There are at least two ways to get involved in the affairs of the government. One, which is unavoidable unless you are willing to suffer the consequences, is to pay taxes. The other one, which is both a civic duty and a right but can be avoided with the least of inconvenience or suffering on one’s part, is to vote.
Voting, on the other hand, is purely voluntary, even as we've been pounded by school civics that every citizen must exercise the right to vote. There is no sanction against you if you don’t vote. While people commonly react to taxes by grumbling that they are too excessive, people just don’t care come election time. But what many do not understand is that they have the power to reduce taxes, and this can be done by voting for representatives who can speak for them in Congress or Parliament about why taxes should be lowered or even abolished.
This is why voting is commonly regarded as the first step in civic engagement. Voting means empowerment, as it places in your hands the power to choose the leader who will make decisions for your government. But voting is not the only way to make a difference in the civic life of our communities. We can run for office and get elected, or we can become involved in the larger social fabric, recognizing that our society’s social, economic and political problems are at least partly our own, or that the moral and civic dimensions of such issues prod us to be involved and take active participation in their resolution.
Civic engagement is possible either through political or non-political processes, through public service or voluntarism. Or as Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s candidate for the U.S. presidency, would say: “One of the acts of citizenship is paying attention to what is happening.” Listening to the public debate or attending town hall meetings is one way to be engaged in the civic life of the nation.
Politics’ dirty reputation has driven a lot of people from participating in the political process. Election turnout is getting less and less as years go by. Politics has become a game, where there are only winners and losers. Oftentimes, the issues that really matter are obscured by the clash of personalities. We need to rise above this petty notion of politics if we are to encourage others to get involved in the civic process.
Despite its bad reputation, politics is still largely how we build our future together. It is through politics that we create alliances, negotiate and decide on options for change or alternative ways of doing things. Politics can be a wholesome and productive process if the networks and bonds we form during election campaigns are used to create alternatives and solutions to our social problems. Becoming involved in political campaigns, whatever your political persuasion, has much more impact on the civic society than simply exercising your choice on the ballot on election day, which is not very often. You see the various sides to issues, you hear the pros and cons to arguments, and you participate in informing the citizenry of what their choices are. This is why the Greeks 2,500 years ago developed the concepts of the agora and assembly as central public spaces where people could come together to dialogue and freely exchange opinions.
Getting involved in this age of the Internet is much easier and a lot livelier. Popular interactive websites like Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, eBay, craigslist, and YouTube make the exchange of ideas, goods and services even more free and accessible to almost everyone. Don’t forfeit your right to get engaged and be involved in these exciting times.