As we approach the 2018 midterms, we’ve been hearing the term “civic duty” used in a lot of different contexts. Most recently in the ongoing drama surrounding the Supreme Court, then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and accusations of sexual assault. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has said that civic duty motivated her to come forward with her claim when Kavanaugh was put on the shortlist to be nominated. Other witnesses, including Kavanaugh’s friends from college and law school, also came forward, stating it was their civic duty to share what they knew with the public. Senators were admonished that it was their civic duty to see these accusation investigated. Civic duty everywhere…
These actions fall far from the “voting is our main civic duty” definition to which most Americans adhere. And it begs the question: What are our civic duties, and is there more we should be doing?
We roll our eyes because we all think of civic duty as something we do for someone or something else — a higher duty that poses very little benefit to us.
But we’re wrong.
Your civic duties are radical acts of self-care. Why? Because civic action directly benefits each and every one of us, and makes sure that the norms and institutions that benefit us every day are still around when we need them.
Think of how stressful the past two decades, or even the past two years, have been for each of us politically. Think of the financial strain we all felt when the economy sank into a recession. How frustrated we felt during the 2016 Presidential Campaigns. How anxiety-producing it was to watch the news during troop bans in the military, the ACA repeal, and family separations at the border (fyi, many families still haven’t been reunited: “Deported Parents Lose Kids To Adoption,” from Talking Points Memo).
Doing your civic duty is like keeping hydrated, exercising, and eating healthy — preventative maintenance. Do it on the regular, and we can increase the chances that good people get elected, companies create jobs, health care expands, and the news doesn’t make us want to kill ourselves. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. Sometimes you wake up sore, and sometimes you experience a high that motivates you to try again tomorrow. Either way, civic duty is more than just voting. It might not sound sexy, but it’s one of the best ways you can protect your physical health and your mental well-being.
Here are 10 acts of radical civic self-care we should all be taking:
1. Know Your Elected Officials & What They Stand For
Nearly all Americans can name the President, which is good. Yet only 37% of American can name their congress member. This definitely doesn’t bode well for people’s knowledge of their county supervisors or city council members. Your lack of knowledge hampers your ability to hold politicians accountable during elections, and definitely prevents you from reaching out to them with your needs between elections. Go online right now and follow your elected officials on social media to learn about who they are and what they believe.
PRO TIP: If you don’t know the names of your politicians (and, as the numbers show, you don’t), you can look them up with your address at Politi-Score.
2. Be For Something, Not Just Against Everything
Speaking of social media, it’s time we talked about the political conversations you’re having online. The fact that you’re talking about politics online is actually a good thing. We should be talking about civic issues more, not less, despite the arguments that come from it (we‘ll talk about tone later). But if your only contributions to civic discourse is to tell people that their ideas are stupid, unfeasible, or a ‘slippery slope’ to some fictional future crisis, then you’re not having conversations, you’re ending them.
And if you’re only telling your elected officials what you don’t want, instead of advocating for something you do, then you’re not promoting change, you’re stopping it.
You need to be FOR something. Have an idea about a tangible change that your government should make. Even if you only have one of these ideas, it gives you something to stand for. Which is far better than merely standing against everything else.
PRO TIP: Take that idea and do something with it. Post it on LawMaker, share it with people on social media, and build support for a political change that benefits you and your community. Jamie Tijerina from Los Angeles did, and her idea has now been introduced as an official motion before the Los Angeles City Council.
3. Choose Three Issues for Your Political Energies
You have a life outside of politics, I get it. But politics impacts your life whether you like it or not. So why don’t you pick three civic issues to give your political energy some focus? They can be big national issues, small city issues, or a mix. Maybe you’re concerned about immigration, school quality, and bike lanes. Great! Make these three items the issues you read about, talk to your elected officials about, and vote about, until they no longer worry you.
4. Call Your Politicians Once a Month
You should be calling one elected officials from each level of government once a month (city, county, state, federal). That’s four phone calls every 30 days — or four emails, if you demand I roll with the times (though phone calls are more persuasive according to the New York Times).
Unless you think your governments are all running at 100% efficiency, you should have an issue you’d like addressed or a solution you’d like enacted. Believe me, these won’t be long conversations — be polite, introduce yourself, and tell them about your issue in 60 seconds or less. The staffer will take down notes and record your address, and you’ll be pushing civic change in just four minutes a month.
And if you think calling to shout, insult, or threaten your elected officials will help, it really doesn’t.
5. Hold Your Politicians Accountable Between Elections (i.e. Call Them Again)
More and more, politicians believe the American people have short memories. Goldfish short. They firmly believe that the issues people are calling about today will be forgotten by next week. Be the exception to that rule. If the issue you’re concerned about hasn’t been addressed, keep calling. And get others to call. It really does make a difference.
PRO TIP: Want an easy way to find out about the progress on your key issues? Set up Google News Alerts so you can get an update when there’s movement on something you find important. You’ll find out when your elected officials finally start listening to you, or, if they ignore you, to vote for someone else in the next election.
6. Don’t Be a Hypocrite
We all have beliefs to which we hold strongly. Some of us believe you should always signal when changing lanes. Others believe you should always tip your waiters 20%. Many of us think that politicians’ actions should be held to a higher standard. It’s great to have principles, but they’re not helping anyone unless you apply them consistently.
Nobody likes a hypocrite. So if your rules only apply to other people, the other side, or the other party, then they shouldn’t be rules you force upon people. If you make excuses for yourself or those like you, maybe your principles don’t stand up to scrutiny. But more likely, you just need to realize that principles have to be applied to people you like as much as the people you don’t. It works against your own interests when you give your politicians an out, just because they’re “on your side.” So along those lines: if you don’t like hypocrites, don’t be a hypocrite.
7. Be Honest — When it’s Hard, Be Brave
Helping your country and helping yourself isn’t always easy. Sometimes it requires a level of honesty that is just plain scary. Civic duty requires this honesty, and the bravery to use it publicly, even when it’s terribly difficult. And most times, we’ll need to be that honest about ourselves.
Take popular mayoral candidate Jason Kander of Missouri. He recently stepped down from his own campaign to seek treatment for PTSD and depression stemming from his time as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. In an open letter announcing his decision, his honesty was glaring and frank, and most likely did little to benefit his political future. But it benefit his constituents, his country, and the many people who are suffering from similar challenges to his. In Kander’s case, by not running for office, and by being honest about his reasons why, he is an exemplar of civic duty.
8. If You Want Justice, Be Just
Nearly all of us want to live in a just world. And part of the justice we expect is that if we follow rules, other people should follow those rules as well. Well, that should work in reverse as well.
A just world is based on the social contract that we’ll follow rules even if they’re inconvenient. And rules we truly can’t follow, we should fight to change.
So, if you want to do your civic duty, do what is right even if you can get away with doing something wrong. This applies to people who abuse handicap placards, people who steal from the self-checkout at the grocery store, and people who have fake emotional support animals that aren’t actual service animals. Each of these systems eases a friction in our world, and by abusing them, we hurt the people around us and ourselves. In order to be truly civic minded, we should follow the rules that we can, and actively try to change the ones we can’t. Breaking rules secretly isn’t civil disobedience, it’s just taking what you can for yourself, which we’ve all had enough of in the political world. If each and every one of us did that, our country would be in poor shape.
Or maybe our country is in the state it’s in because too many of us, including our politicians, break whatever rules they can get away with.
9. Don’t Just Register to Vote, Help Register a Friend
In 2014, 21.4% of the eligible US population was not registered to vote. This means more than a fifth of the people that could vote didn’t even file the basic paperwork to do so. And based on the demographics of these non-voters, elected officials get to build a profile of the people they can most definitely ignore. Maybe it’s youth, maybe it’s a certain racial group, or people of a certain economic status. Either way, non-registered voters send a clear signal to parties and politicians about people they don’t have to worry about.
If each of us helped one person in the next two years to register — be it a family member, a colleague, or a recent 18 year old — we could bring this number as close to zero as it’s ever been.
A Useful Read: Voting in America Is WILD. Here’s How to Plan Ahead.
Notice how this wasn’t #1 in the list? Because voting isn’t actually the end-all-be-all of civic duty. Yes, it’s important, but only if you use it as a mechanism of accountability for all the civic actions you take between elections. If you’re calling your elected officials on the regular, you should let them know that their response to your calls will be influencing you vote in their next election.
And make sure you’re voting in ALL elections, not just in presidential elections every four years. Make sure you’re voting in midterms, as well as in state and local elections that may not sync with the presidential cycle. And please, if you’re frustrated with the quality of the people running for office (this means most of us), make sure you vote in primaries. Primaries are real elections and are the only way you get to choose who actually ends up on your ballot for the final electoral reckoning.
PRO TIP: Read 4 Questions to Ask When Comparing Midterm Candidates. It’s short and sweet, and provides some good ways to weigh the candidates on your ballot.
So, in 25 days, we’re all going to cast our votes (right?). What comes next? Is that the extent of your civic duty until the next election?
If you want to take care of yourself and improve your political future, I truly hope not.