I’ve never been as frightened for my country as I am heading into this midterm election. I’m well into my fourth decade as an American voter, so I don’t say that lightly.
We’re in an unprecedented historical moment. One of our major political parties has capitulated to a demagogue who rejects the rule of law, demonizes the fourth estate, sows discord, and has overseen a culture of breathtaking corruption. Beneath his vile policies — toddlers torn from their parents at the border, regulations trashed on behalf of corporations, billions gifted to the donor class — lies a more disturbing truth: President Trump is itching to emulate the autocrats he so admires.
His own staffers, as well as law enforcement officials, are reportedly terrified of what he might do — and equally frightened of the tumult that would be unleashed if they seek to remove him from office. It’s become clear that the only way to safely rein in this president is at the ballot box. A blue wave would elect candidates willing to exercise congressional oversight of Trump, and repudiate the politics of racial resentment and toxic masculinity that empowered him.
The crisis for many voters is what I call “apathy disenfranchisement,” the sense that our political actions don’t matter. Especially in “safe” states such as Massachusetts, where voters reliably prefer one party, we feel that our chosen candidates will win (or lose) regardless of what we do.
Partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts — a ploy used by both parties, though more aggressively by Republicans — has amplified this disinterest; only 37 out of 435 races in 2016 qualified as competitive. This is to say nothing of voter suppression schemes aimed at poor and/or minority citizens. Participation in midterm elections has plummeted from 49 percent to 36 percent over the past half century. It’s the political equivalent of what psychologists describe as “learned helplessness”: when people believe they have no control over their environment, they retreat into passive complaining.
There is only one way to fight this mind-set: by reminding ourselves that our political action has no geographic boundaries. It travels beyond our given district or state. If the proliferation of gun violence troubles you, for instance, you can donate time or money to a group that advocates for sensible gun control, or boycott a company that profits by selling guns, or press your local town council to pass a measure. What matters isn’t what you choose to do so much as making the psychic shift from a passive consumer of politics to an active participant, then deciding what form of activism suits you.
In my own case, as a teacher of creative writing, I realized that I could raise money by offering writing workshops in which students, in lieu of a fee, donated to an organization dedicated to social or electoral justice. At these workshops, I ask students to talk about the group to which they’ve donated. The effect is striking. People feel a renewed sense of faith. They needed a reminder that politics isn’t just pundits brawling on cable TV, or late-night comedians cracking jokes, that it also consists of citizens converting their anguish into action. One student told us about a grass-roots group that helps people send homemade postcards reminding voters to show up at the polls. I knew this would be perfect for my daughter, a young activist who loves making art, so we’ve been spending our evenings making postcards.
I am under no illusion that mailing a few dozen postcards to strangers will tilt the balance of power in Washington. That’s not how moral progress in a democracy happens. The Civil Rights Act didn’t pass because Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. It passed because millions of Americans felt called to act in support of racial equality. Examples abound of other individual citizens whose seemingly small acts led to big changes. Last winter, Alberto Morejon, a social studies teacher in Stillwater, Oklahoma, reacted to news reports of the teacher strike in West Virginia by starting a Facebook group for his own state’s woefully underpaid teachers. Some 21,000 teachers had signed up by the next morning. These teachers not only launched a strike that forced the Republican-led Legislature to grant them raises, but purged nearly all of the lawmakers who opposed them.
Two days after the 2016 election, Katie Fahey shook off her despair and took to social media to lament partisan gerrymandering in her home state of Michigan. Fahey was not a political operative or activist. She was just a 27-year-old woman who was tired of feeling trapped within what the cultural historian Neil Postman calls the “loop of impotence.” Thanks to the grass-roots movement she launched, Michiganders will vote on a referendum calling for an independent citizens’ commission to draw up congressional boundaries.
People resist taking political action because it requires us to shoulder the burden of hope, and to risk disappointment. But the alternative is a political reality we can all see, one in which our government puts corporate interests before human interests.
The fundamental question we face as citizens is this: Do we want to be the subjects of history, or the objects? Objects are acted upon. Subjects firstname.lastname@example.org.