At a Citizen event earlier this week, MSNBC anchor — and Citizen board member — Ali Velshi described the stakes of the election this November in terms that have stayed with me since: “Every voter’s choice,” Velshi said, “is democracy or not democracy.”
Velshi was referring to the degradation of rights, and the ascendancy of lies in our republic, to those who would seek to overturn election results they don’t like and hamper access to the polls to ensure results they do. But it seems to me that the simplest way to think about his words is as an action: Voting is the democracy of which he speaks.
That sounds simple enough. The trouble is, these are not especially politically inspiring times. In the last couple of weeks, Citizen Co-founder Larry Platt has opined about the state of Democratic Party politics, first by questioning senate candidate John Fetterman’s seriousness, given his trolling of his opponent, Mehmet Oz, during the summer; then by questioning Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s primary ads that may have helped insurrectionist Doug Mastriano become the Republican candidate for governor. Meanwhile, that Republican candidate for governor is spreading lies about the 2020 election, and his party’s candidate for senator made a fortune shilling fake science on TV and barely even lives in Pennsylvania.
Still, the only way out of what I can only hope is a temporary morass of idiocy in our political life is by all of us leaning in, not giving in. Yes, it’s hard. But so is democracy. As Velshi put it: “Democracy is like a cactus. It doesn’t need a lot. But it needs something. A lot of us have done nothing. We can’t do that anymore. It is dying.”
Here, some thoughts on how to keep it alive.
Lies are easier than truth — but only temporarily
There was never a time of consensus in American history, and there have always been conflicts that feel unsurmountable. But there was a time when most Americans got the same news and interpreted the same sets of facts and came to different conclusions, and different theories of change. That time is not now.
That means the responsibility is on us to seek out real facts, even if they do not conform to what we want to be true — and even though it may take a lot of hard work to get it right. Why? As Velshi said Monday night: “People get bad information and they end up making bad political choices — and then democracy starts to crumble.”
“Democracy is like a cactus,” Velshi says. “It doesn’t need a lot. But it needs something. A lot of us have done nothing. We can’t do that anymore. It is dying.”
His advice on how to combat this seems as good as any: get your news from varied sources, and triangulate what’s true. That “news” you’re hearing on your favorite station, or on your favorite social media feed may not be the whole, or even part of, the story. If you really want to confirm something, go to Annenberg’s factcheck.org, an independent source that reviews the stories people are telling and provides a nuanced look at the actual facts.
“Take the extra time,” as Velshi said. “If you’re going to consume news, consume it well. If you’re not going to consume it well, if you’re going to watch one channel only, don’t consume anything at all.”
Do the choices we make show who we are as a people? Only if we actively choose. Look what happened in Kansas last month: Politicians wanted to take away Kansans’ right to an abortion; Kansans chose — overwhelmingly, with a remarkable turnout — otherwise. It’s the same with candidates: The more and better choices we have, the greater the chance of electing someone who represents our values. More competition has shown to lead to more voters turning out; the inverse, undoubtedly a factor in Philadelphia, is true as well.
Former presidential and New York Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (along with former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak) announced this summer the launch of a third political party, Forward, which they say will not be ideologically aligned with either Democrats (like Yang) or Republicans (like Whitman). That’s interesting, if too nascent to mean much yet.
“If you’re going to consume news, consume it well,” Velshi says. “If you’re not going to consume it well, if you’re going to watch one channel only, don’t consume anything at all.”
What we have already in Philadelphia is a rising number of Independents who, because they are not allowed to vote for party candidates in our closed primary system in which the Democrat always wins the general election, are effectively left out of deciding who will be the next Mayor, or City Councilperson, or District Attorney. Is it any wonder that turnout is low when people are not allowed to choose?
This may change: The state legislature is currently holding public hearings on a bill that would create open primaries in Pennsylvania, allowing non-affiliated voters to decide which primary they want to vote in (as is the case in 41 other states). This could be transformational for the state, where our closed primary system often pushes candidates to appeal to the most radical fringes of their parties, those most inclined to cast a ballot. In Philly, meanwhile, an open primary could create momentum for candidates — like likely Mayoral wannabe Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — who run afoul of the Democratic party, but might appeal to voters who are ideologically independent.
Better yet would be what social scientist Jonathan Haidt calls Final-Five Voting: All voters get a single primary ballot with candidates from every party on it. The top five vote-getters go on to face each other in the final election, conducted using ranked-choice voting that allows citizens to rank all of the candidates in order of their preference. This — through a complicated process of elimination — results in a winner who truly has the majority of votes. (Alaska launched a version of this, called Final Four, in its primary Tuesday.) This method, Haidt wrote in Time last fall, solves one of the most vexing problems in politics: Politicians “want to solve problems, they want to work across the aisle, but upon arrival they are told that they must fight in the trenches and avoid fraternizing with the enemy. They hate it, Americans hate congress, and nobody wins. FFV can change that.”
We need better education
The good news in Philly is that we have kick-ass young people who have shown up, stood up, spoken out — and voted, in greater numbers than in at least a generation. In 2020, 74 percent of registered 18-year-olds cast a ballot, just over 6,500 people. That was higher than general voter turnout in Philly, and up from 2016. That momentum has now gone statewide, in the form of PA Youth Vote — an expansion of Philly Youth Vote — that is continuing to push for first-time voters to register, be informed and cast a ballot.
This year will be the first since the school board approved a district-wide voter engagement policy to educate and encourage voting among 18-year-olds in their schools. That is huge, and it’s mostly thanks to the advocacy of Philly youth themselves. But it is not enough to start teaching the value of voting and being an active citizen when kids are about to turn 18 — that must start early.
The decline in voter turnout and knowledge connects to the decline in civics education over the last several decades, and it has resulted in a striking ignorance of how America works and who gets to make decisions for our civic life. (Hint: We do.) Dishonest media, corrupt and treasonous politicians, policies that benefit the few not the many would not be ascendant if millions of Americans were better-informed about America.
Locally, we are fortunate to have Ed and Midge Rendell on the job. In partnership with the National Constitution Center, the Rendell Center for Citizenship and Civics has developed an eight-lesson curriculum for elementary school students using children’s literature and activities tied to monthly holidays to build knowledge and create active, informed citizens. The curriculum and associated book list is available to everyone online.
Even better would be if Pennsylvania joined several other states, including California, Arizona and New York, in offering students a State Seal of Civic Education if they fulfill a series of criteria that include knowledge of the Constitution and functions of the government, the ability to take action on a civic problem, engage in civil dialogue and the like.
We need more empathy
I have a friend who shrugs when pressed to pick an issue about which he will stake his vote because, he says, it’s not about him: “I will be fine, in most ways that matter, whoever is in office,” he says. “I vote for other people, for whatever politician, of whatever party, is working to help those who need the most help.”
Not everyone can do this because many people are not fine regardless of who is in office. But it is a refreshing way to think about voting. We live in a collective, dependent on each other — something the pandemic proved, time and again — and that means thinking beyond our own kitchen tables, to what the least of us need the most. It’s almost impossible to do that when we can’t see beyond our own interests and own politics to the human sitting across the aisle. How do you even begin to have that conversation?
Arlie Hochschild, a UC-Berkeley professor and author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, offers this tip to create “bridges of empathy”: Turn off your personal alarm. Ask questions, listen to the answer. You don’t have to agree; you don’t have to fight. You can turn your alarms back on afterwards and cast your vote however you want.
Listening is key to something else that has proven to convince infrequent voters to cast a ballot: Deep canvassing. The Citizen partnered with Changing the Conversation Together in June to train people to craft their own stories about people they love — i.e. reasons they vote — as a precursor to knocking on doors in a North Philadelphia district with low turnout. These deep canvassers share those stories with the people they meet, ask for a story in return and then — and this is key — they listen deeply to the answer. What’s amazing is that no matter the answer, no matter who someone loves, the call to action is always the same: Vote because of them.
The answer is right outside your door
We have two incredibly important races this election season: For senator and for governor. Your instincts, the pundits on national TV, the Twitter-verse may all tell you that what matters the most in 2022 is who will become the next senator from Pennsylvania, Fetterman or Oz. They are wrong.
The next governor of Pennsylvania will be the deciding factor on a host of hot-button issues that have taken on increasing importance in the state — abortion, education, guns, the environment, voting rights. Do you care about any, or all, of those? Then you should be paying attention to Shapiro and Mastriano, not to the silliness about crudité and air messages.
On Velshi Across America, the MSNBC anchor traveled the country talking to citizens from all political stripes, trying to find some common ground. That is increasingly impossible when it comes to the manufactured stuff — voter fraud, election stealing, political attacks, crazy rumors about eating children. Where there is shared purpose is locally: Neighbors, no matter how they vote, care about safety on their block, about the litter, the too-fast cars, the drug dealer on the corner, the flowers they plant every spring and snow they shovel every winter, the schools they send their children to. They care about each other.
“You can have a conversation about civic life with people you might not necessarily agree with politically,” Velshi said. “I don’t think the answer is politics anymore. I think the new framing is how civically engaged we are.”
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