“Our most cherished moment of democratic citizenship comes when we leave the house once in four years to choose between two mediocre white Anglo-Saxon males who have been trundled out by political caucuses, million-dollar primaries and managed conventions for the rigged multiple-choice test we call an election.”
—Howard Zinn (1)
Historian Howard Zinn’s famous quote from 1976 about voting in America is dripping with sarcasm and frustration. One can hardly blame him, for elections in America are very stage-managed affairs that barely ask Americans to get off their asses to cast a vote for one of two usually uninspiring options. For most voters, elections are passive, momentary experiences—infused with a horserace ethos devoid of real issue substance—and Zinn is right to regret that we hold elections up as vaunted symbols of how democratic we are. And yet, elections do matter. Ask an ordinary Republican if elections matter during a two-term Democratic Republican president’s administration. Ask an ordinary Democrat if elections matter after a long run of Republican majority rule in Congress.
Let’s assume that you, too, are frustrated with the idea that voting in a federal election every two years is the apotheosis of your political behavior. Good! Let’s get a little prescriptive in this chapter. If you want to participate more in the political process, there are a number of things you can do. Let’s organize them by ascending effort-level.
The Internet has allowed the birth of something we never used to have as an option for political participation. It goes by two names and it’s difficult to pick between clicktivism and slacktivism, but we’ll go with the latter. Slacktivism is a portmanteau. How’s that for a word? It means that it is a new word created by smushing together two previously existing words—in this case slacker and activism. The Cambridge Dictionary defines slacktivism as “activity that uses the Internet to support political or social causes in a way that does not need much effort, for example by creating or signing online petitions.” (2) An organization or your friend sends you an online petition for a cause that you support and you click “yes” on it. It doesn’t take any effort. In other cases, organizations will solicit your help in a letter-writing campaign. They’ve prewritten the letter, so all you have to do is click on a link and provide some basic information; the organization then directs thousands of these letters to the targeted politicians. Slacktivism feels good, because you get to add your voice to potentially thousands of other people whom you’ve never met.
It’s unclear whether slacktivism actually produces political change. Part of the problem is that the Internet and social media have sorted people into like-minded groups who speak to each other, share news stories of interest to each other, and serve as the same insular audience for online petitions and boycott drives. Social media algorithms are designed to give you more of what you like, based on the pages you’ve liked, your searches, with whom you are friends, and what their interests are. (3) Thus, there is a preaching to the choir effect in slacktivism, whereby people can sign petitions for issues on which they already have a firm stance and can express outrage over politicians they already dislike. It may feel good, but slacktivism is important only if it results in new action on the part of people who weren’t already engaged with a particular issue. Unfortunately, business scholars have suggested that slacktivism “does not lead to increased meaningful support for social causes.” (4) What is the point if this sort of action doesn’t change minds, get people to the polls, win elections, or implement policies? This is not an argument for not participating in slacktivism. Rather, it’s an argument that slacktivism without further action is pointless.
This is not to argue that social media isn’t politically relevant. Indeed, many of the forms of political behavior described here—from demonstrating to organizing—are facilitated by social media tools.
Moderately Active Forms of Political Participation
Here’s an old but potentially important political act: write your elected officials. This is different from clicking on a link so that some organization can send a form letter to a representative or senator or the president. Take the time to write an actual letter. Look at the website for your Congress members and find the contact form, which will allow you to paste your text and submit your letter. To be sure, your letter is unlikely to be read by your congressmen, but staff will read it and may share some samples with their boss. Much more likely is that they will provide the senator or representative with a correspondence summary on particular issues—how many letters received, on what side of the issue, etc.
Tips on writing to an elected official:
- Keep it brief. Letters should never be longer than one page and should be limited to one issue. Legislative aides read many letters on many issues in a day, so your letter should be as concise as possible.
- State Who You Are and What You Want Up Front. Tell your legislators in the first paragraph that you are a constituent and identify the issue about which you are writing. If your letter pertains to specific legislation, identify the legislation by its bill number, e.g. H.R. ____ or S. _____.
- Hit your three most important points. Choose and flesh out the three strongest points that will be most effective in persuading legislators to support your position.
- Personalize your letter. Tell your elected official why this legislation matters in his community or state. If you have one, include a personal story that shows how this issue affects you and your family. A constituent’s personal story can be the very persuasive as your legislator shapes his or her position.
- Personalize your relationship. Tell your elected official or his staff if you have you ever voted for this elected official or contributed time or money to his or her campaign. Are you familiar with her through any business or personal relationship? If so, The closer your legislator feels to you, the more powerful your argument is likely to be.
- Be courteous, to the point, and firm. Take a firm position. Remember that often your elected official may not know more about the issue than you do. (5)
- Spell-check your letter before sending it. The reasons here are obvious.
Keep your word processor handy; we’re not done with writing. You can also write for publication in online news and opinion sites or other political blogs. Writing for publication reaches people across a broader political spectrum than merely sharing with your friends on social media. While competition is stiff, don’t be discouraged to submit an op-ed in national publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, it’s very worth trying. But your odds are greater at local and regional newspapers and political sites.
Here are some of Duke University’s tips for effective op-ed pieces:
- Keep it short. Target length is about 750 words.
- Make one central point. Don’t address several issues in the op-ed. “Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you’re trying to cover too much.”
- Write one sentence that strongly addresses your central point. Make this be the first sentence or two. “You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn’t ‘clear your throat’ with a witticism or historical aside. Get to the point and convince the reader that it’s worth his or her valuable time to continue.”
- Tell readers why they should care. “Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: ‘So what? Who cares?’ Will your suggestions help reduce readers’ taxes? Protect them from disease? Make their children happier? Explain why.
- Offer specific recommendations. “How exactly should your state protect its environment, or the White House change its foreign policy, or parents choose healthier foods for their children? You’ll need to do more than call for ‘more research!’ or suggest that opposing parties work out their differences.”
- Use the active voice. “Don’t write: ‘It is hoped that [or: One would hope that] the government will …’ Instead, say ‘I hope the government will …’ Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It’s easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.”
- Showing is better than discussing. “We humans remember colorful details better than dry facts. When writing an op-ed article, therefore, look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.”
- Acknowledge the other side. “Op-ed authors sometimes make the mistake of piling on one reason after another why they’re right and their opponents are wrong. Opinions that acknowledge the ways in which their opponents are right come across as more credible and balanced. When you see experienced op-ed authors saying ‘to be sure,’ that’s what they’re doing.”
- Make your ending a winner. “In addition to having a strong opening paragraph to hook readers, it’s also important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. That’s because many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening, and then read the final paragraph and byline.” (6)
Another moderately active form of political participation is to attend a demonstration for a cause in which you believe. Political demonstrations’ effects range from inconsequential to earth shaking. A good demonstration broadly raises the publics’ awareness of a cause, making the news and bringing the issue to people who may never have considered that the issue was even a problem. When thousands or tens of thousands or millions of people gather in one location, or in cities and towns across the country or world, that tells other people and politicians that the issue is salient. For every person who attends the demonstration, typically there are many more who think the same way. Politicians pay attention to that show of support. Consider the historical significance of the 1963 March on Washington, the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the 1989 Berlin Wall Protests, the 1980s and 1990s ACT UP AIDS awareness and action demonstrations, the 2003 Iraq War protests, the 2017 Women’s March, and the 2017 People’s Climate March.
Another thing you can do is attend local meetings with your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators. Meetings with constituent groups can have a significant impact on legislators. Former U.S. congressional staffer Bradford Fitch suggests these effective meeting tips:
- Go early and connect with staff. Building relationships with staff in state legislative offices is an important advocacy strategy.
- Bring talking points. If you get a turn at the microphone, you want to be ready to make an important point in 30 seconds or less. Be ready to talk about several points, in case someone has already made a good point and you don’t want to go over that ground again.
- Bring a friend or a dozen friends. It is powerful to see many people all carrying signs and wanting to talk about a salient issue at a local meeting.
- Be polite. Being uncivil or rowdy or disrespectful undercuts your message. Why should the politician listen to you? (7)
There are several types of these meetings. A townhall meeting is an open forum where lawmakers give a speech and answer questions from the audience. A tele-townhall meeting is an online or conference call meeting, usually with more restricted participation. Beware of politicians who only hold tele-townhall meetings, because that’s a good sign that they are afraid to fully defend their positions to their constituents. Check your politician’s website for information about upcoming meetings or call the staff in the local office. The Townhall Project—whose motto is “Show Up. Speak Out”—does a good job connecting you with these events and keeping track of those members of Congress who are choosing not to meet with their constituents. In those cases, the Townhall Project encourages you to organize an empty chair townhall meeting and invite your member of Congress to fill that chair. If they don’t come, have the meeting anyway and educate the attendees about the congressman’s voting record.
Active Forms of Political Participation
A great form of political participation is to organize, organize, organize! It’s very easy in American society to think of yourself as an isolated individual, powerless in the face of larger forces that have more money and better access than you can imagine. The only way to combat that feeling is to get together with like-minded people and organize yourselves into something that can exert more influence. Join an already existing organization. Get to know people in your local or state chapters, and work on meaningful projects. There are a multitude of state and national-level political organizations working to influence public debate, organize protests, lobby legislators, and make life better for millions of Americans. When you have a little extra money, donate some to that organization. If not, give your time. If an organization doesn’t exist that specifically addresses your political interest, start a new organization. The Internet and social media can be great resources in this regard. This is not slacktivism. This is using the connectivity afforded us by modern technology to organize people and to communicate a common purpose. In 2017, freelance filmmaker Nathan Williams and a small group of organizers and activists started the Townhall Project to help people keep tabs on their elected officials. (8) Katie Fahey, a twenty-six-year-old Michigander and a small group of political novices started Voters Not Politicians, a group that fought gerrymandering in their state. They succeeded in getting a proposal on the ballot to change the state constitution to have a multi-partisan commission draw district lines instead of the legislature. It won with 60 percent of the vote. (9)
Consider how Black Lives Matter started in the wake of police shooting unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, 2014. Journalist Wesley Lowrey described the spontaneous way in which responses to that outrage sparked a new organization:
“Across the country, at a time when Twitter had yet to become the primary platform for news consumption, a thirty-one-year-old activist in Oakland named Alicia Garza penned a Facebook status that soon went viral. She called the status ‘A love letter to black people.’
‘The sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now. and that makes me sick to my stomach. We GOTTA get it together y’all,’ she wrote, ‘stop saying we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life.’
‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter,’ she concluded.
Her friend and fellow activist Patrisse Cullors found poetry in the post, extracted the phrase ‘black lives matter’ and reposted the status. Soon, the two women reached out to a third activist, Opal Tometi, who set up Tumblr and Twitter accounts under the slogan.” (10)
Black Lives Matter became a fully realized organization. It describes itself as “A chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” (11) #Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry across the country during the protests against police violence in 2020.
Political scientist Eitan Hersh points out that one important way to become politically engaged is to leave behind what he calls political hobbyism and get involved with a political party or campaign. Too many people are failing to take this obvious step. Just before an election, he asked a random sample of 1,000 Americans if they thought the Democratic Party or the Republican Party had the right ideas for improving life in the United States. About 30 percent of the respondents said Republicans, about 30 percent said Democrats, 30 percent said neither, and 10 percent said both. He then asked those who did have a party preference whether they were involved in any volunteer work to help advance those ideas. The result? “83 percent of the Democratic supporters said no, they didn’t participate in any volunteering. Ninety percent on the Republican side said no.” (12) Out of his sample of 1,000 Americans, only about 81 people were doing volunteer work with a political party or campaign.
Political parties and campaigns have numerous ways for you to get involved. Don’t leave it to others. Parties have numerous volunteer positions, from certifying the accounts to putting up yard signs, from being county-level leaders to people who staff phone banks. Parties are in particular need of developing a cadre of long-term volunteers who can be counted on to volunteer for a variety of projects and initiatives over time. This develops networks and deepens the party’s resources. Similarly, campaigns are fairly lean and rely on volunteers, although this need is more seasonal than that for parties. Canvassing door to door with a friend is a great way to spend the day, especially in the evening when you gather with others at a pub to give your tired feet a rest.
Finally, you could run for political office. People do it all of the time. Why not you? A clerk at my grocery store ran for U.S. Representative. She lost but told me that it was an extremely valuable and empowering experience. Volunteering for a political party or a campaign is a great way to gain experience before you decide to run for office yourself. In addition, there are websites and books that can guide you through the process of running for local, state, or federal office. (13) Thanks to the Internet, you can even crowdsource funding for your campaign.
What If. . . ?
What if you became an elected official and you passed a law that granted all employees twenty-four hours per year of paid time-off for political activity? This time would be in addition to vacation time and would allow people to vote, participate in demonstrations, volunteer for campaigns, and attend political conventions. Americans have less time away from work than workers in most comparably wealthy countries. (14) Ensuring that we can take time off of work for political activity—but not eat away at our vacation time—would send an important message about what we value.
- Howard Zinn, “Beyond Voting,” HowardZinn.org. October 19, 2016. Originally in the Boston Globein 1976.
- Cambridge Dictionary.
- Melissa Priebe, “The Social Media Sorting Hat: How Algorithms Drive Your Exposure to News and Politics,” The College of Communication Arts and Sciencesat Michigan State University. August 13, 2019.
- Kirk Kristofferson, Katherine White, and John Peloza, “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action,” Journal of Consumer Research. April, 2014. Page 1163.
- No Author, “Tips on Writing to Your Elected Officials.” aclu.org. No date.
- No Author, “Writing Effective Op-Eds,” Duke UniversityCommunicator Resources. No date.
- Bradford Fitch, “How Citizens Can Influence Congress at Townhall Meetings,” Roll Call. June 23, 2015.
- Colby Itkowitz, “Have Something to Say to Your Member of Congress? These Guys are Making It Easier to Find Them,” Washington Post. February 17, 2017.
- Riley Beggin, “Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians to Take Michigan Model National,” Bridge. March 31, 2019.
- Wesley Lowry, “Black Lives Matter: Birth of a Movement,” The Guardian. January 17, 2017.
- Black Lives Matter.
- Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. New York: Scribner, 2020. Page 141.
- Runforoffice.org. June Diane Raphael and Kate Black, Represent: The Women’s Guide to Running for Office and Changing the World. New York: Workman Publishing, 2019. Amanda Litman, Run for Something: A Real-Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. Miles Parks and Chloee Weiner, “How to Run for Office,” NPR. October 17, 2019.
- G. E. Miller, “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World,” 20 Something Finance. January 13, 2020.