The 2016 presidential election created a deep sense of despair among Democrats, liberals, and progressives. There was a sense that we were not doing enough, a sense that we had gone wrong. I took these concerns in tandem because if you are going about something all wrong, doing more of it won’t help.
As a liberal voter I found myself taking stock of my own civic role. As philosopher I approached the issue by considering the basic elements of civic duty. Like many others I took to Twitter with the question of “what can we do?” and the one response that stuck out to me was three words: “read, write, vote.” I have since moved on from Twitter and cannot attribute the original tweet, but that advice stuck with me and provided the foundation of my personal understanding of civic duty. After ruminating on it for some time I feel that those three actions form the fundamental aspects of civic duty.
Voting is the most elemental function of a Democracy. In terms of civic duty, it’s the least you can do. Democracy is based on fair representation of its citizens and voting is the only way to register your choice of representation. Voting is a personal choice, so I prefer not to shame people who choose not to vote. For many voting is not feasible or is not an option at all. But those who have the opportunity and pass on that opportunity are waiving their means of democratic representation.
I understand that many feel disenfranchised and underrepresented by the two-party system. But the best way to support third parties is by voting for them. Participating in a two-party system may not be ideal but it’s necessary in order to oppose a one-party system. If you feel strongly opposed to a two-party system, voting for alternative parties does help and is especially effective in local elections. Voting is the most basic practice of civic duty.
I frequently hear “If you don’t vote you can’t complain.” I find that phrase to be a bit smug and I would make a hypocrite of myself if I begrudged anyone the right to complain about anything for any reason. But there is an element that rings true. One example is that it’s like getting the wrong order at a restaurant. Anyone can complain about it, but if you don’t tell the server they’re not going to fix it. Even if they don’t or can’t make it right registering your grievance is due diligence. It’s the same for politics. Even if you’re candidate doesn’t win, showing up to vote cuts into the opposition’s mandate. Representation always matters. And if you truly feel completely unrepresented on a ballot, write yourself in.
Actively voting takes advantage of the opportunity to represent yourself. The more informed you are the more you make of your opportunity. While it’s true that we can’t fully know the true character of a politician (other than the fact that they are a politician, which is one strike against them already) we get a better idea of who they are and what they do the more we read and the more critically we read news and current events. To choose someone who best represents our values we study as much as we can about where they stand on the issues and what we expect them to deliver for us as our representative should they be elected.
It is also important to be introspective, to “study” your own values and principles. The better we understand our own ideas and beliefs and the more adept we are at expressing ourselves the better positioned we are to expect representation from our leadership. Once you have that basic understanding of yourself reading and research will help you expand those values and expand your representation.
Privacy is a crucial element of Democracy. Infringing on that privacy is fascist and antithetical to principles of Democracy. If anyone wishes to exercise their right to keep their vote to their self, I unequivocally respect that choice. But if you are looking to expand the influence of your civic duty public expression is the logical next step. It takes our civic duty from the personal realm and joins the social discussion.
Voting is important because it is a mechanical act of Democratic representation. Communicating your vote publicly is a cultural act of representation. It cultivates your representation within your sphere of influence. We tend to look to those we respect and admire when we form our views and decide how we want to be represented. If you have any aspirations for friends and acquaintances in your sphere of influence to look to you for inspiration you have to put yourself out there. The more effectively you can communicate your values, principles, ideas, views, and opinions to your sphere of influence, the greater impact you can have on your civic role in your community.
It is important to note that your influence is only as strong as the respect you can command. If you act in a pejorative, uncivil or disingenuous manner you lose that respect. Civil involvement in good faith is a fundamental principle of civic duty. Civility is more than good behavior, it’s good strategy. I hold civil discourse as one of my core values.
Communicating our views is also a fundamental aspect of organization. Barack Obama famously encouraged his supporters by saying “don’t boo, organize.” If you want to have political influence without wealth you need an organized community. Researching, refining, and communicating your ideas are important steps to joining (or forming) a more organized sociopolitical force.
Activism (extra credit)
Voting, if we can vote, is the least we can do. Reading and writing are the best ways for the common voter to expand our participation in society and make the most of our representation. If you want to go above and beyond the next step is volunteerism. Campaigns and organizations rely on people donating their time and money for their success. Basic work like door knocking, envelope stuffing, phone calling and fundraising can make a difference and makes for the best entry into further involvement. Beyond being a functional aspect of civic duty, it can create new social connections that align with your personal values and principles, which is good for optimism and personal fulfillment. The work is out there. You just need to find the work that best fits your values, skills, and capabilities.
Doing what we can when we can may not change the world overnight, but it will maximize our influence. And to riff on a quote by the late Paul Wellstone, we all do better when we each do better. Focusing on all the things you don’t accomplish can suck you into a dangerous feedback loop. If you take time to focus on your successes and accomplishments, you’ll begin to see the positive influence that you have on your communities, your society, and your nation. Our individual roles may seem small, but they are our own. We might as well take pride in stretching them as far as they can go. Our individualism depends on it.