outside our particular village of glossy red petals?
And that’s why you’ve probably heard the expression, “Everything is political.” In the last few years I’ve found myself side-mouthing this more and more, to family, friends, and myself. Not because I think the world should be a partisan dog-fight; far from it. Human-to-human, most of us agree on the basic tenants of life: we want jobs that allow us to put food on the table, stable housing (I’m looking at you, affordable rent and discrimination laws), streets where we don’t have to clutch wallets in one hand and a hidden pocket knife in the other. But “Everything is political,” because these things don’t happen in isolation. I know it’s easy to get disillusioned, and if by now you’re wondering whether you’re *actually* a “not political” person, here’s a little checklist to get started:
- Are you 100% satisfied with the status quo?
- If not, why not?
- Welcome to the world of politics, baby!