The 2012 electoral season has nearly reached its zenith. Soon media outlets will end the poll analysis and “truth tests” and stop paying close attention to how citizens feel about the options before them.
This predictable tide of media attention to civic opinion comes from the fact that regular people are perceived to be magically endowed with political power for a brief window every two years in November. We know this isn’t really the case. To demonstrate this, though, we have to reclaim the meaning of “politics” to include far more than just voting.
We have to understand that being informed, expressing opinions and engaging with public decision-making should be a regular part of our lives.
How do we ensure that our political participation continues past elections and becomes an everyday practice?
Look on the bright side
We’ve heard a lot about how damaging partisanship has become to our democratic processes, particularly in the U.S. Congress. However, there are some advantages to a heavily partisan environment, including increased competitiveness in elections.
Increased competition leads to greater media attention and increased interest among people who might not otherwise care. People like to feel like their involvement makes a difference; we may be more likely to feel that sense of reward when we have distinct and energized “teams” we can help to put ahead. Where partisanship piques political interest, it offers a gateway to increased involvement.
Stay in touch
What is more likely to be damaging is when we become isolated from anyone but our “team” and fail to encounter real people who think differently from us. Mainers have a real advantage here. We live in a place with a 300-year-old tradition of town meetings — a traditional form of government still in use in most Maine towns. Go to your town meeting; attend a town council, a school board meeting, a public hearing.
When meeting in person, people encounter one another and viscerally understand that those holding opposing opinions are not brainless monsters but just human beings with different concerns. This idea that interacting with different people helps temper our opinions — called the “contact hypothesis” — is particularly important for improving positivity in our communities.
When we engage different points of view in our communities to develop flexible, responsive policy, not only are we happier but everyone gets at least some of what they want.
Your right to know
In an era where electronic communication makes the project of presenting public information substantially cheaper and easier, there are few good excuses for any government’s lack of transparency. The Center for Public Integrity’s recent report on state corruption risk rightly lambastes Maine’s government for not making its officially public records practically accessible to the public. We are moving in the right direction with the new funding of a public access ombudsman to advocate for citizens seeking specific public records.
However, even if you know you want to learn more about how our public programs are doing, it’s difficult to submit an information request when you don’t know what to request. Here, we must take some of the responsibility and ask more from our governments. In order for our state agencies and local governments to provide information effectively, they must hear about what interests us.
If you feel you’re not being properly heard, engage your state representative, and harness the power of constituent service.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the newspaper is your best bet for comprehensive coverage of local politics. Though two-thirds of the American public rely on television for news, the limited amount of information in the average 90-second news story leaves TV news audiences with lower levels of political knowledge than newspaper readers. Less information leads to lower levels of political confidence, interest and efficacy.
Economist Matthew Gentzkow has demonstrated how U.S. voter participation dropped in places where television was introduced relative to locations where people continued to have only newspapers. Other scholars have shown that larger television markets, which focus less on local races, lead to lower levels of voter turnout. Keep reading your paper to stay involved.
The rush of the election season is exhilarating and overwhelming. When this game is over, though, there’s no need to pick up your ball and go home. Elections come and elections go, but political participation — getting involved, being informed, helping to find good solutions to public problems — is a power we can all do more to reclaim in everyday life.
Emily Shaw is an assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville where she focuses on state and local politics. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.