Three years ago I decided I was done with politics.
I’d spent 18 months reading and writing about the financial crisis full time, and I discovered it wasn’t making me happier. Reading the news wasn’t making me happier. Joining protests wasn’t making me happier. Writing about political topics wasn’t making me happier.
So I quit.
I deliberately ignored everything political.
And in many ways, I was happier. I had more free time to do what I wanted to do in my free time—relax, binge watch shows, and sleep.
Then I saw something late in the primaries this past election that woke me from my political slumber.
It was a video clip of Senator Sanders talking about his spiritual tradition.
He says, “If we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what? That impacts you, that impacts me. And I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, “It doesn’t matter to me. I got it. I don’t care about other people.”
“So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out in the street, it impacts me.
“That’s my very strong spiritual tradition.”
After watching this clip, I realized I couldn’t ignore politics and feel good inside. I couldn’t say, “It doesn’t matter to me. I got mine, and I don’t care about people who are less fortunate than me.”
I realized that loving my neighbor requires me to be politically engaged. I can’t just sit back and enjoy myself when people less privileged than I am hurt. That’s not spirituality.
After realizing this, I started researching the presidential candidates, gathering more than 40 pages of notes and quotes and links from a variety of sources and opinions.
It didn’t take long for me to see that this election was different from anything I’d encountered before. From my perspective, there was a candidate in the race who was in a universe unto himself in terms of utter moral and cognitive depravity.
Let’s look at what happened.
First, more than 90 million eligible voters didn’t vote.
That’s a lot of people. In fact, if you were to make a map of the Electoral College that included this group in the mix, it would roughly look like this:
Second, only a quarter of eligible voters voted for the winner — not “half the nation,” as so many people keep saying.
What’s more, of those who voted for Trump, 29% believe he is not honest and 23% say he is unqualified for the presidency. In other words, a third of those who voted for Trump did so with a great deal of reluctance.
And so, largely due to voter apathy, we ended up with this:
An election that nearly 70% of the nation is not proud of.
To put the situation in its rawest form, most of America feels like Vince McMahon right now:
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Let’s not kid ourselves.
This election happened because too many of us (including myself) gave into distraction. We chose entertainment over political engagement, especially early on in the primary process.
Even political junkies and journalists were too often sucked into petty controversies and trivial news stories. The nation focused on the bloodbath, the insults, and the antics instead of policy and substance.
This is dangerous. As George Gallup said, “One of the real threats to America’s place in the world is a citizenry which daily elects to be entertained and not informed.”
It’s a problem that the author Neil Postman explores in his extraordinary book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the intro, Postman compares two dystopian visions — one from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and one from George Orwell’s 1984.
Huxley feared that destruction would come from distraction.
Orwell feared that destruction would come from coercion.
“What Orwell feared,” Postman writes, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” See this excellent comic for more.
My interpretation of Postman’s book is that Brave New World precedes 1984.
That is, if we’re not politically engaged, we will find ourselves first in Huxley’s nightmare and then in Orwell’s.
Perhaps that sounds too alarmist. Some people might say, “America survived a civil war, the Great Depression, World War II, and we’ll certainly survive whatever comes next.”
But that brings me no comfort. Every civilization thinks it’s invincible until it’s not. Rome survived centuries of upheaval — and then it turned from a republic to an empire to a fractured mess. The poet Juvenal, writing around 100 AD, sensed the fall of Rome and said, “The people have abdicated our duties…everyone now restrains themselves and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
No society is immune, and societies that crave bread and circuses above all else risk catastrophe.
What’s at Stake
My current personal opinion, subject to evidence to the contrary, is that we’re at tremendous risk of becoming an autocracy—similar to the turning point that Rome faced when it turned from republic to empire around 44 BC.
And, no, the problem doesn’t just have to do with Donald Trump. The executive branch has been amassing power for decades, including under liberal presidents like Clinton and Obama. These leaders should have stood firmly against cronyism, constant bombing, and government by decree, but they didn’t. And to the extent they didn’t, without question they share the blame.
But in my opinion, Donald Trump represents an amplification of the movement toward autocracy. He speaks like an authoritarian, and isn’t even slightly quiet about wishing the United States let him lead by decree.
As conservative author David Frum highlights in a lengthy article in The Atlantic titled “How to Build an Autocracy,” the dangers are real.
He says, “Of course we want to believe that everything will turn out all right. In this instance, however, that lovely and customary American assumption itself qualifies as one of the most serious impediments to everything turning out all right. If the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.”
What To Do
Thankfully, everything is not hopeless. There is still more that is right with the world than is wrong with it.
Here are nine suggestions for how to engage politically.
1. Remember that the other side has noble motives
Even though I strongly oppose Trump, I understand why people who saw their healthcare premiums rise dramatically under Obama voted for Trump over Clinton. I understand why people resonated with Trump’s call to drain the swamp of career politicians. I understand why the white working class supported a candidate who promised to return their manufacturing jobs to them.
I realize, above all, that in order to feel love toward people I disagree with, I must ascribe their best (not their worst) motives to them.
The enemy is not my political opponent. The enemy is falsehood.
2. Ignore the noise, find the signal
Donald Trump’s stroke of genius lies in getting us to fixate on trivial drama. It’s something he learned from his career as a reality TV star, and it’s a skill that has served him well. (In fact, being a reality TV star may sadly be the best training anyone can have if they want to win the American presidency.) He kept the news cycle away from discussions of substance by stoking petty controversy every. single. day. He will continue to do this throughout his entire presidency.
Ignore the noise. Sit still. Meditate. Put your phone away and go on a hike. Live life slowly. When you do this, you have a greater capacity to recognize what political stories really matter and which ones don’t. You develop a capacity to recognize how spiritually corrosive petty controversy is.
“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” —Epictetus
Focus instead on the few political items that matter most to you, and do the actions that will best result in changing the status quo.
The signal: Trump’s tax returns and illegal actions. Italian’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shares ample similarities to Trump, and he was finally unseated for tax fraud. I believe the same will be true of Trump if we’re able to focus on that story.
3. Avoid TV news
Television is for amusement (a word that literally means “not thinking”), and watching TV news makes people believe they’re informed when in reality they’re just entertained. People who watch TV news are prone to believe blatant falsehoods, such as the myth that world is more violent than ever.
Also, believe former Fox News anchor Andrea Tantaros when she says that “Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.” It’s true.
4. Read books
Start with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Then read books by and about the founders of America. The founders generally had at least one thing in common: They studied deeply, often for hours a day. As a result, they could think deeply. Our president-elect boasts that he never reads books, and at least in this regard he is the antithesis of the men and women who formed our nation.
Also recommended: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Lewis Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here.
5. Triple check your sources
One man made $10,000 a month during the election by writing fake news stories. He specialized in writing pro-Trump pieces because the data showed him that these pieces earned him the most revenue. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me,” he said. “His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.” People were sharing fake stories, such as the lie that the Pope endorsed Trump, at an alarming rate.
However, liberals are not immune from the problem either (having also been caught spreading fake news over and over again).
The lesson? Triple check your sources before sharing anything online, especially if it’s a story that fits a narrative you want to be true. And if you happen to mistakenly share something that isn’t true, delete it and set the record straight.
6. Overcompensate with kindness
The nature of political debate is ugly because we’re always at risk of being reduced to a single label (“liberal!” “racist!” “idiot!”). This ugliness is amplified when we debate behind a screen. To fix this tendency, always err on the side of kindness in online comments, and in certain cases consider messaging someone directly instead of trying to publicly humiliate them.
Remember that if you offend everyone who disagrees with you, they will all unfollow you, and you’ll create an echo chamber. You’ll have no influence on those who need to hear your voice the most.
7. Call your representatives
After the election, a former Congressional staffer named Emily Ellsworth shared advice about how to be heard by Congress. Her advice went viral, and deservedly so. She says that phone calls and interactions at town hall meetings are far more effective than posting to social media. After reading her advice, I’ve called my representative’s office multiple times and plan to call much more as well as attend town hall meetings.
8. Learn from the Tea Party
When things didn’t go their way in 2008, the Tea Party didn’t just get angry. Instead, they deliberately focused on electing representatives who agreed with them. As a result, they actually changed policy. We could all learn from this. To enact change, we must choose specific people to unseat, and work hard to replace them with the people we’d like to see in office. That’s how to get policies that best help the least fortunate among us. For my part, my primary political goal between now and 2018 is to help unseat my Congressman, Jason Chaffetz.
9. Remember that we have it good
Democracy is rare. Having a stable economy is rare. Living in a time of overwhelming peace is rare, as is having the freedom to speak your mind. For most of human history these things have not been available. So we have it really, really, really good. And we could lose it through our distracted negligence.
More than anything, this election woke me up. It caused me to reflect on the ways I’ve chosen my personal happiness over the happiness of people who are in deep pain. It caused me to realize that I’ve let comfortable distractions take a greater hold on my life than I would like.
So now I’m awake. I don’t have the perfect solution, but one thing is clear. I can’t just sit back and hope the world will take care of itself. I have to step up and be involved.
It’s the only way to love my neighbor.