I didn’t write a food post on Wednesday because I’ve been writing this one in my head for about three days. I’ve really been focusing on who’s running for election lately and what that means for me as a citizen, and I’ve come to a few realizations. So this week I want to talk about democracy and citizenship. This isn’t going to be thinly veiled stumping for any particular candidate, quite the opposite in fact. So stick with me a bit if you can.
In the sixteen years that I’ve had the responsibility and privilege to vote, I’ve only ever voted once. There have been three federal election years since I turned 18 (I missed the 2000 election by a month since I have a December birthday. I’ll save you doing the math – I’m 33). So in 2004 I voted for someone other than Bush (I don’t even recall who) and more or less blindly nominated other candidates for other roles I didn’t really understand. Despite getting decent grades in high school civics and history classes, I just didn’t get it. And I didn’t understand why it mattered so much. I viewed politics as a giant machine that would keep running, more or less on course, with or without my ill informed punches on a voter card.
To be honest, part of me still feels that way. It is a machine that keeps on running, but it’s hard to ignore that I don’t like the direction it’s moving in anymore. And it’s hard to not notice that a lot of the parts are falling off or wearing down and not getting replaced or fixed… And a few things have changed in my life since I was 21, renting an apartment, going to college and just having a good time. Now I’m married, with a toddler. I’m a home owner who has put down roots in a small town. I have a child in a (fortunately good) public school. I pay more taxes than I ever have in my life. I try to put my money where my mouth is and shop local, and shop small. I try to do the right thing and contribute to my community and not hurt anyone. I don’t always succeed, but I’m always thinking about it, and I’m always trying.
And I’m starting to see why it matters who these politicians are, and what they stand for, and the types of programs and causes that they will fund or build, or turn a blind eye to. It matters to my son’s school, which depends on those dollars. It matters for the public train I take every day to work, and the sidewalks my neighborhood needs, and the fact that the farmer’s market has a place to set up in the square every weekend of the summer. In a small town, it’s pretty easy to know the people I vote into office, and to reap the benefits of the things we as a community work together to bring to fruition. On the other side of the coin, it’s glaringly obvious when we have a problem we haven’t yet solved, or when something gets broken and needs to be fixed. It’s right there in front of our faces, so we make sure we’re educated about those things, and that our town is set up to address them.
In big cities, and on a national scale, this recognition and structure gets a bit diluted. Hands on democracy, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly scale well. As it gets larger, the layers of red tape and paperwork multiply, as do the hands in the pie. Things happen “in Washington” and not a few blocks from home. It gets harder and harder to pay attention, to be invested, and frankly, to care.
But even still, with all of those hang ups, I’m voting in the next election. I’m voting first and foremost because I want to have a say in which people get elected into local office in my town and county. And Illinois is just in a hell of a lot of trouble, so it’s time I stood up and had a say in that. And if I’m going to go that far, I had better get informed about who I’m sending to Congress this year and the person that’s going to have a seat in the Oval Office for the next four years.
I think that you should have a say in that too. We may not agree about which political party or candidate can achieve the things that we think are important, but I would bet that a lot of us share the same ideals and the same basic belief in the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course that’s going to mean many different things to many different people, and that’s okay. There are a lot of good ways to achieve the same goals. There isn’t just one right way to do things, nor frankly, should there be.
That’s why I’ve been encouraging all of my friends to get informed and vote, and why I wanted to have that conversation here. Elections are our national conversation, or they should be at least. We don’t always remember this, and we don’t always have things play out that way. It’s important to remember that a national election is our time, as citizens, to literally stand up and be counted. To say loud and clear what we we need from a government, and equally, what we don’t need. It’s our chance to reign in the government when it crosses the line, and to celebrate it’s successes when it gets things right. And even if our voice is ignored, and we are trodden on and disregarded, if the voices are loud enough, if they are in unison they will be heard. I can’t promise you the outcome, or that things will change. I can’t promise you things will get better, so I won’t. But I can let you know that you will have tried. You will have stood up and spoken, and sometimes that’s what matters most. Governments are made up of people. We may not change nations, but we will change towns, and counties and maybe even states. So if for nothing else, know who you’re voting for in your town and know why. And maybe one of these days we won’t see a patchwork quilt of red and blue states, but a unified nation of informed citizens, working together to shore up this place we call home.
From idealism, springs action. Consider what’s important to you in your community, and learn about who represents those things. Vote them into office and communicate with them. Volunteer in your town – be it at school, or the food pantry, or with a civic organization. Understand who the weakest members of your community are and advocate for them. Our society is only as strong as our weakest, most disadvantaged members. Think about that, and what that means to you. Just pick one thing that you can do to make your home a better place – it could be planting flowers on the square, adopting a street and keeping it clean, getting a stop sign installed at a dangerous intersection. It could be reading to the grade school kids, coaching softball, delivering meals to the elderly or serving on the board of a local business group. But whatever you do, consider voting too. And if, like me, you’ve been many years removed from this political process and you need to get re-educated, check out the following resources. They’re not run by any of the big political parties, so you can research and learn with some degree of confidence that the information is unbiased. Always with a grain of salt though, folks – always ask the question. Always be curious and open to learning something new. And always, always show up.
Ballotpedia – there’s a wealth of information on this “encyclopedia of American politics”, but the Elected Officials Lookup is especially helpful if you need to get acquainted with who’s currently in office (otherwise known as the incumbent).
Vote Smart – great tool for cutting through the noise and getting familiar with what each candidate stands for. The Vote Easy tool matches you to candidates who’s views are similar to yours by asking a series of sample questions on top issues.
PBS Election Coverage – PBS is my go-to news source for unbiased, educated content. Their election coverage doesn’t disappoint.
And for those in Illinois, here’s are a few state-specific resources (though if you’re in another state, try searching online for similar tools for you own area) –
Ballot Ready – information on what Illinois candidates stand for.
Offices Up For Election – on the Illinois State Board of Elections page, this outlines which offices are up for election in a given year.