It’s really up to you

Matt Yglesias received a terrific email from a “well-educated, politically literate, 30-something person with a job and a kid,” who spends about 45 minutes a day thinking about politics. About 40 of those 45 minutes are spent reading Matt, me, and Ezra, and another five are spent talking to her husband, who’s been reading Kevin and Jon Chait.

She’s apparently feeling a little discouraged, though, because, as this reader put it, she didn’t “actually DO anything.”

She turned to Matt looking for suggestions. I found his response compelling.

If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing. And I do think there’s a lot of wisdom to the old Le Tigre song “Get Off The Internet.”

Reading and talking to like-minded people about how powerful people are failing can seem like action, but it really isn’t.

I agree with nearly all of this, though I’d probably take an ever-so-slightly different approach. Getting informed and engaging in political discourse is, to my mind, a form of action — action that the vast majority of Americans never bother to take. Investing the time and energy in reading worthwhile blogs and/or watching programs like “The Rachel Maddow Show” or “Countdown,” hopefully, on good days, gives news consumers a base of information they can use. It’s a foundation. It’s a prerequisite. It’s an important first step.

But it’s not the last step. I don’t want folks to get off the Internet and/or turn off their televisions — at least not at first — but I certainly wouldn’t mind if folks got informed and then get off the Internet and turn off their televisions.

And then what? Matt points to several worthwhile endeavors that engaged citizens can choose to pursue: volunteering for a campaign, contacting members of Congress, engaging those close to you in political conversations, etc. I don’t care if it sounds corny; efforts like these really matter. Those tired cliches about politics not being a spectator sport? They happen to be true. Ask staffers on Capitol Hill and they’ll tell you the truth — if the office is inundated with calls and letters, the member takes note.

Matt didn’t mention one of the big ones — actually showing up to vote — but that’s probably because it’s obvious, even if most Americans don’t feel compelled to do it.

He concluded, “Conservatives write and call Congress at a much higher rate than progressives, and more-or-less ordinary people hear conservative political messages from preachers and business executives all the time.”

Right, and that should, in theory, light a fire under the butts of those on the left. Tea Partiers didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were talking about — they still don’t — but they got off the couch, got engaged, and had a major impact. Conservatives don’t have to be connected to reality to do what’s necessary to help shape the larger political landscape.

And if they have the field to themselves, they’ll keep winning.