“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.” -President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union speech
President Obama threw down an epic challenge at the end of his State of the Union speech: suspend your cynicism for the benefit of the nation. Just how does one do that?
Cynicism about our government and politics taints our casual conversations, our media, the length of poll lines on election day. I don’t need to tell you all the reasons why we cary this cynicism, but we do need to talk about how it changes us as individuals and as a nation. This perception of who we are and what “We, the people,” are capable of — it is our greatest limiting factor as a nation.
We perseverate on the idea that we don’t matter to the point that our assumptions prove us right. Cynicism tells us that getting involved isn’t worth the effort. Unless you want to be a powerless citizens of a gridlocked government, you’ll need to take action to break your own cynicism like a bad habit.
Here’s five steps to rid yourself of civic cynicism and gain agency in America’s future.
- Seek out stories of individuals and communities fighting — and winning — the good fight. Use them to inspire you and push back the darkness of cynicism.
- Learn civic skills. The skills for civic and political engagement can be learned — -and they can be more powerful than money or political clout.
- Feeling like an outsider? It’s not you, it’s the tools you’re using.
- Get comfortable with discomfort — wins are never easy, never guaranteed. Change is made by those who stay civil when angry, and hang in when all hope is lost.
- Build up a repertoire. Transition causes you post on Facebook to be one to three issues you meaningfully contribute yourself to.
Suspend your disbelief that the little guy (or gal) is winning; when you do, you will find them. Like “The Wild Horse People” (not their real name) who, in 2005, passed an unlikely bill in Congress to limit the sale and slaughter of wild horses. Kids running petitions at local tack shops, rural residents, grandparents in retirement — they wrote in to their congress members and demanded protection for wild horses. Without a PAC or a lobby group, they became the most effective, some might say powerful, citizens in America that year, defeating monied interests and persuading Tom Delay’s conservative congress that their constituents cared about the future of wild horses. I interned in Congress at the time, there was a lot of horse-themed stationary coming in, and calls from this diverse range of citizens who spoke civilly, passionately, and factually. They didn’t have a lot of what our cynicism expects powerful citizens to look like, but it didn’t matter, because they used who they were (citizens from representative’s districts and passionate advocates) to change the law. Look for these examples, large and small in your communities. Heck, you can even read how I got posted restaurant inspection scores passed in my county, and fought intrenched interests to do it, as another example. Collect these examples. Reflect on them, and let their stories feed your sense of what is possible. People change behavior based on seeing successful strategies, so you will need to silence your cynical thoughts with examples that contradict.
“People come into my office and act like we’re on The Factor with Bill O’Reilly. They’re so mean.” This is a quote from a state senator I spoke with about talking to her constituents. Dozens of lawmakers and government staff echoed this as I spoke to them about citizen engagement. Millions of normal, nice people talk to people in government with the grating persona of a cable news commentator. Cutting another’s sentence off. Playing “gotcha,” speaking bombastically and harshly to the shy school board member who sat down to coffee with you.
I don’t think we realize that the behavior and arguments we see on political coverage is not what it is like in government. Would you talk to your coworkers like that and expect to reach an agreement? No? Then speak like you’d want to be spoken to, kindly, with respect, even if you’re angry. Media isn’t a model for civic skills.
Civic skills are important — they’re everything from how to have a conversation with decision-makers to identifying the most effective paths for civic or political engagement. Want to influence an election? Volunteer for the campaign you like — help a good person get elected and learn valuable civic skills at the same time. What to change a policy? Find your elected representative who sits on the committee which oversees your policy topic. Ask them or their legislative aid to talk about the issue over coffee. Want to refine your skills and become a civic badass? Join a League of Women Voters or a Bus Project.
In short, political news commentary and your civics 101 class did not prepare you for real world political or civic engagement, and it’s a skill, so put in those 10,000 hours (or, like, eight) and master the art of engagement.
If you are sending form letters and not feeling heard, you’re right. You’re not. Because form letters aren’t read, they’re kind of viewed by politicians as not really “real” advocacy. You can argue with that. I’m sure the advocacy group who asks you to donate after another failed form letter campaign will.
But unless you see yourself above in Point Two, consider that the powerless feeling you get from advocacy may be from using bad tools — -like form letters, ill-targeted petitions (petitions, targeted well, can work), protests without face-to-face advocacy conversations, or “clicktivism” without real-world followup. This source of cynicism isn’t really an individual’s fault. Political movements have been dreaming up all sorts of technologies and tools to get you “activated.” But most of that is just because political organizations don’t believe you want to spend the time or effort to build up civic skills, so they just want to be able to count you and your form letter in their advocacy numbers (and get you to donate). — But this doesn’t get you much closer to your goal: influencing decision-makers or actually changing things.
(I’m sure many political tech people will hate this simplistic demonizing of political tech tools. I’m sure they can make a very good, qualified case for why I’m wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about how the tech tools contribute to Americans feeling powerless and disconnected. Discuss.)
Discomfort is a sign of progress. Talking to an intellectual opponent, speaking up at a public comment period at your city council (despite sweaty hands and a fear of public speaking), delving into research on your topic area and feeling overwhelmed; these are signs that you are winning the fight against cynicism. You are getting civic sh*t done. Keep it up, make like Sheryl Sandberg and lean in to that discomfort. Keep it up ‘til the discomfort feels like a happy home and you give the best two minute speech at City Council’s open mic.
You lost? You don’t feel heard? You witnessed corruption? Good news: you’re learning important lessons. And you are going to be stronger next time. But if you leave now, convinced it’s too hard, too corrupt, guess what? They drove you out of the ring and there’s nobody left to fight for you. The cynicism pulled you back and won. Take losses gracefully and know you’re going to be better next time.
You may care about a lot of issues, but nobody’s got time for everything. Pick one two three issues you care about. The best issues are ones you’ve had experience with. Me? I picked posted restaurant inspection scores because a searing bout of E. Coli food poisoning made me want to prevent that pain from happening to others.
Don’t think you have to be an academic on the topic; your experience with the topic is a great starting point. Dig into some news stories covering various sides of the issue and search out others in your network, community, or in advocacy groups to find common cause with. None of this has to take over your life or be a full-time job to be effective. The idea here is that you engage on a narrow range of issues, but deeply on those issues.
Over time, you’ll become the expert you never expected to be, and gain a reputation (if you’re civil and kind and helpful) as a go-to person for policy makers or others in your community. And, you’ll start to rack up small wins. Which will build you a network of relationships and contacts. You’ll build skills and insights. And you’ll start to realize that cynicism has been replaced by a sense of agency. You are capable of making change. You are a powerful voice — and you’ve drowned out your own cynicism.