Let’s Not Tell Ourselves that None of this Matters

Last week I saw a meme on Facebook that said something to the effect of: The day after the election, your kids will still be your kids, your home will still be your home, the sun will still shine, and butterflies will still flit about fancifully.
Or something like that. I don’t remember who posted it, so I can’t find it to validate the accuracy of my impression. In any case, the meme was telling us, “Don’t worry; none of this matters anyway.”
To which my inner lobbyist was shouting, “No! This does matter! Elections have consequences! Governments do real things! And you have more power over them than you realize!”
I understand where the meme’s creator and the multitudes who share it are coming from. This election has shaken people. Ideologies are in flux, loyalties are shifting, and opinions that were once shushed are now voiced aloud. Some find the situation thrilling. Many find it disturbing.
For the latter camp, it’s tempting to treat this campaign, and indeed politics overall, as a television show that can be turned off. It’s a topic to be weeded out of a newsfeed, a fad to be ignored, something as disconnected from our real lives as Justin Bieber and the Kardashians.
Except it’s not.
The schools our kids attend, the roads and bridges we travel over, the cables and airwaves we use to communicate, the healthcare we access, the vulnerable people we care about, our financial and physical security, our environment, our liberties – nearly everything we can think of is touched in some way by our local, state, or federal governments. We may wish that weren’t so, but it is.
And we may wish that we have no responsibility for them, but we do. In a country of some 320 million people, it’s easy for us to think of ourselves as drops in a massive bucket. But within that bucket we’re divided into those who vote and those who don’t. (Only 62 percent of voting-age citizens reported voting in the general election of 2012 – just 42% of the total population.)
We’re divided into states and counties and cities, which is where most of the laws and regulations that impact our lives are made anyway. And we’re divided into those who speak up – those who weigh in to elected representatives and other government officials – and those who don’t.
You should know that if you vote, you’re already in the minority. If you donate to political campaigns, you’re in the minority. (And if you donate over $200, you’re in the smallest of minorities.) 
If you volunteer for campaigns or participate in your local partisan club, you’re in the minority. And if you go further – if you email your legislators or send them letters or visit them in person – you’re in the minority too.
I don’t mean to get bogged down in the weeds here. I only mean to say that if you act like you’re powerless to change things, you will indeed be powerless.
Last week I took my kids down to Washington, D.C., to visit some friends who were staying in a hotel near the White House. A whole crew of us – five moms and 16 little kids – had a picnic lunch on Lafayette Square, which sits just outside the White House grounds. When we were done we walked towards Pennsylvania Avenue and melted into the ever-present crowd of tourists and protestors to gaze on that impressive building.

Immigration advocates demonstrate on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington in this Dec. 30, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew/EPA)

“That’s what this is about,” I couldn’t help but think. “That building, that seat of power, that real, physical structure in front of me – that’s what those people are fighting for. It’s real. They’re real. The consequences of our votes are real too.”

I used to not need such reminders – when I worked in D.C. and when I worked in Annapolis, when I regularly saw the machinations of government and legislative politics. I used to get frustrated that so few people would take us up on our efforts to help them contact their legislators.

“You have no idea how much of an impact you could have!” I wanted to yell at them, shake into them.
Yet now I struggle with their complacency. I look at my kids and my home and those fanciful little butterflies and I’m tempted to think that none of it – not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the politicians dancing around their candidacies – I’m tempted to think that none of it matters.
That’s a temptation to resist. That’s a temptation to push aside, to swat away, to respond to with a resounding “No.” Because you and me, we have responsibilities here.
We have responsibilities to our communities and neighbors, to the vulnerable and the stifled, to the people who will be affected by the systems we create. We are responsible for the governments and the society we leave to our children.
Denying the reality of those responsibilities or our power to fulfill them – that’s what makes us powerless. Not the elites, not the “rigged” system – just our own complacent selves.
So let’s remember. Let’s accept our responsibilities. Let’s not tell ourselves that none of this matters.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.