I have a confession to make: I’m a nerd. I mean, a hardcore nerd fascinated by all things political. Not the well-crafted veneer of politics that casual observers see, but the messy behind-the-scenes contestations over power that make perfection in government an impossible goal.
As a Political Scientist, I’m enthralled by process as much as the output. I watch Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and DemocracyNow. I read four newspapers a day and devour sites like Al Jazeera, Vice, The Guardian and, of course, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. I’ve long believed that politics shapes everything around us from the curriculum offered in public schools to how streets are prioritized for clearing after a Nor’easter. Lately, it’s become nearly impossible to keep up.
As the White House becomes a revolving door of appointees kicked off the island of misfit toys, our democracy seems to be in a death spiral of chaos. The constant “breaking news” disruptions of our momentary respites from political controversy leave me ready to disengage from politics as an investment in self-care.
Frankly, that worries me. Now, more than ever, we can ill-afford to retreat from a process that literally shapes our ability to live, learn and earn. While we were distracted by tweets and playground taunts, state agencies across the country wasted months scrambling to craft contingency plans as Congress debated whether to pass a long-term funding solution for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that provides coverage to 9 million children. Parents already overwhelmed by the task of caring for a sick child faced the added stressor of wondering whether the treatments their children rely on would become even more unaffordable.
And now, as President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos advocate for arming teachers with guns, teachers in West Virginia are just returning to the classroom after an historic nine-day strike protesting efforts to weaken teachers’ health coverage by requiring them to wear tracking devices. Dystopian, indeed.
Communities in greatest need of effective, accountable and efficient political representation can’t afford to be distracted from the very real issues that are decided not at the national level, but in city halls and state legislative chambers.
My students know that my favorite concept in the whole of American politics is federalism. The division of power across multiple levels of government structures a policy space where voters can determine whether their state allows medical marijuana, provides in-state tuition for undocumented students or protects pensions for public employees.
Indeed it’s within city halls and state legislatures where residents can help craft effective measures to eliminate school violence without ballooning the school-to-prison pipeline that finds Black children three times as likely to be suspended for the same offense as their White peers.
Federalism provides the means to hold people accountable for failing to provide residents of Flint, Mich. with unfettered access to clean, safe drinking water. Federalism tests the limits of balancing economic development with the demand for affordable housing. And this fall, federalism will bring voters to the polls to decide whether 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people in the state of Florida will be allowed to vote again. More on that later.
Political panic seems like a natural response to our current state of political affairs that rivals any House of Cards meets 1984 plot twist. But panic can only be a temporary response to a long-festering challenge. Below, I offer five things more effective than political panic:
1) PRIORITIZE. Whenever I present my research on dismantling the politics of punishment, someone will invariably ask, “Where do we start?” My answer is always the same. “Start where you are.” Tackling a massive nest of interrelated policy challenges can be overwhelming, so overwhelming that it can be paralyzing. Prioritize issue areas based on your own set of interests and resources. Recognize that no one person, organization or interest has all the answers. Progress doesn’t require unanimous consent.
2) SECURE THE BAG. Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “Whether you have a Ph.D., D.D., or No D we are all in this bag together.” Lend your professional expertise to civic organizations with shared policy priorities. Invest in collective success by donating to organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Black Youth Project. Support local community groups and indigenous institutions that fight for political, socio-economic and legal equity.
3) EDUCATE. Resist the lure of social media prophets who undermine power and agency. Remind them that Roy Moore lost his bid for the U.S. Senate by less than two percentage points. Push professional associations to invest in public scholarship that can bridge the gap between academics, activists, legislators and concerned citizens. Support those willing to take their insight beyond the academy without losing sight of intellectual rigor and integrity. Organize panels and roundtables at professional conferences and organizational meetings that reflect these policy priorities.
4) DEMAND. In 2018, all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for reelection. Candidates in 36 states will compete in gubernatorial races with important elections at the local and county level, as well. The last two years have been marked by political unrest stretching from college campuses to the public square to the halls of Congress. Don’t just vote based on loyalty to a party or ideology. Demand tangible answers to the difficult policy questions that matter to you, your family and your community. Candidates who don’t have practical answers, no matter how long they’ve been in office, don’t deserve your votes.
5) PREPARE. Meaningful civic engagement must be sustained and sustainable. Rather than just reacting to political storms, we have to prepare to face them in advance. For example, now is the time to prepare communities for the 2020 Census. The results of the decennial process will shape the allocation of more than $675 billion in resources. That allocation covers programs aiding vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the poor and victims of domestic violence. The census outcome also will determine whether public officials will have the resources they need to confront local challenges.
Our vision of freedom must be greater than what we see right now. Our collective power is greater than we acknowledge. Don’t hit the panic button – yet.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.