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6 Habits of Highly Effective Citizens
How not to be a mark in politics—and keep your sanity and principles intact.
Springtime is the traditional season for rebirth and growth in both the natural world and in many religious traditions. Unfortunately, this season of renewal seems to bypass politics altogether, a world which remains as wilted and dead as ever. Nevertheless, good-hearted Americans can help the country move beyond its dreary political landscape by cultivating 6 personal habits for highly effective citizenship and good civic participation.
(1) Find the people who really hold power and figure out how they operate. The old chestnut “personnel is policy” is a solid insight. There are many capable and admirable people working in government and politics. There are also many incompetent and ill-intentioned ones. A smart citizen must distinguish between both kinds of players and understand how they work—overtly and covertly—if they want to make better sense of politics and influence policy outcomes.
American government runs on reams of laws, rules, regulations, and more subtle norms. Yet someone in power—or more likely a group of people, probably paid or influenced by someone else—ultimately writes the laws that emerge from legislatures, interprets these laws through state and federal court rulings, and puts them into practice through administrative actions. An effective citizen fully aware of what the government is doing must locate the people who make these important political decisions and ascertain who they rely on for advice, information, or pressure when making policy and regulations.
Keep in mind that the most powerful people in politics are often not the loudest voices in the media or online. The real power players mostly work behind the scenes running campaigns, lobbying the government, stocking administrations and congressional committees, and manning the bureaucracy. A smart citizen should look in the shadows and corners to find these people and figure out their ways. Learn their methods of persuasion and agenda setting, master the tools they use, and figure out how the powerful players deploy these tools to get what they want. Reward the good actors and expose the bad ones.
(2) Use a mental sword and shield to ward off liars and protect against manipulators. There are two reasons why political elites bury normal people in a blizzard of legalistic jargon and impenetrable academic phrases. One, and more innocently, these elites are confused about what they are actually saying and just spew gibberish and ideas they’ve picked up over the years to get ahead in their political circles. Two, and more dastardly, they don’t want people figuring out what they are up to or recognizing that their ideas are mostly junk and self-serving.
Either way, the next time a political hack or pundit drops a load of verbiage trying to convince you that the orange you are peeling is not an orange, don’t fall for it. Decent and honest people in politics speak in simple everyday language with clear motives. Incompetent and dishonest ones use loaded phrases and made-up words to hide the fact that they don’t know what they are talking about—or worse, are seeking to deflect attention from their actions or convince you to believe something that isn’t true.
On the flip side, effective citizens must also protect themselves from populist hucksters with cheap promises. If some populist politician tries to blame all of society’s problems on one group of people who may look or think differently, or pushes an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem, they are almost certainly pulling your leg.
But beware—not all technocratic language or populist simplicity is a ruse. Constitutions, laws, and administrative regulations exist for good reasons that often serve the interests of the American people and protect their rights. The effective citizen needs to know the actual rules of the game if they are to understand how things work and how to influence the system to stand up for themselves and get better policy results. And sometimes the simplest policy idea—such as “everyone should have health care” or “don’t teach kids bigotry”—is the right thing to do and the best course of action.
(3) Learn to think and experience the world as others do. This is another bit of political folk wisdom that is mostly correct. A person can’t be an effective citizen—or a good politician—if they don’t truly understand how other Americans view the world and experience it every day.
Although America itself enjoys unprecedented levels of wealth and global power, daily life is extremely difficult, stressful, and dangerous for many people. Understandably, this makes them angry, confused, depressed, or forlorn. Don’t dismiss these sentiments as irrational or emotional outbursts—often they are genuine expressions of hardship and grief. On the other side, many Americans have worked exceptionally hard to build successful lives in terms of their jobs, where they live, and how they raise their kids. It is perfectly reasonable that people in this position may be protective of these accomplishments or concerned about losing some element of them. Don’t dismiss these sentiments as purely self-interested or callous.
An effective and empathetic citizen is able to place himself or herself in the shoes of many kinds of people who hold different values and come from different backgrounds. You don’t have to be a saint to pull this off. You just need to take the time to interpret events as other people actually see them based on their own life experiences and values—not as you imagine them to be.
(4) Develop a core philosophy about how to live a good life and stick to what is important. There’s a lot of noise in politics these days. People yelling at each other on cable news or at school board meetings. Irate and flippant discussions on social media. Intemperate and hyperbolic emails soliciting money for some activist cause or another.
A highly effective citizen must ignore this noise and stick to their own worldview. A solid political worldview can emerge from diverse sources: personal experience; religious beliefs; examination of history, philosophy, and science; or just gut feelings and common sense. “Equal dignity and rights for all people” is one good worldview to consider. The Golden Rule of treating others as you would like to be treated is another. Conservatives have many good ideas in their ideological approach as do those on the economic left.
A critical step for effective citizenship then is to craft a distinct personal political framework that works for you—in your own words and based on your own values. Apply this lens over the long term to better analyze serious debates in politics, and tune out distractions and other noise. A sharp worldview will help you see issues clearly and keep your sanity during political fights that are often chaotic and full of nonsense.
(5) Read (listen or watch) widely and challenge your own views. To avoid getting too enamored with personal beliefs or misled by propaganda, however, a highly effective citizen must be willing to challenge their own views by considering facts, empirical evidence, and alternative viewpoints.
Effective citizens generally know what is going on in the world and possess the ability to look at complicated economic or policy issues from multiple angles. Since most people don’t have the time or luxury to focus on economics and politics, normal people should seek to cultivate good habits by regularly following a handful of credible news sources, in some format, and then discussing domestic and world events with trusted friends or family members—or even complete strangers. This keeps us sharp and tests our views to make sure they are compatible with reality.
Likewise, since our opinions often harden in one way or another, it’s important for all of us to take in and consider a range of viewpoints. This is hard to do, of course, since many people tend to “know what they know” and find reasons to justify their beliefs while rejecting competing information and thoughts. In contrast, effective citizens seek to improve overall political discourse by actively listening to alternative viewpoints and reconsidering their own beliefs based on hard evidence or good arguments.
Public reasonableness won’t solve all our problems. But perhaps it will help Americans build more interpersonal trust—or at least encourage people to give others a fair hearing.
(6) Enjoy something in life other than politics. Now that you’ve mastered the habits of effective citizenship, the final task in this spring-cleaning process is to do something other than politics!
Life is way too short to get caught up in a meaningless fight with a family member, friend, or neighbor about some trivial issue probably cooked up by political and media elites to get everyone angry and at each other’s throats.
Don’t take the bait.
The effective citizen must sharpen his or her tools for understanding the complex world of politics and how powerful people navigate the system to their advantage. But a sane citizen will recognize that there’s only so much one person can do day-to-day to influence government and politics. A sane citizen will rightly choose to focus on other important matters in life like spending time with their family or friends; practicing their religion; playing with their pets; watching a good show, listening to music, or reading an interesting book; or picking up a new sport or hobby.
Politics is too important to our economic well-being and legal rights not to pay attention. But politics is also too nuts to make it a focal point in life. The highly effective citizen will find a proper balance between engaging in politics and disengaging from politics to enjoy other aspects of life as the seasons move on.