Ask yourself, and answer.
That’s the first rule. It’s the hardest to stick to, because knowledge is power, but it is also pain. Sometimes we don’t want to ask ourselves the question; sometimes we take shortcuts on the answers. But being an active part of the United States – getting involved in its questions and solutions – means asking yourself first.
Citizenship, as it was initially defined, was universal in principle but racist and sexist in execution. Good citizens would be well-read, thoroughly informed, knowledgable of their limitations, available for participation, and active in their communities. For some inexplicable reason (not really), it was thought that only white, landowning men had these qualifications.
Of course, our history as a country demonstrates how untrue that narrow application was. But it also shows us that what is necessary for good citizenship is exactly what the Founders imagined. Yes, they were wrong about who could be good citizens, but they weren’t wrong about what good citizenship entailed.
In theory, our system is supposed to take the individual wills of our entire population (18 and older) and turn it into policy solutions for what we think are our problems. But how do you know what people think? Do you take a survey? Do you go door-to-door? Do people passively wait for government to come ask them about the problems in their lives, the struggles they’ve endured, the successes they’ve engendered, the victories they’ve witnessed? Are you waiting, right now, for someone to hear you?
Citizenship is active. It’s about staking out a claim, a place in our society, and shouting that you matter. You’re the boss in this system; if your employees are failing or dithering, then it’s your responsibility to either give them what they need or change your hiring practices. It’s a little trite to say that you had the power all along, but in this case, it’s true.
But I get that the world of citizenship is really intimidating. You’re probably thinking right now about how exhausting it is to keep up with the awful politicians who are always lying to you and want to ruin your life (depending on their party affiliation). You just want someone kind and thoughtful and wonderful and honest to pop up and start fixing things! Is that too much to ask? Do we really need to get into this dirty, frustrating, interminable cycle where it seems the replacements are always as bad as the originals?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: Citizenship doesn’t have to be brutal or ugly. It can be productive and validating. Turning away doesn’t make that magical politician show up; getting involved and sharing what you want from the world is the way to get responsive, thoughtful people in power. I can show you where to start, what to avoid, what you can do frequently to be involved, and ways to keep from being overwhelmed. The power to change lives is freely available to us as citizens; it should be something we take up happily, not reluctantly.
I’ll be here to help ask the questions and give you the tools to answer them.
So, if you’re in: what are you going to do with your democracy?