Essay: Politics is a Part of Life — Get Over It

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I sometimes think our notions of democracy in this country are screwed up. We spend tons of time thinking about the election and covering it in the media but if at a party someone gets too "political" or espouses a "cause" of some kind, we move to the other side of the room. 'BEWARE OF ARGUMENTS' (like an angry dog) is the sign hanging on our political door in America.

Why do we need permission to think seriously about politics? Elections happen in seasons in America. We stop what we are doing every four years and think about the politics. Political commercials are meant to intrude and interrupt. The expectation seems to be that politics is not central to our lives. Instead, it is something that is supposed to stay out of the way. We think of freedom this way — our lives are to be unencumbered by government, taxes, civic entanglements. In the American tribe of the individual, where each person is a tribe of opinions aspirations and consumption, freedom is the success of the tribe.

Our politics tend to be framed by how institutions facilitate our personal successes or rescue us from personal desperation. The whole vaguely Republican, pro-business capitalist outlook contains the assumption that individual success is equivalent to civic success. When we get our personal ambitions out of the way only then we look around and see what else there is to do. When we notice our own personal surpluses then it occurs to us to "give back."
The whole vaguely Democratic social contract "social safety-net" notion contains the converse assumption that personal calamity is some indicator of civic responsibility. Individual setbacks lead us to wonder what program is in place to soften our landing, what broader civic responsibility is there to help us in times of extreme need, what social entitlement is triggered by our individual setback. Both of these assumptions have led to massive income inequality and huge federal deficits. If civic involvement isn’t built into our discourse and personal identity then it simply isn’t a priority and our society reflects that pretty well right now.

Is there no middle ground? I often yearn for an idea of civic engagement that is more integrated with our lives. I wonder about an American democracy where elections do not constitute some special season but are a mere episode in a long arc where Americans have vastly more opportunities to express their views and make choices. I had just this yearning as I listened to the voters we brought together this week on The Takeaway. They were different people with different opinions from different backgrounds but who came together because we asked them to talk about the election.

What we discovered was just how much they valued being given permission to talk about politics in a meaningful way. They needed no permission from us in any explicit sense, but they would have never had this discussion if we hadn’t made it happen. As part of the media we are hungry for something to fill out next day’s show. Lots of shows talk to voters. There was something about this event that said something bigger than simply our radio program, bigger than the people who participated and their important Lake County community that has accurately predicted how Ohio will vote for President since 1960, something even bigger than the election.  

Here the conversation wove from the personal to the political, from the national to the local. The more people talked the more they saw the relevance of politics in their lives and the more they saw the importance of their votes in the fate of the nation. For me, watching it all over the course of about three hours, there was a relief in hearing and seeing people engaged in their political lives without having to drop what they were doing, or people talking politics without being pundits or full-time activists.
This was not the "real-person" voice here. This was real Americans giving themselves permission to express their political selves outside of delivering a vote or some cash or 90 seconds of attention to a campaign commercial before going back to their Normal Lives.

What they learned and we learned once again is that politics and life go together, being political is normal, not some weird obsession, and that perhaps in America if more people believed that the more chance there might be for cooperation and the building of collective good. After we left our voters signed up for Twitter, exchanged emails, and fired off messages about what they had heard listening to The Takeaway.
They mentioned things they had wished they had said when we were recording. They acted and seemed engaged and proud of being political. We were proud we could have been even a little part of that. Go meet our Ohioans, listen to their voices, see their faces and see if you don’t agree. If you don’t, that’s okay. But you have no excuse for not telling us about that… right? You know how to reach us.