I am a political coward.
I’ve had the luxury of not having to pay attention to politics. I always vote, but that’s as far as it’s gone.
I joined a diversity committee at work once. I put up fliers announcing gay pride activities that the very next day were torn and defaced. My heart raced and my palms began to sweat. “They” could have seen me putting up the posters. This occurred around the time the torn and defaced body of Matthew Shepard was left on a split-rail fence in Wyoming.
The committee chair suggested we let the CEO deal with it. I surprised myself by arguing passionately that the CEO should make a strong statement to all employees that this kind of vandalism would not be tolerated and that we should write that strong statement for her. The CEO sent out the e-mail exactly as written.
A few weeks ago, I joined the travel ban protest in downtown Minneapolis following President Trump’s casual circumvention of green card and visa laws. As I clapped my mittens and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho ... .” I felt like I was imitating antiwar and civil-rights-era protests that I’d seen on television, from a time when they meant something.
How effective is taking to the streets? There was a thought-provoking April 2014 article by Moisés Naím in the Atlantic (“Why Street Protests Don’t Work”) about how an appeal to protest via social media is sure to attract a crowd. The problem, he wrote, “is what happens after the march. … [M]ore often than not it simply fizzles out … [because] there is rarely a … more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.”
To do nothing, however, would accomplish nothing. In another Atlantic article, “How to Build an Autocracy” in March 2017, David Frum wrote: “Trump and his team count on one thing above all others: public indifference.”
He added: “What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it.” Frum believes that “public opinion, public scrutiny, and public pressure still matter greatly in the U.S. political system.” He recommended many courses of action, including the following:
• Press senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence.
• Support laws to release presidential tax returns.
• Demand an investigation of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election.
• Express your support for journalists attacked by social-media trolls.
• Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign for defying orders.
One that I would add, with no idea how to follow through, is this: Question President Trump’s business and family conflicts of interest with his role as president.
Frum ends on a stirring note: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.”
My sister who lives in Chicago said, “Why bother doing anything? I live in a blue state, there’s no point.” My friend from Wisconsin said, “Why bother speaking up? I’m from a red state. It wouldn’t change anything.”
I’m finding out that I do care about our democracy.
I now have my representatives’ websites bookmarked. I have written to them more in the past month than to all politicians combined in my entire life. I attended a packed town-hall meeting to hear my congressional representative speak for the first time, despite voting for her since 2008. There’s a March for Science coming up on April 22 in Washington, with 326 satellite marches planned, five alone in the great state of Minnesota.
I’ve read that the number of people interested in running for office has increased, which, while not for me, is fabulous. I am still a political coward. But writing strong statements is something I can do. And ignoring politics is a luxury I can no longer afford.
Sheila Kelleher lives in St. Paul.