At times over the past year, it has been really difficult to believe in our political process. But to be a progressive and still engage with our political system, you need a sense of humor, a strong stomach, and a miraculous faith in democracy.
Last year, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice John Roberts, complained about being in the House Chambers during the State of the Union address. He explained that the speech has “degenerated into a political pep rally.” While Justice Roberts and I probably disagree on who made the speech this way, it is a bad sign when even a Supreme Court justice doesn’t want to watch the State of the Union address.
Yet on Tuesday night, somewhere among laughs and applause, cheers, and occasional snarky comments, I sat with nearly 100 of my peers watching President Obama speak about the state of our union. During the hour-long speech—which included motivational rhetoric and anecdotes—President Obama peppered his comments with support for “clean coal,” the recently passed tax cuts, and other policies that don’t reflect progressive Democratic ideas. Unlike some progressives, however, I continue to hope for the change that I helped campaign for in 2008. And I will continue to hope, whether or not Obama shares my sentiment.
I realize that may sound naïve, but we have seen what engaged students and citizens can achieve when we work together. And so long as we maintain that potential, I will always have hope. Though never easy, it is never impossible to change our country for the better. Whatever political beliefs we may hold, we live in a democracy that depends on citizen engagement. It requires more than just voting once a year, more than just checking the news a few times a week, or watching the State of the Union address—being engaged requires real effort.
Undoubtedly, we don’t all have the time to be political activists and lead issue campaigns. After juggling hundreds of pages of reading, dozens of problem sets, hours at a part-time job or internship, and some semblance of a social life, all that most of us want is a nap. As participants in our little 235 year democratic experiment, however, we have a very important responsibility to know where our political discourse is focused and to constructively add our voices to the conversation.
Find out what issues are affecting our community, and make an effort to help solve those problems. Attend a community board meeting or another local political meeting, and learn about what is happening in our neighborhood. Talk to activists, and find small ways you can contribute to causes you support. Write an op-ed, or start a petition for something you want to change. Call your member of Congress or senators when an important bill is up for debate. Discuss and debate issues that are important to you with people you disagree with. And if you find something you are really passionate about, don’t be afraid to put your heart into it.
It could have been the free pizza that brought so many people to the Piano Lounge on Tuesday night, but I know at least some were there because we still haven’t lost faith in our political system. We still believe in the change, in the progress that we can create. Make a commitment to getting your voice heard, and help create the country you want to see. There will always be celebrations and disappointments in politics, but you’ve only truly lost when you let apathy win. In the words of a candidate who eloquently spoke of the ideas that I still believe in, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
The author is a Barnard senior majoring in Political Science. She is the president of the Columbia University College Democrats.