It’s likely you’ve spent more hours than you’d like to admit scrolling through social media thinking that all the news is bad news. It’s also likely that your entire feed has been taken over by politics — photos of friends joining protests, comment wars that turned ugly with no good answers and reposts from news sites you've never even heard of, leaving you wondering what’s really true. The reactions to many of President Donald Trump's actions have been passionate, and that’s good. This is an important conversation we’ve started.
As a former member of Congress representing New York's 3rd congressional district, I want to chime in. I've seen activism from both ends — as an ordinary citizen and an elected official — and I’ve seen what works and specific actions we can all take that will truly resonate.
1. Show up
I recently recorded a video for Mic about the most effective action you can take to influence your lawmakers. To sum it up: In 2010, we saw the tea party quickly rise to power across the country as the Affordable Care Act was being considered. I remember some of my colleagues in Congress reporting back to me that they had held town halls, which usually attracted maybe 20 constituents, and walked into rooms filled with hundreds or even thousands of people. I saw for myself when I held a town hall on Obamacare and had to answer to hundreds of constituents asking me questions about the legislation.
You may not agree with their politics, but the tea party was effective in getting members of Congress to answer their questions and consider their opinions.
My call to you: Show up to events that your local congressperson or senator (on both the state and federal level) are hosting. Don’t know how to find that information? Call 202-224-3121 and asked to be connected to your member of Congress or senator. Ask them when their next public event is. Then show up and ask them why they voted a certain way, voice your support if you agree with what they’re doing, tell them why you disagree if you don’t agree with how they voted.
2. Join a civic organization
Yes, I likely have many years on you. I remember a time when there was no such thing as a home computer, never mind the internet. We are so much more powerful these days. We have access to an incredible amount of knowledge and can be part of networks without even leaving our couch. But, this is also a disadvantage. We don’t talk to each other face to face, and we hide behind a screen that allows us to retreat into our corners.
My call to you: Join an organization. Maybe it’s a church, synagogue or mosque. Maybe it’s a volunteer group. Maybe it’s a political organization or maybe it’s simply a book club. Talk to new people. Get to know what scares them and what motivates them. Don’t let the bullying and name calling that dominates public discourse detract from your own humanity. We need more opportunities to connect with each other in our increasingly polarized country.
3. Learn about how the government works
According to an Annenberg Public Policy survey done in 2015, only 31% of Americans can name all three branches of our government. There's hardly a statistic that scares me more. We can do all the yelling and opining we want, but if we don’t understand how our government works, how can we expect to affect any positive change? Imagine an electrician showing up to your house who doesn’t know how the wiring works.
My call to you: Educate yourself! Re-read our Constitution, understand what it is our Founding Fathers were creating, know which branch controls which function of government. Read books like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to understand the warnings they share. We are all affected by government and laws at every level in our daily lives (Did you drive on roads today? See a law enforcement officer patrolling?). It’s imperative we understand its inner workings.
4. Devote half an hour every day to reading diverse sources of news
I get it. Reading news can be hard these days. In fact, it seems hard to separate fact from fiction. But Thomas Jefferson was right when he said, "An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy." We cannot expect to hold the president and Congress accountable if we don’t know what they’re doing.
My call to you: Read the news. Devote a half an hour a day. Diversify your sources, but stick to real journalism. Avoid overly partisan rants on both sides. Get the facts. Support our journalists — their jobs are more important than ever.
This is a no-judgement zone, but I must ask: Did you vote this past November? Only 55% of Americans did. And that number gets even lower when we look at years in which there’s no presidential election. In 2014, only 36.4% of Americans took the time to make their voices heard. And we’re worse off because of it. Even though we only vote for a president every four years, we vote for state and local officials, congressmen and women and maybe your senator or governor on other years. Make sure you’re voting whenever there’s an election. All elections matter.
My call to you: In 2018, there will be a midterm election. Every member of Congress will be up for re-election, as well as many senators. Make sure you vote. Make sure your voice is heard. There's nothing more important you can do as a citizen.
Congressman Steve Israel is the chairman of Long Island University Global Institute and a distinguished writer in residence. He represented New York in the U.S House of Representatives from 2001 to 2017, serving on the Armed Services Committee and the powerful appropriations subcommittee for Defense. He also served in the leadership of the House Democratic Caucus. President Bill Clinton has hailed him as “one of the most thoughtful people in the House of Representatives.”