For ages, my approach to political engagement could best be described as “cynical.” I care about how the country is run, and I like to think I’m not too ignorant on the issues—a side effect of a job where I’m on a computer all day and have time to periodically duck in on news websites and follow links that pop up on my Twitter feed. I’m not some policy wonk—my knowledge of the detailed inner-workings of the Affordable Care Act basically boils down to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯—but I do a decent enough job of keeping up with the news. Like, hey, I know who Merrick Garland is. And if you think that’s a low bar, A) yes, it is and B) go ask 20 people on the street “Who is Merrick Garland” and report back to me on how many confused stares you get.
I believe in things like prison reform and health care reform and that our nation needs to close tax loopholes for large corporations and that, no, just because you think The Gays are icky doesn’t mean you can’t do your job and grant them a marriage license, Kim. But I never thought I could do anything about it. I vote. Always in the Presidential election, and when Congressional and Mayoral elections pop up, though local politics—the area where my vote actually has the most influence—always, frankly, seemed too opaque to bother with. I always felt bad about that, but in a vague, intermittent sort of way—I’d see a bunch of completely unfamiliar names on a ballot and feel guilty for a second, but then I’d shuffle that feeling away. “No one has an opinion on district judges,” I’d tell myself. “It’s fine. I’m just one person. It doesn’t really matter.”
But here’s the thing: “It doesn’t really matter. I’m just one person. What can I do?” That wasn’t me being cynical, though I would have said at the time that it was. It wasn’t me looking at the system and saying “it’s too messed up, corrupt from the inside out, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.” Maybe it is for some people, but it wasn’t for me.
I wasn’t cynical.
I was lazy.
It was so obvious, but it wasn’t until the election that it really hit me. Because cynicism is predicated on the assumption certain outcomes are inevitable. You could do something, but you don’t, because you know things are going to turn out regardless. I thought I knew. A lot of people did. We thought there was no way in hell Trump could get elected, because our country was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. Racist, but not racist enough that “is endorsed by the KKK” isn’t an obvious dealbreaker. Sexist, but not so sexist that “brags about committing sexual assault” wouldn’t drive voters—drive women—away from Trump en masse. I was those white people in the “Election Night” SNL skit: delusional and coddled and privileged as hell.
My smarter-than-thou, more-realistic-than-thou, oh-well-people-have-already-made-up-their-minds-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-to-change-it didn’t keep Trump from getting elected. It, among other factors, caused it. How many of the people who stayed home on Election Day did so because they cynically assumed, oh well, the system is fucked no matter what, Trump and Clinton are equally as bad. (Pretty sure Clinton wouldn’t have chosen an actual white nationalist as her chief of strategy.)
I didn’t campaign. I didn’t volunteer. Before the Trump election, I never went to rallies or donated to a charity regularly. I never challenge people I know when they say racist things—which is thankfully a rare occurrence, as I’m an anti-social semi-hermit who knows like 25 people and avoids Facebook with a near religious fervor, but still. I could have done better, but I didn’t.
And I don’t know if, had I been more involved in the political process, a single damn thing would have happened: one more vote for Hillary, one fewer for Trump. I don’t know. Probably not. But fuck it, I’m going to do it anyway, because what I was doing before was clearly not working on some great, cosmic level, and I have to try something different.
It’s daunting, because the problem is so big, and I’m not really sure where to start. Because I’m still just one person. What effect can I possibly have? But I’ve made a start, because I have to. Because we have four years of this, and we can’t let ourselves get complacent. We can’t let ourselves think having a racist, sexist, narcissistic psychopath for a President is normal. I signed up to donate with Planned Parenthood. I’ve set up a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll speak up when I notice hateful speech or actions—which is a more difficult thing than it sounds like for someone as anti-confrontational as I am, and my New Yorker attitude of “there are crazy people everywhere so just mind your own damn business” is baked in.
I’ve been to three rallies since Trump was elected. Two smaller ones, and one of the big, thousands-of-people affairs that took place in New York last Saturday, running from Union Square up to Trump Tower. I was with a friend of mine, an idealistic sort who goes to rallies and believes in people and was decked out in an assortment of political pins. (I don’t have any political flair, but I did wear my Hufflepuff pin. It’s similar.) I confessed to her that I still didn’t quite get it. “Protesting makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something,” I told her. “But is that all this is? Some self-congratulatory circle-jerk? I’m just walking in the street and yelling slogans—I don’t feel like I’m doing anything.” Never mind that for hundreds of years social change had come about, in fits and starts, from just the sort of thing I, and the thousands of people stretched out for miles along 5th Avenue were doing—just getting out there and saying “Hey, assholes. This isn’t cool. Knock it off.” Surely, no politicians are going to look at this and say, “Golly gee, we really goofed with that Trump thing—let’s call it a Mulligan and give Clinton the keys to the White House after all!”
But I was thinking too big, she told me. One person can’t do everything, but every person can do something. That’s what democracy is. My friend doesn’t protest because she thinks she, herself, is going to be able to solve this country’s problems. She protests because seeing those protests shows everyone affected by Trump—refugees and people of color and members of the LGBT community and women, the list goes on and on—that there are people out there who see you.
Who are with you.
Who will speak up for you.
It’s small, what each person can do. A march, a donation, standing up for someone who’s being harassed for their color or their religion or their gender. It’s so, so small, stacked up against the centuries of injustices that are baked into the very fabric of this country. But it matters. It’s important.
It’s what democracy looks like.