April 08, 2016

Becoming Politically Aware: A Primer

Recently, I ran across an XOJane piece titled “Unpopular Opinion: Most Millennials Aren’t Informed Enough to Vote, Myself Included”.

Now my first reaction was (pretty understandably, I think) anger. After all, over 18 million Millennials were born between 1982 and 1986 alone—Millennials who are, in fact, between the ages of 30 and 34 today.  Just counting US births, there are potentially over 66 million Millennials of voting age—estimates accounting for more than just the birth rate put the total at as much as 75.3 million people, the largest generation since the Baby Boomers.

That is, suffice to say, a hell of a lot of people to brush with such a broad stroke.

You may have guessed it, but I am a Millennial. So are my spouse, my sisters, and the majority of my friends—shocker, I know. So part of my offense was most assuredly personal. The people that I associate with are often well-informed, taking the time to understand issues in nuanced ways, and I was offended on behalf of all of us.

After stewing on the subject for a while, though, and discussing it with several [mostly Millennial] friends, I started to see it in a different light. I’m still pissed, mind you, but it is easy to forget how difficult it is when you first wander onto the political landscape and find yourself a fully functional citizen expected to take part in our democratic processes. I was reminded of my own transition in just the past few years from conservative to liberal politics, a complete reversal of what I had been raised with my entire life. There was definitely a steep learning curve—one that I still live on in many respects.

So, if you, like the author of the XOJane piece above, are wondering how to navigate this landscape, here’s a quick primer with suggestions, most of which are based on my own experience transitioning out of my conservative upbringing.

Content Note: Because I am a liberal progressive, most of this is written from the perspective of learning more about that range of political perspectives.



Basic


Informed, but maybe not enthused. Politics isn’t for everyone. If it’s not your favorite topic of conversation for small talk or party talk or pillow talk, it’s important to understand that it’s perfectly fine. Some people love to talk about sports, or fashion, or watermelons—whatever. Politics can be like that. But a baseline of knowledge is important. Here’s what that looks like.

Take a quiz, just for shits and giggles, or alternatively, to see where you stand.


The clear favorite here is isidewith.com. The  quiz lets you rank issues by how important they are to you, and it pairs you with both political parties and candidates.

Find out who your legislators are.


There are several large websites that do this, but the most reliable way to find your legislators is to connect with the website for your state government. For instance, I’m in South Carolina. My government is at http://www.scstatehouse.gov/index.php, and it has a “Find Your Legislators” page right on the website.

Connect with your legislators on social media.


How many people do you have on Facebook? Twitter? Can you spare room for a handful more? If so, many legislators are down with that interwebz jargon, and they know how to Twit and Face the Book, folks. Take time to follow them, and you’ll see what’s important to your legislators right in your own social media streams. I'm following my senators, my representative, my state senators and representative, and my governor.

Pick a few basic sources of information.


One of the most common complaints seems to be a lack of unbiased information. It really can be hard to source information. For me, I find USA Today, The Guardian, AP, Reuters, and Politifact to be pretty reliable sources.

I'd also recommend finding a few local and state sources of information. Here in SC, I follow The State and Post and Courier newspapers, as well as my local paper.

Decide what issues matter most to you.


Not everyone can focus on the same issues. What’s most meaningful to you? What most impacts you and/or those you care about?

Refresh your basic political knowledge.


Check out ThisNation.com. This Nation covers pretty much the entire political system. According to their About section:

ThisNation.com is a repository of basic information, resources and historical documents related to American Government and Politics. Our primary goal is to promote more effective participation in the American political system by providing factual, non-partisan information about government and politics in the United States of America . 

There are also a variety of books that break down the subject:

  • Politics for Dummies by Ann DeLaney
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to U.S. Government and Politics by Franco Scardino
  • Everything You Should Know About Politics…But Don’t: A Non-Partisan Guide to the Issues that Matter by Jessamyn Conrad
  • How Washington Actually Works for Dummies by Greg Rushford
  • The Everything American Government Book by Nick Ragone
  • The Politics Book by DK
  • Congress for Dummies by David Silverberg and Dennis Hastert
  • U.S. Constitution for Dummies by Michael Ammheim


I’m not saying read them all, but locating one or so would help with building a basic schema of political knowledge.

Check out voter-centric sites.


My two favorites are Project Vote Smart and League of Women Voters.

Intermediate


Maybe you want to wake your significant up in the middle of the night with random political thoughts, or you just want to be able to hold your own around the family dinner table, your workplace or all those wild political parties we're hearing so much about...

Use the Pages and Public Figures feature on Facebook to quickly see posts by pages you have liked.


It’s not ideal, because it shows all of the pages you’ve liked, but utilizing the Pages and Public Figures link along the lefthand side of the desktop version of Facebook can allow you to quickly see posts by those political figures you liked above. On the iTunes app, you can add Pages and Public Figures to your favorite list for easy access.

Use an aggregator service.


Aggregators can allow you to quickly connect with blogs and other sources of information that you use regularly. Personally, I like Feedly, but I’ve also heard good things about Pulse.

Increase your number of sources.


The New York Times, BBC, PBS, CSPAN, NPR, and Alternet are all good sources.

Find podcasts.


I highly recommend NPR’s Politics podcast. It’s a great source for what’s going on now and what it means. Here and Now is another NPR production that works well. Here and Now airs on local public radio stations, but you can also subscribe to it through iTunes and other podcasting apps.

Get involved in local politics.


Attend city or county council meetings, or check in on your local school board. Even if you don't have children, school boards can offer a sort of microcosm of what politics in your area look like.

Advanced


I don't know that I'm here yet myself, but it's where I aspire to be: confidently conversing about politics of most stripes.

Check out GovTrack.Us.


GovTrack pushes to use technology to better understand what Congress is doing, improving transparency and accountability. As they describe themselves:

GovTrack.us tracks the United States Congress and helps Americans understand what is going on in their national legislature.
We publish the status of federal legislation and information about your representative and senators in Congress. Use GovTrack to track bills for updates or get alerts.
We also go beyond the official record with statistical analyses, bill summaries, and other tools to put information in context.
GovTrack was the first to create open data about Congress, and we have successfully lobbied Congress to make more and better legislative information available to the public.

In a related note, many state legislatures (including my own) have full legislative sessions online, so you can see what state politicians are sponsoring and voting for.

See where [some] tax money goes.


You can see where some financial assistance is going, with amounts, by visiting USAspending.gov. It allows you to search by zip code and other options to see what federal dollars are going into the community around you.


Follow the Supreme Court.


There’s been a lot of talk about the Supreme Court, both this year (because of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the current nomination battle between the executive and legislative branches) and in recent years. The best source, in my humble opinion, for following SCOTUS is definitely SCOTUSblog. The blog is run by a team of lawyers and maintains high legal, ethical, and journalistic standards.

See where the money is coming from.


Open Secrets tracks the money pumping into our political system. You can search by politician or lobbyist. They also have lists of interest groups and other resources. There’s also a News & Analysis section that features great information too.

Take a course.


If you have access to iTunes, you have access to iTunes U, which has a variety of free courses available at your fingertips. They have an entire section dedicated to Law & Politics. Right now, they offer courses like American Democracy and Citizenship and Constitutional Law. I’m not saying it will make you an expert (spoiler alert: it won’t) but it’s definitely a resource to look into.

Volunteer.


Volunteer for a campaign. It can be a hot-and-heavy course in what matters to politicians and to their constituents.


*****

This isn't meant to make light of the process of politics and the even more intensive process of understanding them. Indeed, one of my absolute favorite resources is still hitting up my friends and family who are political science majors for their takes.

But it's a start.

We live in an incredible age, with the power of generations of information right at our fingertips. You don't have to be the most informed, no, but there's not really an excuse for knowing nothing about what's going on around us. 

No one will ever understand every nuance or issue, but together, we can be a well-informed body of citizens, able to select strong leaders and hold them accountable to our principles and values.

I promise I won't quiz you, but I hope if there are people out there who feel like the author I mentioned in the introduction, they'll take the time to peruse some of these resources. You never know what you might find.

So, there's my suggestions. What would you suggest?

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