Is political involvement a luxury or a necessity?

Those of us who follow politics closely, and think that it is important to do so for the future of ourselves and the nation and the world, tend to be frustrated by people who do not seem to care or whose understanding of politics does not rise above the most naïve and simplistic sloganeering (“Cut government spending!” “Get rid of government regulations!”, “All government is bad!”, “Lower everyone’s taxes!”, “Cut social services!”, “Eliminating foreign aid and waste will balance the budget!”). We wonder how these people, many of whom belong to the middle or lower-middle classes, cannot see that they are actually harming their own interests, by undermining the very things that make current their lives tolerable or even desirable.

Such ignorance about the reality of politics also makes them easy prey for those unscrupulous politicians who do know better but use these slogans to deflect attention from the things that affect almost everyone (such as health care, salaries and benefits, working conditions, and public and social services) to those highly emotionally-charged issues that directly affect only a small fraction of people in any tangible way (such as abortion and gay and gun rights) or are almost entirely symbolic (prayer in schools, ten commandments in public places, flag burning, etc.).

Why, we ask ourselves, don’t these people invest at least a little of the time that is devoted to Casey Anthony or sports to learning more about how society really works? One answer may lie in a disturbing new survey shows that half of America’s families are in a state known as ‘financially fragile’ in that they “would not be able to cope with an unexpected expense that required them to come up with $2,000 within 30 days” which is the amount of money and time that “reflects the cost of an unanticipated car repair, home repair, medical or legal expense.”

This is worrisome. It is not hard to imagine a situation where one might suddenly need $2,000. To know that you could not lay your hands on it even in 30 days must be very stressful. Financial counselors advise people that they should have six months income saved to cope with emergencies. This study suggests that this is completely out of reach for most people since $2,000 would cover only two weeks for a family that earns the median income.

Perhaps as a result of this, people may be too busy trying to make ends meet or worried about their immediate state of affairs to seek deeper causes. And when they do have some free time, they would rather escape into a fantasy world where they can forget their worries. So we have people choosing to spend their discretionary time in pursuits other than politics, seeking escapism. It used to be the case that during difficult financial times in the past, attendance at films and sports events rose. This may not be true anymore since the prices of these forms of entertainments have risen considerably, to be replaced by TV watching.

It is interesting that poor people have disappeared from our TV landscape. It seems to me that there are very few comedy shows nowadays that have central characters who are poor or working class, perhaps reflecting the fact that people don’t want to see their own lives reflected on the screen. Instead they want to see their lives as they hope it might become. For example, are there any contemporary equivalents of All in the Family, The Honeymooners, or Sanford and Son, all of which involved working class families living lives that were consistent with their incomes?

Even the shows that do not have rich characters show them having lifestyles that are absurdly extravagant. Some of the Friends, for example, did not have steady jobs or had jobs waiting tables and yet they lived in apartments in New York that would have been impossible on their income. In Married With Children, the father worked as a shoe salesman in a retail store and the mother stayed at home and yet they managed to live in a nice home. Is this why Americans are notorious for living beyond their means, living in housing that they cannot really afford and pursuing lifestyles that can only be supported by going into debt, because they think that this is how people who have jobs like they do should be able to live? Seinfeld may have been the exception in that era, with the title character living in a modest apartment, doing his laundry in a public facility, etc. (As should be obvious from the programs mentioned, I stopped watching regular TV about a decade or so ago so I may be wrong about the current state of affairs.)

In the US, it is possible that political activism is largely perceived as just another form of recreation that some people can afford to indulge in or choose to do so, while others need ways of entertaining themselves to take their minds off their worries. A case can be made that until the realities of politics whacks people upside the head, political involvement will not be seen as a necessity by enough people for them to want to get seriously involved.


  1. henry says

    Why bother?

    I mean that in all sincerity. Why bother?

    The system is corrupt. Regardless of who is in power the system will corrupt them.

    The only answer is a society of mutual ownership where people live in small intentional communities and collaborate on a larger projects.

    In a very real sense, being ‘aware’ of the political landscape is like intellectual masturbation. It might make you feel good to be aware but no one is any better off.

  2. says

    Mano -- I think you’re coming close to making excuses for the lack of political involvement. If our culture really valued political engagement and discourse, ordinary people would be paying attention despite the everyday struggle. What does American culture value instead?

    Henry -- Nice post, but that’s really just a more sophisticated excuse, and a rather nihilistic one at that. And I don’t want to live in an American kibbutz.

    A constitutional amendment to require public funding -- and only public funding -- of elections would transform our politics. The great tragedy of our so-called democracy is that some votes are currently worth a hell of a lot more than others. If the only political currency that mattered was minted in the poll both rather than the corporate ATM, ordinary citizens would be re-enfranchised and encouraged to participate. I believe this is the only way the system can be saved from within.

    Is that a fantasy, a prime example of “intellectual masturbation”? Perhaps. But if an inchoate mass of Tea Partiers can influence national politics (albeit in a bad way), there is at least a glimmer of hope that a grassroots movement with conviction could make a positive difference.

  3. says

    I followed politics zealously, loved listening to the Al Franken show, and read many blogs. However, at some point during the Bush years, I just stopped cold turkey. Why? I felt like it was killing me. I felt helpless and everything I read was so infuriating. People often want to do something but need help to figure out what.
    Now, partly due to your blog, I am starting to read more, however, I am still not sure what to do that isn’t just slacktivism (i.e. sending form letters to congress or signing petitions, sending money). I devote a large amount of time to The Cleveland Skeptics and The Cleveland Freethinkers which are political in nature at times, but what is there to do that is flexible in nature for someone already devoted to other causes as well? Plus, what will be effective? Is it all an exercise in frustration?

  4. Matt says

    Henry, I feel the exact opposite…I used to be mostly oblivious about politics and felt fine in my little bubble. I was the one saying simplistic slogans. Now I am constantly reading, learning, and researching. Far from a masturbatory experience, now I feel terrible. I am seriously depressed about our current state and our future direction constantly. I wake up angry and go to bed even angrier. I can’t stand being around most people. I long to go back to feeling the way I did before I became ‘aware,’ but that’s impossible.

  5. says


    I am not making excuses for such an attitude but trying to understand its origin as a prelude to finding a strategy to overcome it.

  6. says

    G and Matt,

    I think it is inevitable that anyone who cares about politics will go through periods of energy and apathy, hope and despair, joy and sorrow, anger and calm. That is the nature of such a complex endeavor. I suspect that I am much older than the two of you and so have been through all those phases multiple times.

    What always brings me back to hope and energy is when I shift my gaze from how far we need to go to and instead look at how far we have come. The large-scale progress for equality and justice has been immense in the last 100 years, all because of the work of past people who were just like us and faced similar doubts. History is still on our side.

    There is no single template for action. We have to do whatever we think we can do and like to do in those arenas where we have some impact. It may feel insignificant but it isn’t. Don’t worry if what you are doing fits into some grand plan or not. There is never a grand plan, just lots of small plans. So just do it.

    My favorite quote from I. F. Stone always energizes me in times of doubt:

    “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

  7. Manik says

    Mano, I fully agree with you. As a Sri Lankan, I am extremely frustrated with both the party in power and the opposition. I realize that I must do what I can, however insignificant it may seem to be. The problem though is that the ‘urgent’ always seems to trump the ‘important’. The other problem I have is deciding on what I can and should do. For instance, you have repeatedly stated that the ‘oligarchy’ controls the US. Under these circumstances what are the small things an American can do that may eventually make a difference? I remember the how jubilant many Americans were at Obama’s Election as President. These very same people are either disillusioned or have their heads in the sand. I believe therefore that the average person, will either grin and bear or feel helpless and perhaps even hopeless. I don’t blame them. The problem is huge, the answer/s not apparent.

  8. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I have been reading a great deal of George Orwell of late — propelled in no small part by my re-reading of Wigen Pier after your reference some months ago — and have been taken by this passage in Orwell’s 20,000+ word essay on Charles Dickens:

    “Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old–generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem–how to prevent power from being abused–remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.”




  9. says


    I agree that Orwell’s essay on Dickens is excellent. I had not read any of Dickens until I read the essay and it inspired me go and read a lot of his books.

  10. says

    The involvement in politics is a no go for many, due to the feeling that in reality they don’t have a voice. They see the act as pointless.

    Politics is seen here in the Uk as an elitist club with the top being filled with ex students from top schools such at Eton.

    From my point of view the system is flawed its more about bashing the competition then running the country

  11. says

    You made some good points Mano. For me, drugs, alcohol, entertainment, amusements…these are just used to “escape” from problems. But actually, what people are doing is escaping reality. Even computer games have virtual worlds. The thing is, it s a person running that avatar. An imperfect person that doesn’t look like her avatar. A person that has small troubles once in a while and major ones sometimes. All that to say…there has to be a balance…reality and “dreams”. I’m not sure I am talking about the topic of the post anymore. 🙂

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