With election season underway and the first debate for the democrats tonight, people are paying more attention to politics. Obviously this has been an odd election due to the non-establishment politicians running for president, and even becoming the front runners. What a lot people tend to forget is that politics is not just relevant every four years. Political activism is an important part of our lives because the way the country is governed impacts not only ourselves, but the entire country for generations to come.
The reason I feel a lot of people are turned off politics is for two reasons. 1) That politics is boring and takes too much effort to learn, or 2) What the individual does will not have an effect on the outcome.
I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of politics is boring. Most people couldn’t care less about the legislative process our the power plays that go on in congress. But while those parts are boring the actual issues that politics focuses on are interesting. Since people are naturally very opinionated, as long as they aren’t completely self-centered, it’s difficult to have absolutely no feelings for an issue. Chances are they feel very strongly for at least on topic, whether it is gay rights, veterans benefits, helping the poor, healthcare, abortion, or any other topic, there is something political that resonates with their personality. You don’t have to know everything about politics to still fight for these issues.
The truth is that with around 318 million people in the United States, the individual vote really does not matter much. While yes it is true that if you collect everyone that didn’t vote that adds up to a large group of people that could make a difference, but that assumes that they’re all going to vote for the same thing. But while the way you vote may not matter, there are other ways to participate that are more effective. I guarantee that protesting sends a louder message than your vote every could. However the most disheartening this is when you pour your soul into an issue just to see the nation vote against you, and all the work you put into the issue is reversed. Everyone has had a politician they admire lose, everyone has had a bill they despised passed, but these things happen.
This was addressed directly by the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In book 9 IX of his Meditations he states:
The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivelers. Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event no small matter. For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?
This is an odd passage for the book because it is not as upfront as the other entries and it doesn’t follow the same theme as the others. But just to dissect it I’ll give my interpretation of it. The universal cause represents the will to make conditions better, which in a sense is what politics is for. When Aurelius says “all these poor people who are engaged in political matters,” given the context I do not think he means literally poor people, but just the uninformed. As he says, they are playing the philosopher when they don’t seem to know what they talk about and as a result the “universal cause” is more difficult to achieve. Because that is one downside of a democracy: no matter how uninformed a person is their opinions still count.
The next part is simple: to counteract all the work they are doing you have to set yourself in motion. If you feel that strongly for an issue then you need to actively work towards it. Don’t expect a lot of praise. But when he says not to expect Plato’s Republic, he means do not expect things to be perfect. The Republic is often regarded as a utopia. Instead simply be happy if you gain any small victory, because in hindsight any small victory means progress is still being made. It is difficult to change the opinions of others which makes participating in a democracy even more difficult, so don’t expect too much.
Aurelius is known for giving little blurbs of wisdom. Find an issue that you feel strongly for and work towards that issue. Don’t spread yourself too thin or you’ll get worn out. The truth is it doesn’t always matter who the president is. Because if there are a million people camped outside the White House all protesting the same thing, something will get done if it is the will of the people.