How To Follow Politics
The 2016 election is well underway. The coming year will see campaigns for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as in a number of state legislatures throughout the country. The American public will be treated to a continuous diet of polls and prognostications and encouraged to join in the frenzy that the media and the political parties will induce to get attention.
The atmosphere of spin and banality may be, among other things, what turns you off about politics. You may also think that in the end what most politicians talk about has little to do with your life. Now, I’m not going to tell you that you should follow politics because it’s important to the future prosperity and security of you and yours: only you can decide what is and isn’t important in that regard. However, I will say that there is no one way to follow politics. You don’t have to take an interest in politics in the way that politicians or the media want you to. It is possible to become engaged in politics in a way that makes it engaging and doesn’t take up a great deal of your time. Here are a few suggestions of how you might do that:
The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you want to know what a candidate is likely to do when in office, look at what he or she has already done. Candidate websites are a poor place to get this information; national news sites are little better, as they offer mostly career highlights. Wikipedia is not a bad place to begin your search for relatively unbiased and detailed information on politicians. But if you really want to get an insight you should go to local newspapers. Choose the most reputable among your local newspapers, go to their search feature, and punch in the name of your representative. You will get pages and pages that detail their dealings in office and the positions they’ve taken. Local papers make it their business to track the activities of the persons representing their state in Congress. For the presidential candidates, you should go to the local papers of the states that each person is from.
The national press is a different matter. National news sites must cater to a very broad audience. The reporters who work for these papers write articles which they believe will pique interest and attract attention. They tend to write down what they are told by various campaign staffers and political consultants. However, this is spin, not the truth. It is important to keep that in mind when reading a story.
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide if what you hear actually adds up. You will probably not have time to run to the ground every claim and counter claim you will hear in the coming year. However, you know when something ought to be looked at with skepticism. In any case, one of the good things about politicians is that they tend to speak in broad generalizations. This makes it easy to puzzle out the logic of their arguments. One especially useful piece of advice on this front: be wary of the politician who promises more of everything for everybody for nothing.
It is often said that the best way to check facts and gather information about politics is to find a news source that is objective. There is no such thing. Yes, there is truth, and yes, there are facts. But both will always be selective and rendered through interpretation. The best thing you can hope for is fair-mindedness. And to this end, you should find a blog that is relatively sympathetic to your views and follow it. Of course, it is wise to avoid feeds which aim to do nothing but tear down the other side and fill their pages with ideological screeds. You should instead follow a blog that offers clear, intelligent, and evidence-based analysis and commentary. Acknowledging the fact that it is biased towards your view may lead you to take further action to validate some of its claims. One more thing: you should read or look at political satire from time to time. It is a way to keep things lively. And the best political comedy points out the absurd and ridiculous, on both sides, in the campaign.
Don’t waste your time looking at polls, or that of your friends by posting them on Facebook. Polls don’t really start to solidify until about two weeks before an election. Primaries tend to have an even shorter window. The media is already gearing up for the horseraces between the various candidates. The fact is, however, that it is too early to tell who’s up and who’s down. And even when the primary season starts early next year, we still won’t know anything until just before the elections.
I strongly urge you to stay off the comments section of news sites—especially the national ones. You will learn nothing from the experience. Getting into it with people on CiF is one of the most dis-spiriting and soul-destroying things you can do. If there is one single experience that will turn you off politics, fighting on a comments page is it.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.