2020: Civic New Year Resolutions
The start of the new year always means crowded gyms and a run on exercise gear. I do it, too. I have my list of resolutions, things I want to do better in the year ahead. But as I thought about my resolutions for 2020, I went beyond the gym to focus on some broader civic resolutions I want to make real in my life this year.
Make sure I participate in our democracy and help others to do the same.
In case you haven’t heard, it’s an election year. There are going to be presidential-nominating contests—either primaries or caucuses—in every state and territory of the union this year. Every contested local election will likely have primaries too. We’ll vote for every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the members of the Senate. We can’t sit this out.
The most important player in a republic such as ours is the citizen, and among the citizen’s chief responsibilities is to participate in our democracy. But we also know that voter suppression is a real thing. It happens in the way states choose to purge inactive voters from their voter rolls and it happens through coordinated disinformation campaigns. So in addition to voting, we can all lend our time and our energies to local efforts to get people registered to vote; to verify or correct our voter registration statuses and help our neighbors do the same; and we can help get people to the polls on election days. I guarantee that you’ll love it and the country will be better for it.
Read more long-form journalism and books.
As a society, we don’t read enough. As fascinating as social media can be, there’s nothing quite as efficient for communicating broad ideas and specific details as long-form writing, whether in newspapers, magazines, or in books. One of my great pet-peeves as a professor is the growing tendency of students to cite whatever sources they find in the first page of their Google search. I tell them to go to the library and find these bound piles of paper—a remarkable invention called ‘a book’—and read it. When we tweet and retweet, we are stripping the nutrients from the public’s intellectual soil like a farmer who plants his field without giving it a chance to lie fallow. Books require more patience and more time than social media, but they offer us an opportunity to go deeper, to not just read and react but to read and reflect. I want to read more this year.
Be a responsible purveyor of information.
There are two parts to this. First, I’m determined to pop my own social media bubble in 2020. That doesn’t mean that all news sources are created equal and have the same amount of credibility. But I want to make sure that I’m challenging myself and not simply falling prey to the appeal of confirmation bias—that’s the tendency we all have to seek out news and information that confirms what we already think and discount contrary evidence.
Second, we need to engage in some critical thinking before we share things on social media. In the modern media environment, we are not simply consumers of information, but also purveyors of information. As a result, we all share a responsibility to only spread information we have real confidence in—not just stories that confirm our preferred narratives. (This is also how we, as citizens, can contribute to defeating foreign disinformation in our politics, too.)
Don’t assume people who think differently from me are motivated by selfishness or that my side is motivated solely by virtue.
We tend to operate these days with a winner-take-all mindset. We engage on social media to beat down other voices. No one ever goes on Twitter to change their mind. With that comes a tendency to see our political opposites as flawed or less intelligent or otherwise corrupted in some way. We also fall prey to the temptation to see our “own side” as motivated only by virtue. The American republic needs all of us to think for ourselves, to value truth and real debate, and to keep an open mind in our approach to public policy questions.
One of my favorite fictional characters is George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Every year I tell myself I want to be more like George Bailey. I want to prioritize the people in my life over my own selfish interests. As we look ahead to the political debates of the coming election year, I hope that we will remember that if we are going to preserve this republic, we will need to see our fellow citizens not as votes to win or defeat, but as human beings with real needs and real interests beyond any specific election. So in our engagements, in our tweets, in our conversations, we should try, above all else, to be kind, seek common ground, and remember that no matter what happens on election day 2020, we’re all in this together.