Since the 2016 presidential election, politics in America have felt more partisan than ever before. Even the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a partisan issue as only 37% of Republicans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in June said the pandemic was a very big problem for the United States, compared with 76% of Democrats surveyed.
The intense political polarization has led some Americans to take a step back, evading discussing political issues or ignoring politics altogether. This becomes an even bigger issue today because people have more control over the kind of information they are exposed to. If they don’t subscribe to a certain viewpoint, they specifically choose to gain their news from sources they know lean more to their political preferences.
Yet, ignoring political issues because the conversations are too uncomfortable or difficult to have, does not mean they simply disappear from existence. It certainly doesn’t mean political issues get solved.
This year has shown many Americans that we cannot simply standby or close our eyes when issues we might not want to deal with come to fruition. From racial inequality, protests, to wildfires on the West Coast, Americans have been forced to open their eyes and realize just how far their inaction or selective ignorance has gone. As recent events have shown, this strategy only allows the issue to continue on, causing problems within future policies and relations in the country.
But, what can you do to be a more responsible citizen?
It’s not enough to simply acknowledge you have a problem. You must also stay informed and educate yourself on social, economic and political issues as well as political candidates’ campaign platforms to truly be a responsible citizen. Taking this approach allows you to make educated decisions when you vote, pushing you to the polls and picking a candidate to support based on this newfound information you have discovered and interpreted.
By taking the time to investigate a candidate’s platform, you are able to learn what issues are important to them. You are also able to learn what the individual stands for and what they want to see alter/keep if they are elected to office.
If the political candidate you are interested in supporting has previously served in a public office, you may want to also look at their track record on issues they say they support. If the candidate hasn’t previously held such a position, consider looking into their professional background before they decided to run for office.
Taking this initiative can help you gain a better understanding of the true actions of the candidate. If environmental issues are very important to you, then you might not want to vote for a candidate who says they want to address climate change but really has had ties with oil companies. Similarly, you might not want to vote for a candidate who says they’ll work towards reforming the criminal justice system if they have a history of contributing to the problem.
You should also take the time to gain a better understanding of the debate surrounding an issue you are passionate about. To do this, consider signing up for email newsletters from news organizations with different political leanings so you can gain a fuller picture of the issue. There are also several podcasts that look at the political environment from multiple ideological perspectives.
To get you started, consider listening to Pantsuit Politics, KCRW’s Left, Right & Center or the New York Time’s The Argument podcasts to inform yourself about how important issues are perceived differently across the political spectrum.
Evaluate Your Information
With the rampant spread of “fake news” stories today, misinformation is a serious issue you should be concerned about when educating yourself about political issues.
In a 2017 Vox Media interview, political scientist Emily Thorson argued that “misinformation is most dangerous when it causes people to change their behavior.” It has the ability to confuse the American public when it comes to important policies or issues they might not have a clear opinion or understanding of.
That’s why it’s important to evaluate any information you gather about current political issues. Ask yourself whether or not the information you’ve gathered has come from a credible news source. What facts do they use to support their argument? What is the known bias of this media organization? What are other media organizations take on the issue?
Take Action and Vote
Lastly, remember to vote! The most influential way you as a citizen can influence your government is to vote for the people you want to represent your interests.
Unfortunately, local and state elections usually do not have as high of a profile or voter turnout as presidential elections. In fact, Portland State University’s 2016 research project found that “in most cities, few people vote in mayoral elections, and those who do vote tend to be older and more affluent than the population at large and less likely to be people of color.”
However, these can be some of the most important elections for your community. By participating in local and state elections, you are able to make small changes in your own community to make your local leadership more reflective of your values and interests. You can influence how your local criminal justice system functions through the judges you elect to office. You can also make sure your community has effective leadership in times of crisis through the mayors your elect. From the presidential election to local and state elections, make sure you register to vote and either show up at the polls or mail in a ballot this November.