It’s true: the nitty gritty of the policies and programs that impact our lives are complicated as all get out. It’s a lot like trying to explain the mechanics of an entire house – plumbing, HVAC, heating, electricity, construction, foundation. Each one of those systems is its own area of expertise that a person can spend years learning and memorizing. Just like politics, the technical aspects of those are constantly changing with new information and developments, which means that to truly know what’s going on, you have to be constantly learning.
Yet you’ve got a busy life with lots of other things to focus on and learn. You can’t sift through every detail of every policy that will affect your life. What you can do is build a process for making sense of policies that are being discussed and debated, and figure out what you think this policy would mean for you.
My first recommendation: don’t have an opinion on any policy that you can’t explain. If you’re not sure what it will do or how it works, any opinion you form is bound to be misleading at best and horribly wrong at worst. Keep an open mind about something at first blush, and start forming an opinion as specifics develop.
Check your sources. Where you’re learning about a policy should be as close to experts in the field as possible. Yes, you’ve already done the work of paring down sources to people with consistent track records whom you can trust, but they should be clear about where they’re getting information about the results of policy. There are agencies and think-tanks that do nothing except discuss policies and their implications. There’s the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that has no purpose outside of measuring the budget and real-world implications of any policy developed and proposed by our leaders. If a talking head or journalist isn’t citing data from these organizations, you should take their analysis with a huge grain of salt. It’s not much different than your friend whose parents built a treehouse one summer telling you how to repair your sink. You’d probably like someone whose knowledge is a little bit better sourced.
To that same degree, understand what those numbers, facts and figures mean for your life. Maybe you don’t want to have a plumber come in to fix that leaky sink, but you don’t want to do more damage operating by yourself. You’ll probably look up information to make sure that you have the tools available to fix it and the steps are simple enough for you to perform. The same thing goes for policy. If someone is saying that 24 million people will lose health insurance, you should know whether you or someone you care about are among those people. The same thing goes for premiums rising or falling. This is money out of your pocket in one way or another, so knowing which way is both cheapest for you and best for your life is important. Do not listen to anyone who says that there is no downside to a law. Everything comes with a cost, big or small.
See who is supportive and who is against it. This doesn’t mean that if someone you like is against the law, you have to be against it, or vice versa. But it does mean that you should see if your interests align with the other people who are excited or displeased with the law. There are some coalitions citizens should be reluctant to join. If people who hate human rights are big fans of a foreign policy decision, it should make you hesitate. Be wary of anything that generates enthusiasm from still-apologizing-for-Stalin Communists or Nazis (neo- or otherwise). Basically, if you look around and you’re uneasy about who is cheering this one on with you, be sure that you’re thinking through every consequence and result of this policy.
Finally, decide what you can survive. Bad laws get passed all the time, and they do harm on different scales. A soda tax in your city or county is irksome, but unlikely to lead to anyone’s death. A new state law on school funding will impact thousands or millions of futures (and present-day life) for children. Federal laws are potentially impacting millions of people at a time, possibly even billions. Whether or not you can survive the shock to the system (local, state or federal) should determine how much you put into fighting a law. If your life is anything like mine, you need to parcel out time to achieve things, whether that’s cleaning the bathroom, cooking dinner or talking to your representative. It’s important to stay active, but you won’t have time for every fight. It’s OK to prioritize and say that you can only handle this school fight and not the environmental one. It’s OK to choose voting rights instead of health care. Your fights need to meet your priorities. To get back to the house metaphor: it’s fine if you have to wait two or three minutes for hot water; it’s an immediate, huge problem if there’s a crack in the foundation. It’s only logical to spend all your resources fixing the foundation, even if that means you’ll have to wait to replace your boiler.
Ultimately, evaluating policy is a deeply personal experience, not unlike our homes. But the process still requires certain things, and those are the same across the whole spectrum. You won’t become a policy expert following these steps, just like you can’t become a contractor from watching home shows on the regular. But you can learn when to engage, when to ignore and when to call up an expert. And that seems pretty useful, whether it’s day-to-day life or the largest government in the world.