Help for the Politically Uninformed
By Alyce Gilligan
March 6, 2012
Politics is a sticky and confusing topic of discussion—not only for the sensitive issues it envelops, but for the reactions it elicits. Who hasn’t witnessed the implosion of a family gathering or lunch break because someone brought up the president’s approval rating or the highlights of the GOP debate the night before? For some, this is an opportunity for lively (or argumentative) discussion. But for the majority, it’s a cue to suddenly get distracted by the dessert options.
Whether because of ambivalence or disinterest, there is increasing evidence today’s young adults are politically uninformed. Studies from the Pew Research Center have found young adults are the least politically aware, with those ages 18 to 29 much less likely to correctly answer questions about everything from the current unemployment rate to the name of the current secretary of state to basic facts about the GOP candidates.
But frankly, young Christians can’t afford to be uninformed about the state of the nation, or the candidates running to change it. The millenial generation (those between the ages of 18 and 30) is said to be the most negatively affected by today’s struggling economy. In the last two years, adults 18 to 24 years old have seen the lowest recorded employment rate since 1948, despite the recent overall decline in unemployment. And while they may not know about much about the government, more than half of millenials feel it is wasteful, inefficient and too involved in people’s daily lives.
An election year is trying for everyone involved—65 percent of young adults say they can’t wait for the 2012 election to be over. But in the meantime, whether someone votes Republican, Democrat or doesn’t vote at all, it’s vital to know why he or she chooses to do so and the impact of this decision. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
Here are a few tips to jump-start your political education:
Make time to educate yourself. If you’re just finding out that today is Super Tuesday or aren't quite sure why that is important, you might want to consider prioritizing your intake of political news. Eliminate some of the things that usually distract you from doing so. It can be as simple as taking a newspaper on your lunch break instead of your new novel. Consider replacing the music presets on your car radio with public and talk radio stations, or catching up on NPR podcasts that add a human element to otherwise impersonal issues. Download a news app to your smartphone for browsing in line at a restaurant or theater, rather than checking Facebook for the umpteenth time.
Read up on the issues through the lens of your faith. As both Christians and citizens, it is paramount to be educated on what the Bible says about the responsibility of believers when it comes to government, caring for those less fortunate, immigration, the sanctity of life and other areas that fall under both theology and policy. Check out books like A Faith of Our Own, Jesus for President, Earthen Vessels, Love Is an Orientation, Raised Right, All Labor Has Dignity and Left Right and Christ. Browse Christianity Today’s politics page or CNN’s Belief blog for political discussion rooted in religion. Here at RELEVANT, we recently finished our own series featuring Christians of various political backgrounds—hear from a Christian Republican, Christian Democrat, Christian Libertarian, Christian Independent and Christian Non-voter about how their faith informs their political leanings.
Get your news from a variety of sources—not just the one you agree with. It’s human tendency to surround ourselves with those with whom we see eye to eye. The same can often be said for how we consume information. But when it comes to news of politics, exposure to various viewpoints can keep you well-rounded. Even negative, challenging or sensational reporting can stimulate your thinking and solidify your opinions. Make a bookmark bar on your web browser that includes a variety of news websites and devote an hour of your day to reading the major headlines on each. Build a list that represents viewpoints both conservative and liberal, ranging from breaking-news sites to editorial blogs—sites like NPR, The Daily Kos, CNN, The Drudge Report, Politico, The Daily Beast, FOX and Talking Points, just to name a few. BBC and The Guardian, news sources from the U.K., also offer American news without as much local political bias. Are different reports not lining up? Run them by Politifact or Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
Don’t shy away from political discussion. It might be tempting to just avoid political discussion when you’re not sure where you stand on a particular issue, party or candidate. But these conversations can play a pivotal role in shaping your views and decisions. Discourse with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, even peers who may want nothing to do with democracy. Why do they believe the way they do? What resonates with you? What do you disagree with? It’s possible you may not fully know what you think or who you’re voting for until you have to express or defend an idea in community. Yes, talking politics with family, friends and coworkers can be intimidating and often heated, but finding that fine line between discussion and debate is key in becoming informed.
Keep up with the candidates running for election. Perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of democracy is supporting a candidate you may never personally meet. But while it’s impossible to truly know a candidate’s character, it never hurts to learn all you can. Find current candidates or even their family members and representatives on social media and add them to your news feed and follow list. True, some accounts will be run by the campaign and not the individual, but even these updates will give you a better grasp of what their campaign values and the positions they are most trying to present to the public. When you finish reading this article, add @BarackObama, @NewtGingrich, @RickSantorum, @MittRomney and @RonPaul to your must-follow list. If you’re looking for a more thorough history of a candidate rather than updates on their speaking engagements, check out Project Vote Smart or OnTheIssues.org.
Look beyond traditional news outlets. Some of today’s most in-depth commentary comes from unexpected sources. Personalities like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer fast-paced and backhanded segments that can be as straightforward as an hour listening to major news pundits. Even The Onion or Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment, which deliver stories dripping with sarcasm and falsified headlines, can offer subtle and surprising perspectives on recent events. You may not be able to cite them as credible sources, but they can get you thinking—or at least laughing.
Give yourself room to grow and change your mind. Just as the needs and issues of the nation are always changing, one’s politics are ever-evolving and must be maintained over time. Your own opinions and values may shift—and that’s OK. Pride and verbosity aren’t the only guiding forces in today’s political climate; honesty and humility are just as important communication tools. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to slip out of a conversation about health care to refill your coffee mug.