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I (don’t) do politics

| Tuesday, September 21, 2021

“I don’t do politics.” 

Nowadays, this short sentence sparks fierce backlash from some, seeming like a spineless statement of privilege. In contrast, it garners nods of agreement from others who wish to stay out of the tangles of the political jungle. I used to be a member of the first group. It seemed frustrating that people could choose to sit on the sidelines of conflicts that were a matter of life-and-death for others. Some people don’t “do politics” because they don’t have to. Members of marginalized groups, however, often don’t have a choice. Politics has implications for their daily lives: the Dakota Access Pipeline, the right to marry, the safety of interactions with law enforcement, etc. For some Americans, politics is an external subject with which they can choose to engage or not, while for others, it is intertwined with their lives. So, I understood the anger unleashed against those who don’t “do politics.” 

You might notice my use of the past tense in some of the above statements and wonder if I’ve since scrapped my views — if the political turbulence of the past few years has caused me to give up on politics because it’s just too messy. Never fear. This is not my announcement that, in my fourth year of studying political science, I’ve decided to no longer do politics. I’ll always “do” politics to some extent. Mention of the Constitution or Supreme Court rulings will never fail to catch my ear. However, my views on what exactly it means to do politics have evolved. 

I remember my enthusiasm when I registered to vote as an eighteen-year-old and participated in the 2018 primary elections. It felt like a right of passage, as if I had finally reached full membership in society. I — wide-eyed, first-time voter — could not imagine how anyone would ever skip an election. I was eager for every chance I got to do my civic duty. The 2020 election was every voting enthusiast’s dream: the opportunity to take part in the most consequential election in history, we were told. The ballots rolled in — mine and many other college students’ by mail — and we did it, we got the bad guy out! The man under whom the coronavirus had run rampant, relationships with US allies weakened, unarmed Black Americans were killed by police and natural disasters raged. And we replaced him with a man under whom the coronavirus runs rampant, relationships with US allies weaken, unarmed Black Americans are killed by police and natural disasters rage. 

This is obviously a simplification that lacks nuance. To be clear, I am not claiming that Presidents Trump and Biden have failed equally in the tasks confronting them, and this piece is not an attempt to analyze or equate their presidencies. I only wish to point out that big problems still remain, even though I was assured by every campaign speech and advertisement that an electoral victory would wipe them away. The bright-eyed eagerness many of us young voters felt at the opportunity to make a difference has been stifled by the sobering realization that who we put in office often makes no difference. 

Don’t get me wrong — I plan to continue to vote in every election and encourage every reader to do the same. I have simply decided that elections no longer comprise the essence of politics to me, and I’m not waiting for our elected officials to fix the world. More than contacting my local Representative or my Senator, I will be contacting my family members and friends to learn about their experiences and struggles and to see how I can be a good fellow citizen to them. 

At the 2021 Met Gala on September 13th, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez donned a white mermaid gown emblazoned with a scarlet-lettered demand: “Tax the Rich.” Though some observers applauded the display, she drew criticism from both the right and left for the irony of flaunting such a message at an event full of those very people. My initial reaction to “The Dress” was a shrug of the shoulders. She’s a political woman making a political statement, and to some onlookers, the gesture might send a powerful message. Furthermore, in Congress, she’s always promoted progressive causes in line with the message of her dress, so we can’t say she’s all talk, no action. No big deal, let’s move on. 

The real problem to me, however, is not “The Dress.” Rather, her attendance at the event reminded me that nearly all our elected officials operate in adjacent circles to the wealthiest, elite Americans. Even one of the most anti-establishment members of Congress who ascended to office from humble beginnings and intense grassroots organizing to supposedly fight for the little person finds herself at the same table as the ultra-rich at the end of the day. How committed can she really be to decreasing wealth inequality if she can cozy up among the upper echelon of society? 

As I mentioned, I am not one of the fierce critics of “The Dress,” and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would not top my list of problematic politicians. However, what I have realized over the course of the past several years is that we cannot rely on her or any of our officials to ensure our wellbeing. We must take responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones. The government might help us out at times; it might not. But we all need to do the best job we can looking after our communities. If you are in an area with surging COVID-19 cases but inadequate safety precautions implemented, you need to decide for yourself what kinds of establishments are safe for you to go to or when to wear your mask or whether to be around others who are unmasked. Here at Notre Dame, if you are in a packed classroom where a mask is not required but you feel sick, wear one out of caution. If you have friends or family who are still hesitant to get vaccinated, don’t rely on officials to convince them — you have a better chance. Talk to and take care of your neighbors and the people around you to the extent you’re able. 

We don’t live in a utopia, and there will always be government shortcomings, even in a relatively “good” government or during prosperous times. In fact, hearing citizens of other countries to which the U.S. is often compared (such as Canada and the UK) also complain about their governments somewhat comforts me and reminds me that it’s not just us in America who are frustrated with our government. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? But if you are noticing that your own or your neighbor’s grass isn’t quite as green as it should be, don’t sit around waiting for rain that might never come or that might drizzle only a few meager drops. Turn on the sprinklers. “Doing politics” doesn’t have to mean attending rallies for our favorite candidates or knocking on doors to campaign for them. You don’t have to “do politics” in the sense of arguing at holiday dinners with family members of the opposite party when neither of your views is ultimately going to change, but you do have to be aware of the injustices occurring within your community and the struggles affecting your friends, family and neighbors. Anything we do to better our communities is political. So, while I intend to always “do politics,” my idea of what that means has changed from lamenting the limitations of the system to focusing on the capabilities of the community.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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