Many Americans today are afraid to discuss politics unless they’re around people they know agree with them. It feels impolite to even bring up politics in mixed company because of the fear that any such words will result in shouting. Many of us cringe when we open the latest political email because we’re sure it will contain bad news. Most of us are averse to bad news and the venomous diatribe that we get from all media, and more of us are steering clear of anything that might result in personal confrontation. We’ve learned to equate discourse with confrontation, thereby unwittingly dampening our democracy and making it easier for Special Interests to rule.
How did this happen? Weren’t we once able to talk to our neighbors about politics? Did all the negative sound bites we hear today originate at backyard neighborhood cookouts? At the workplace? In churches? No, the venomous rhetoric we hear today comes from interests that want a television audience. If opinion mongering serves up an apathetic electorate, so much the better.
When we comply by either sitting on the sidelines or fixating on bad news, we are being played like fiddles by the “Apathy Lobby.” This bunch is well financed and continues in high gear after the scare it got in 2008. They have made great strides in turning “Yes we can!” into “why bother?” “They,” by the way, are The Elite 2% who control the electoral process, the legislative process, trade laws, energy policy, the Supreme Court and a host of other things. This Elite 2% is skillfully playing the rest of us against one another. When civic participation becomes an ugly, fact-free contest to see who can dredge up the latest point of despair, it’s no wonder that most Americans back away.
It’s important to remember that not all Americans are backing off. Still in the game are those who see politics as a sport. To them all is fair when it comes to winning. They have followers who, acting on anger alone, are marching boldly against their own (and our) interests while convinced they’re doing yeoman’s work. Champions of civic participation hold no hatred for people who have been so misled, and our righteous anger is informed enough not to be pointed at these dupes. We direct our anger and efforts toward finding means of engaging people who want and will participate in democracy.
We need to show there is another kind of civic participation that is based on values and facts and is solutions-oriented. No matter how weary they are, people will step up when they see a meaningful, achievable goal. This happened in the suffragist movement that culminated in the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote. It happened in the 1960s in the civil rights movement. It happened in 2000 in Duluth, Minnesota when that town boasted a 91% voter turnout. It is in our DNA as Americans to engage with positive change. It is also in our DNA to disengage with constant despair.
Coffee Partiers must remind Americans that there is such a thing as The People’s interest. In striving toward this goal, we choose to avoid directly confronting the shouting heads of political entertainment who use fear and misinformation to keep their followers inflamed. Instead, our target is the Entitled 2% who pay for their airtime, advertising, and the circus-like spectacles that power the Apathy Lobby. Our weapon is information and the ability to learn — we will call them out and encourage our friends to do the same. When the American people see that they can make a difference, they will engage.
I want to lay down a challenge to anyone who has a political audience: For every problem you bring up, suggest meaningful grassroots action that addresses it. If the problem seems beyond hope, ask your audience what we can do. End every announcement and discussion with a suggested action, even if that action is just to find out what we can do.
There are no problems without solutions, there are no solutions without action, there is no action without an actor, and there is no acting without risk.