Introduction: Fix a Dented Democracy
Lady Liberty's been looking a little queasy lately. In fact, she might even be running a fever! Of course, some will say she's doing just fine, thank you very much. Other people think maybe she's got a case of the sniffles. And still others are certain she's nearly ready for life support.
No matter what your political leanings happen to be, perhaps most folks living in the U.S. at the moment can agree that:
- We haven't been getting along very well lately.
- There is always room for improvement in the U.S. at the local, state, and federal levels.
- Our elected leaders sometimes lose sight of the fact that they're supposed to be representing the interests of regular people like you and me.
Whether it feels like our democracy simply has a few dings to smooth out or it's very nearly totaled, I hope you'll find some value in this Instructable which mostly covers:
- being nice even when other people are mean
- lots of stuff about voting
- following the money
- getting in touch with the People In Charge
One more thing: I am no expert political operative. Rather, I'm a researcher and writer who created this Instructable with good intentions and a non-partisan spirit.
Step 1: Be Kind—Even When Other People Aren't
Full disclosure: if I leaned any more to the left, I'd fall over! Meanwhile, my very best friend voted for President Trump and is plenty happy with his choice. Even so, we get along famously. (It is possible!) Sometimes we even talk politics, but I digress...
Think of someone you really, really admire and respect. They might be alive or dead. They could be a relative, a friend, a colleague, or someone famous. They could be supernatural. A higher power. It could be God or a god. Essentially, someone who makes you want to be your best self.
In my case, I think about my grandparents—all gone now. They were good people who lived with integrity. I think about my parents, too. In moments when I am tempted to be petty or nasty—especially regarding politics for some reason—I try instead to focus on honoring the memory of my dead relatives and my (yay!-still-living) parents by trying to be my best self.
Not only did my grandparents know how to kill a chicken with a broomstick, make pickles from scratch, and grow just about anything, but they also lived by some familiar axioms, including:
Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
A meal for one is enough for two.
Don't wrestle with pigs. You just get muddy, and the pig likes it.
Kill 'em with kindness!
We'll have to agree to disagree.
Treat others like you would want to be treated.
It seems easier than ever to get sucked into political shouting matches—particularly with strangers online. Maybe we feel there is no shared, common ground. Or we simply deem them unworthy of our respect. (For my part, I don't always succeed at being kind, but, with practice, I am getting better.)
We can show others kindness—or at least some civility—even when we'd rather not. One neat trick: pretend you are disagreeing with that someone you thought of earlier. The one you really admire and respect. You wouldn't say, “Gandhi, man, you are full of $#!%!” (At least I hope you wouldn't!)
We can disagree with others' ideas without debasing them—or ourselves—in the process. And who knows? If enough people across the political spectrum really start to work at this, maybe the country wouldn't feel quite so divided.
Step 2: Make Sure You're Registered and Go Vote!
Tuesday, November 6th is THE day to vote in the 2018 Midterms. Let's say you've never voted before or you think your vote doesn't really matter. For what it's worth, it matters to me that you go and vote. Voting is one way to exercise your political will (but, as you will see a little later, it is not the only one!)
Maybe you don't really like any of the candidates? (In that case, maybe you should consider running for office yourself one day!) Maybe you have a felony on your record, so you think you can't vote? That's not necessarily the case. You can check here to find out for sure. Or maybe getting to the polls is just a real hardship for you. You may be able to vote by absentee ballot. (Look for your state in the links below to learn more about those deadlines and processes.) Also, there is special voter information for people serving in the military.
OK. So, you are eligible to vote if:
- You are a U.S. citizen (either by birth or naturalization.)
- You meet your state's residency requirements.
- You are at least 18. (In some places, 17-year-olds can register, if they'll be 18 in time for the general election. Check the different states' age requirements here.)
I didn't know this, but people living in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands do not have voting rights.
Now, just because you are eligible to vote, doesn't mean you will be able to. You must be registered—usually in advance. What's more, you may think you are registered, but I strongly recommend you check with your state to make sure. Some states have been purging voters from their rolls for a variety of reasons. It would be a shame to get all the way to your polling place, only to find that this happened to you. Not cool!
Here's general voter information, registration deadlines, absentee ballot info, etc. for each state:
If you haven't really been keeping up with who's-running-for-what, that's OK. There's time to familiarize yourself with the different political races going on. Turns out, there are lots of sample ballot tools available. Your state might even have one. Ballotpedia has its own sample ballot tool as well. You just put in your mailing address—there is a place for your email, but it works even if you don't put that in—and you should be able to see your sample ballot.
And, if you just aren't sure about a particular race, it's OK to leave that one blank. Just voting in some of the races is better than not voting at all.
Say you've made sure you're eligible to vote, you checked on your registration, and you're up on whatever your state's requirements might be, but then you get to your correct polling place and someone there gives you the runaround. Also not cool. It is against the law to intimidate voters, and you have rights in this regard. (By the way, if you want to geek out on the federal Voting And Elections laws, look up Title 52. You can also read up on the history of the Voting Rights Act.)
If you need to, you can file an official voting rights complaint with the Department of Justice. They also have an online form you can complete. (Hopefully, you won't need that stuff though!)
Step 3: Change Your (Media) Diet
Although it would probably keep a person alive, a diet of nothing but baked potatoes and chocolate ice cream isn't exactly healthy. Similarly, I think of the news diet that I “consume” as food for my brain. And, like endless baked potatoes, a diet of news from just one source isn't necessarily “healthy” for one's mind or for our democracy.
Ideally, it's best to look at primary sources and judge events for yourself whenever possible. That might mean watching live political events on CSPAN or reading proposed bills going through the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate. There are “daily digests” of these activities or you can look at their activities by date. You can search for specific topics, too.
If you are like most people, though, you may not have tons of time to spend looking through primary sources on your own. Long-form, print publications like newspapers and magazines are the next best thing, in my opinion. And then comes news radio—notice I said news radio and not talk radio. As for most TV “news”? Like a lot of “talk” radio, much political content on television seems to be heavy on opinion as well as analysis of politicians' tactics, personality traits, etc. As such, television can be rather light on actual, straight news. What's more, the format doesn't necessarily lend itself to in-depth coverage—or coverage of more than a few stories per broadcast.
(It's only fair that I note that there are recent academic papers like this one that suggest changes in some broadcast TV programming and the availability of newspapers online have brought TV and digital media more in line with the quality and quantity of straight news coverage that print affords. Nevertheless, I still have a soft spot for real print!)
Now, if you're not a regular print reader, you can go to your local library and peruse different magazines and newspapers to see what they say about the same or similar political subjects. If you can, add in some different newspapers and magazines from other countries to see how they frame U.S. politics. The Guardian is one to try or maybe The Times (UK).
And if you definitely don't have time to read newspapers in print or online, but you do have a smartphone or tablet that can run apps, there are some that read newspaper articles to you—kind of like an audio book. One of these is called Newsbeat, but I haven't tried it.
Step 4: Follow the Money
I used to wonder what motivates my elected representatives to do some of the weird things they do. Then I started looking into their campaign donors and some things became a little clearer to me.
Want to see who is influencing federal candidates? You can search here for that. There are separate links to search presidential races, to search House of Representatives races, and to search Senate races. You can search by person or group that gave money to a candidate or search by the name of candidates who received money.
And on the state level, you can also check to see who gets money from groups like Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, or, say, the Cloud Appreciation Society. Incidentally, each state has its own separate campaign finance laws and donation limits. You can learn more about the differences here. And what follows are links to all the individual states and their campaign finance search portals. (You're welcome!)
Step 5: Get in Touch With the People in Charge
Remember in the beginning when I said voting is just one way to exercise your rights in our democratic republic? I cannot recommend enough that you call your senators and representatives to give them a piece of your mind.
If you are not sure, you can check here to see who represents you in the United States House of Representatives and you can look here to see who represents you in the United States Senate.
Here is a full list of everyone in the House by state and here are all of the U.S. senators.
Last but not least, here are two magical PDFs I came across. These list the direct phone numbers for everyone in Congress. Bam!
DIRECT PHONE NUMBERS FOR EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE
DIRECT PHONE NUMBERS FOR EVERYONE IN THE SENATE
You can contact the People in Charge as often as you want. Call them. Email them. Send them snail-mail. Try a carrier pigeon maybe! The truth is, they work for YOU. And me. Can't hurt to remind them of that from time to time, right?
THANK YOU AND SPEAKING OF VOTING...
If you made it this far, thanks for reading (or skimming!) If you found any value here, I hope you will vote for this Instructable, as it is my entry in the "Fix It" contest. Of all the things that could use some repairs, I can't think of much that's more important than our country and the way we relate to our fellow citizens.
Statue of Liberty image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Television icon used in "Media Diet" section designed by Rawpixel.com and available via Freepik.com.
Participated in the
Fix It! Contest
1 year ago
Hi Susan, I’m a British reader so some specifics of the content in your excellent article don’t quite work for me, but two of my sons live in the US and it all certainly applies to them.
In fact, many of the actual principles that you’ve demonstrated here will apply to us in the UK because, as you may be aware, social cohesion in the UK has slipped badly over a similar time period that it has in the US.
This is such a good Instructable. I’ve seen nothing like it before, and I applaud you for your initiative.
Reply 1 year ago
Thank you so much for taking time to look all of this over and write me your comment. Maybe someday I will update it, as I made it a few years ago. It seemed to get lost amongst all of the other Instructables when I originally published it. I had wished things would get better and we would be less likely to need any of this info. But wishes aren't so useful. I guess it is up to each of us to work at making things better. Anyway, it was nice to hear your perspective.
4 years ago
In my opinion, there is no hope for fixing America with laws and limits. You can't make somebody a better person by regulating them, and if you boil the logic down, you realize that all of mankind's problems result from its fallen nature, otherwise known as bad people wanting to do bad things. This country needs Jesus. Not a god, but GOD. And until the country as a whole lays down its pride and acknowledges this, we will continue to suffer. And btw, Lady Liberty does indeed need life support, and the Bible is the best life support there is.
Reply 4 years ago
One of the key argument here, concerning understanding the world we live in, is to rely on DIVERSE sources of informations, opinions and even philosophies.
Placing ONE book over all others is therefore the exact opposite of enlightenment.
Reply 4 years ago
While there is logic in the POV that diversity of opinions is healthy, and in a lot of situations it is, I have to respectfully disagree with you. I believe in absolute truth laid down by the God of the Bible. Having a boatload (no pun intended) of opinions does not mean that you have the truth. There is only one truth, and that means that only a select few have something close to it. I do not look down on people of other religions in superiority, but with compassion and sorrow. They are lost and chasing what they think is happiness but is actually a dead end that will get them nowhere but into hell (I'm sorry, but it's true). It's my mission to get as many people as I can to see the light I see and make their own choice whether or not to follow it. God save America.
Reply 2 years ago
Are you for real ?
Reply 4 years ago
Thank you for taking the time to look at my Instructable and for sharing your thoughts. Here's hoping Lady Liberty becomes stronger and healthier in the coming years! Wishing you well, too! :-)
2 years ago on Step 5
Thanks for writing this Instructable! Two ideas I've been thinking about that will help bring the temperature down when it comes to political "discussions":
1. If a discussion gets too hot, mention that every so often, one of the parties in our two-party system wanders away from its voter base. A new party emerges, and one of the older parties dies out. This happened last time when Abraham Lincoln, the first candidate of the new Republican party became president, and the Whig party died away. Right now, both parties seem to be beholden to special interests more than actual citizens. If it starts to turn into an argument about which party should die out, defuse and redirect -- say, "I don't think it matters; if one party goes kaput, it hopefully would be replaced by a party similar to it, only more centrist." Encourage a discussion about what policies you would both like to see in a new emergent party.
2. For those who dare: If you find yourself on the opposite side of the political spectrum someone you really do love, deep down (say, a sibling), and they are starting to look at you like you're crazy, before things get too heated, suggest comparing your news feeds. (I said, if you dare. Some of my friends say this would be impossible, but I know I could do this with my sisters, if they were visiting in person). As you scroll through emailed news feeds, pinterest home feeds, etc, don't debate any "facts" that you see mentioned there! Instead, keep mentioning that you know your loved one is smart; remind them of good decisions they've made in the past; compliment them on canny things they've done that you admire. Keep asking, how come there's so little "factual" overlap in the accounts of our news feeds? No wonder we're butting heads -- we are working off of almost entirely different sets of "facts"! Ask, what has happened to journalism? Why is information being delivered to us this way? (You are starting to locate the problem outside of yourselves; not to blame "the media," but maybe you will get some ideas about how to work around this -- this -- "media bias" is not the term I'm looking for -- this propensity for our little electronic devices to reflect ourselves back to ourselves). If you do get any workaround ideas, good heavens, let me know!!! At least, it could give you and your loved one pause; you can slow down, stop arguing, and start mulling over ways to overcome these polarizing forces.
Reply 2 years ago
These are very thoughtful suggestions, indeed! Thank you for sharing them here.
Something else that comes to my mind: wouldn't it be great if, when people are taught to read, they are simultaneously taught about the nuance of words, various word choices, and how those word choices can influence the overall meaning of what they read? That way, maybe they would be able to recognize more neutral, fact-based writing when they see it. On the flip side, they would also be better able to tell if/when the creator of a text was consciously trying to manipulate his or her reader.
4 years ago
While I'm on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, your advice is very good, particularly step 1. People that have forgotten that problems can be solved using civilized discourse simply add to problems rather than solving them. If you don't like the direction the country is going, make constructive suggestions, vote for someone else, run for office yourself (I did), and keep in touch with your elected representatives, whether you agree or disagree with their politics.
President Reagan inspired many Democrats to vote for him because he communicated well and politely with members of both parties. Anyone who truly cares about the country will not play partisan games and instead vote the issues, regardless of party.
Granted, Trump is no Reagan, but I think he does care about America and wants the best for her. Toes are getting stepped on because many (most?) politicians care more about self-aggrandizement than being public servants.
Reply 4 years ago
Thank you for adding your comment! That we share common ground about the need for civilized discourse and constructive suggestions does my heart a lot of good.
You know, sometimes I wonder if politicians initially start out with intentions to serve the public good, but then something goes off the rails. Or maybe instead the people who are drawn to politics are naturally already self-aggrandizing and don't really care all that much about serving the public?... I have no idea. But I sure do wish things would change such that Democrats, Republicans, Independents, etc. showed more humility, thoughtfulness, and responsiveness to all of the different walks of life they are supposed to be serving. I guess a girl can dream, right? ;-)
Thanks again for weighing in here. It means a lot to me!
Reply 4 years ago
I think we get both kinds of politicians; The self-aggrandizing type and the type that runs off the rails because the power (and the money! Especially the money) goes to their heads. There are many things not to like about Donald Trump, but one likeable thing is he's not a politician. That sometimes means he's not polite (The two words come from the same root), but it also means he's not interested in playing the political "game."
We could solve so many problems if people would just thoughtfully debate instead of shouting at each other. for instance:
I believe people have the right to be armed for self-defense. Change my mind! or,
I think abortion is an acceptable method of birth control (not my personal stance). Change my mind!
In other words, if you can give me a good reason to change my views, I may not change them, but I will at least consider what you have to say. I will also politely explain why I hold the viewpoint I do. The problem with so many (particularly young) people is they've been taught a viewpoint but they've never thought out why they should hold such a view.
As the saying goes, "A conservative is a liberal wo's been mugged."
Reply 4 years ago
Agreed! Also, I love looking at word roots. How did polite and politician escape me until now?! (And, oh my goodness, could "polite" and "politician" be any more distant than they've become over the last several decades?...)
Tip 4 years ago
Go to county/parish office and volunteer to be an election judge. You learn how elections work. You get to know(over many elections) who are the people who show up in the rain and dark; or rush in after a long day at work-- just before polling closes to excercise their duty to vote. And you have sit next to "the opposite side" all day long and learn about what they care about. I have learned those people are pretty nice guys.
Our county signs up high school students as student judges so young people can roll up their sleeves and see why this country is worth fighting for.
In order for our system to work, everyone needs to pitch in and work! And please remember to vote.
Reply 4 years ago
What a great tip! Thanks so much for sharing this information. I especially appreciate that younger people can get involved in the process early. :-)
Reply 4 years ago
I did this when I was an undergrad and it was a lot of fun. Also, if you're concerned about voter intimidation or voter fraud, this is the place to be to help make sure neither happens. This is a good place to start and links to information about each state's requirements: https://www.eac.gov/voters/become-a-poll-worker/
Reply 4 years ago
Sweet!!! Thank you so much for adding that link and mentioning your experience. I really do appreciate it. :-)
4 years ago
Probably one of the best « fixing » instructable i read so far.
The funny thing is ... if everyone applied these criteria before choosing their elected representatives, there would hardly be any debate !
Flame wars over politics are always borne out of pré-conceptions from people who disregard searching for first-hand information.
I fear, however, that your brilliant and thorough set of arguments will only convince those who are already convinced.
But even the slightest chance at changing people’s attitude towards information and politics is worth an attempt.
Thank you for trying.
Reply 4 years ago
Thank you for your very kind comments. For this Instructable, I especially had in mind people who feel confused by the whole process and maybe don't know where to begin, as well as anyone who has ever wondered what motivates their own representatives and how they can communicate directly with the powers that be--even between elections. Hopefully, some people will find it helpful!?
4 years ago
Great job! This information is much needed for everyone to know what is happening in our current political climate and what we need to do. Very well written. Hope you win!