I was sitting at a cafe in Southern Tennessee, chatting with a woman who would soon become a friend. She was a writer and a mom and she was deeply interested in finding out how she could help eliminate toxic chemicals from consumer products.
She asked good questions, was interested in the work I was doing in DC, and she asked how she could help the cause. I told her that meeting with elected officials was one of the most high-impact ways she could help and I would like to work with her to lead such a meeting in her hometown. She said she was open to the idea, but leaned in and with a very serious tone replied,
You should know, I’m not an environmental activist.”
I smiled and told her I understood.
I’ve had more interactions like this than I would like to admit. What’s so wrong with being an activist, if the core of it is about being active about an issue you care about? And what’s so wrong about being “political”?
Coming off the heels of a nasty election, I understand why people don’t like politics or being perceived as political, but I think there is a better way moving forward. In a country that was built on democracy, doesn’t it seem odd that we fear being labeled in terms that show that we care about defending and fighting for democracy?
As a country that deeply respects our veterans (myself included) for fighting to protect our country, I wish that we would equally applaud those that defend democracy from our kitchen tables. Plain and simple, the democratic process demands that we, the people, participate. And that means taking actions that may be perceived as “political”, so are you up for it?
What It Means to Participate in Democracy (hint: beyond the polls)
Participating in our democracy requires action, far beyond heading to the polls every four years. In order for a functioning democracy we need to be active in elections big and small, vote in primaries, non-presidential elections, research candidates running for county and state offices and then…just then…our real work begins.
After we have elections we must call and email our elected officials to let them know about the issues we care about. Based but endless conversations I have had with friends who work on Capitol Hill, it takes as few as ten phone calls a week to get an issue on the radar of your elected officials. Only TEN!
How to Have a Political Conversation
Allow Ourselves to Disagree
In other developed democracies, it’s okay to debate politics with family members, friends and colleagues. They see it as a natural way to challenge their own views and also allow others to see their perspective. And at the end of the conversation each party may still disagree, but they take it in stride. How can we avoid becoming political ideologues (robots) without a healthy debate now and then?
Don’t Be Righteous
This is probably the biggest turn off of all, by presenting your perspective as the only moral high ground, you immediately alienate your audience.
It’s amazing how a simple smile can help set the tone for a productive conversation.
Consider Your Tone
I think coming across as aggressive in political discussions only hurts your case. I have learned this the hard way when I fought with my parents about their politics in college. Angry tones don’t work.
Listen With An Open Mind
The person you may be talking to could actually help change your mind if you listen. If you fundamentally disagree, listening will help you sharpen your argument.
Avoid Blindly Defending Your Political Party
A college professor taught me the danger in blindly agreeing with any political party. Think critically, form an opinion, admit when your party isn’t doing something you don’t agree with, and be vocal about holding their feet to the fire!
Know When to Stop
There comes a time when you need to tap out of the discussion, simply smile and say something like “This may be something that we may have to agree to disagree. I appreciate the rich dialogue. Would you like another beer?”
I’m asking all of you to think twice about judging someone for posting something political on Facebook, joining a peaceful protest, or asking you who to join them in voting in an off year election.
Let’s take pride in being political, in advocating for the issues and people we care about, and let us view this political behavior as being a proud patriot.