Politics are for Power
More than just being informed, we need to be involved.
“Mom, have you seen the news?” my son asks between mouthfuls of cereal at the breakfast table. He is reading an article about the Ukrainian nuclear plant fire. He then turns to another article, this one about refugees pouring into Poland. He’s clearly alarmed. I don’t know what to say to him. There seems so little we can do.
A friend once told me a story: Anthropologists visiting an aboriginal village showed them an article about an earthquake destroying a town halfway across the world. Seeing the images of destruction and devastation, the local villagers began to pack. The anthropologists assured them that they were safe– the earthquake was very far away. But the aborigines knew that, they were packing for a different reason. “Why would you share that unless you were asking us to help?”
Americans have an insatiable desire for news and consume it in 24 hour cycles. Fox News is on at the mechanic shop, CNN at the doctors, New York Times alerts on my phone. In 2020, cable news reached all-time viewership highs as we were glued to coverage of the pandemic, racial justice protests, and, later, the election. But is being informed the same as being engaged?
Most people in my community are “highly politically active” in the colloquial sense of the phrase. They are likely to be knowledgeable about what’s happening and to have strong, informed opinions on current events. But as hearty as our dinner table debates may be, how many of us are turning this knowledge into impacting change?
It is easy to confuse the drama of politics with political activity. Most of us felt overwhelmed by the relentless news cycle of the Trump administration as we were subjected to an onslaught of chaotic breaking news segments and seemingly lived on “high alert.” We engaged with it all exhaustingly and emotionally, spilling out our support or dissent on Facebook and, sometimes, the street.
But emoting is not the same as building power. Political activity is not about expression, but strategy. As the fragile nature of our democracy feels ever more apparent, many of us want to be more politically engaged, but still very few of us are part of intentional organizing work. College educated Americans report that they spend more time on politics than other Americans, but only 2% of that time is spent actually engaging in their communities (Hersh, 2018). Social media has given us a false sense of “doing something,’’ but it only allows us to demonstrate our ideology without engaging with any of the processes, formations, or collectivity that could make us truly powerful.
Treating politics as entertainment or as personal catharsis leaves our communities vulnerable. Too many elected officials are willing to exploit our emotional engagement with politics without ever offering the meat and potatoes that would actually help us. Lt. Governor Mark Robinson kicked off his first days in office holding anti-abortion rallies– an issue that is entirely out of the reach of his office to make a change. Thousands of miles away from Applahcia, Madison Cawthorn introduced a bill to make sections of Trump’s incomplete border wall a national “Donument,” but voted against the bi-partisan infrastructure bill that will bring millions of dollars of revenue for broadband infrastructure, roads, and dams to the district he actually represents. When we engage with politics as a sport, Robinson and Cawthorn and other electoral showmen don’t have to do the real work of fighting for their constituents, instead they can pass off “owning the libs” as a policy choice.
Not everyone treats politics as an abstract parlor game, of course. While white people report spending more time consuming and talking about politics, Black and Latinos are nearly twice as likely to engage with politics out in their communities, specifically by volunteering or organizing (Hersh, 2018). Much of this is done outside of the four year election cycle and outside of the ever changing news cycle, with an understanding that strategy and deliberate action is a long game.
People who have more at stake not only “do politics” more fully, but also have a good grasp of how to get and use power to meet their community needs. They often step outside of the buzz of national political debate and focus locally where they can have the most impact. This is what is happening in Alamance County, NC, where Black folks have not only protested the county’s racist good ol’ boy network, but have carefully organized to– for the first time in the county’s history– have Black candidates in every race of this year’s elections, including a Black sheriff candidate to challenge the notoriously bigotted and continually embarrassing Terry Johnson.
I decided a long time ago that I would not burden my child with problems he did not have the power to change. This means that I didn’t have a good solution when he brought up Ukraine over breakfast the other day. We made a donation to a humanitarian organization, but that’s charitable, not political.
He deserves to feel powerful, not feeble. We all do. We need to cease to be satisfied with consuming news like bystanders, and push each other into community and real political action; we need to move off the news cycle and into the streets, then out of the streets and into organizing.