Back in 1883, Teddy Roosevelt wrote an essay on what it takes to be a true American citizen. He did not mince words. “The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community,” he wrote. “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics.”
His essay has been on my mind lately, because his sentiment — that living in a representative democracy demands work from all of us — is as timely now as it was then.
The first step to getting involved is easy: look around your community and ask yourself what needs fixing or what can be done better. This is how a lot of people get started: they see an issue they want to do something about.
Of course, your chances of effecting change grow as you learn. You have to inform yourself: listen carefully as you talk to your neighbors and friends, and pay attention to what politicians, commentators, and those involved with the issue say.
The same, really, goes for voting. Our system depends on citizens making discriminating choices on politicians and issues. So you want to educate yourself, which includes talking with people whose opinions differ from yours.
When it comes time to act, you want to join with a like-minded group of believers. There’s an old saying that if you want to go fast you go alone, if you want to go far you join together. That’s very true in politics.
Next, you have to communicate — with each other, with the media, with your representatives. You have to go to public meetings and speak up. Focus your message so it’s clear, concise, and specific. Be polite but persistent.
Finally, run for office yourself. If you are so inclined, get a circle of friends to support you. Start locally. Develop the issues you’re interested in, pick the office that will help you affect them, build support, focus your message, raise money.
All of these are ways of participating — and if you want more, search out The New York Times’ guide, “How to Participate in Politics.” The key thing, as President Obama said, is to show up. There are all kinds of ways to have an impact, but they start with one thing: Showing up. It’s the least we should do.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.