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.
Last but not least, here are two magical PDFs I came across. These list the direct phone numbers for everyone in Congress. Bam!
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.
Participated in the
Fix It! Contest