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Celebrating the True Meaning of Politics on July 4th

It’s time for July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day. It’s one of my favorite holidays for all the reasons you’d suspect: flags, patriotic songs, and fireworks. But I’m uneasy with the trend towards making the U.S. military might the centerpiece of the occasion.

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Without reservations, I’m all for the post-Vietnam agreement that we’ll all appreciate the troops regardless of how we feel about the wars they fight. But we have two national holidays for those who fought. That’s appropriate, but it’s also sufficient.

July 4th should be a celebration of the one thing that really makes the United States of America an exceptional nation. That’s Politics.

The United States began as an experiment in politics, with a founding document declaring us dedicated (as Lincoln said) not to a patch of land, a religion, an ethnicity, or a culture, but to a proposition: that “all men are created equal.” The revolution was completed by a constitution which institutionalized politics, including participation by ordinary citizens. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the framers, the ability to take part in politics was the whole point of establishing the nation.

We shy away from that idea now, for many completely understandable reasons. For many, “politics” is now associated with the very worst of our nation’s culture, rather than with our basic ability to collectively decide how we want to organize American life. We may be getting better at granting immortality to the revolutionary generation, but we’re worse at doing so for twentieth century heroes.

And yet: We still get involved in politics, conservatives and liberals, generation after generation, whether it’s Tea Party or #Resistance, ad hoc demonstrations organized over the latest app or legacy organized groups that have been around since before telephones and telegraphs were widespread. And while it’s fair to be concerned about the effects of amateurism, the impulse to get involved and do something about whatever one thinks is wrong is exactly what the nation was structured to accommodate.

So this year on the Fourth take time to celebrate political participation and those who get involved, whether out of self-interest or public spirit. Honor the people who form interest groups and lobby their city councils, state legislatures, and members of Congress. The business folks who join the Chamber of Commerce, the workers who join unions, and everyone else who does more than sit at home and gripe about it.

Take time to appreciate the citizens who flood the Capitol switchboard with phone calls when an important bill is being considered, who show up for rallies wearing silly hats (whether they’re Tea Party tricorns or anti-Trump pussyhats), and who line up for town hall meetings, at least when politicians are willing to show up in their districts. Honor the courage of those standing up to speak in a meeting for the first time, whether they’re 15 years old or 85.

And yes, it’s also an opportunity to remember that democracy wouldn’t work well without the party hacks: The people who stuff envelopes and hang door signs; who sit at voter registration tables; the precinct committeepeople who still, in many places, walk their neighborhoods and get to know their voters.

The U.S. political system cannot work without politicians. But there’s no point to it working without citizens who take advantage of way the republic functions and actually get involved in politics beyond just voting every two or four years. No, political participation isn’t for everyone, and one of the virtues of the democratic system is that it is supposed to protect the rights of even those who don’t do politics. But democracy, especially the U.S. variety, also means giving the opportunity to meaningfully participate in collective decision-making to anyone who wants to get involved. Decisions are (mostly) made by politicians, not bureaucrats, and politicians listen to whoever speaks up. And there are so many politicians, and so many different decision-making bodies. Of course no one can wake up one day and expect to change the course of the nation with one text message, but sustained involvement really can make a difference. And, what’s more, many of those who have tried it have found that it can be meaningful in a way other activities can’t match.

Happy Fourth, everyone!

One Response to Celebrating the True Meaning of Politics on July 4th

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