When Barack Obama delivered his farewell address, I sat on the couch with my father and we both cried for the speech’s entirety. I proceeded to listen to the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton, feeling it fitting in my ever-growing, immeasurable angst and fear for an America without Obama at its helm—with a Trump at its helm. At eight years old, my parents took me to the polls in the razorblade Californian sunlight and I did not comprehend, but I felt the groundswell ripening around us. I remember 2008 with the memory of a child, but I still remember it. I still know how the sound of Obama’s voice on the TV that night brought my parents to ecstatic tears and me to a trembling in my fingers. I certainly couldn’t explain anything about politics to anyone then but still, somewhere, something irreversible lurched in me.
When November 9th, 2016 happened, I started tugging my hair out. Clawing at my pimples. Gnawing on my fingernails, cuticles, skin. This is what I do when I am swollen with hurt: I unravel myself. I want to enclose the shakiness of the world, transfer my too-vague and too-bottomless anxiety into hurting myself in these small ways. Into tangibility. Since I began living in Trump’s America, I have unraveled myself every day. Every day is a picking, biting, knuckle-cracking sort of day. That night was not anything new, but a culmination, a reaffirmation, of the wounds unacknowledged and erased at the heart of America. That night, at sixteen, things were different. I’d canvassed, called and texted voters, hosted phone banks and rallies, fundraised, felt the ground shake, felt what people could do, what they could fight for, 16-year-old girls even, who’d been indoctrinated with self-underestimation. That night I also knew: oh. We can do all that and still lose. We can do all that and...shit still happens. A reckoning silly to me now, self-evident, but, at 16, I’d wanted to win that election so badly my heart flew into itself, into a vigorous idealism and that elementary belief: America is flawed, but it wants to do the right thing. It’s good at its core.
On November 6th, 2018, I wrangled myself into bed, away from the computer and the polls and constant refreshing and FiveThirtyEight and still, I could not sleep. In Paris, America a sea away from me, I felt more American than ever. The incessance of our Americanness. Hours, a nation collected at our screens, at the lip of progress, hoping. Sometimes I overestimate the universality of compassion and decency in America. Sometimes I realize my anger, the roused rage against injustices perpetrated and normalized by the current administration and Congress, is everyone’s anger, but no—people, in 2018, will still vote for someone like Ted Cruz. Of course they will, but still, you hope, terribly. You want more from your country.
The night of the 2018 midterms, we gained and we lost. Records were shattered: 103 women were elected to Congress, a record-breaker; there was a 75% increase in women of color running for Congress since 2012. At least 244 LGBTQ+ candidates ran. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at twenty-nine years old. Young people turned out to vote in record numbers. The New York Times estimates that around 114 million ballots were cast this year, a significant rise from the 83 million ballots cast in 2014. This matters, breathtakingly, because it’s not a presidential election. Midterm elections usually acquire lackluster voter turnout, for a whole plethora of reasons, but our generation seems to grasp how crucial every election is, that we cannot afford to skip out on any. According to Vox, it is estimated that around 36 million people voted early this year.
History burst out from the unlikeliest of places. The first Native American women and the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. The first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. The first openly gay governor. History that gilded my heart, goldened the bleary-eyed night for me. Lucy McBath, a fierce social justice advocate and the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old black boy who was shot and murdered by a white man for playing loud music in 2012 in what is believed to be a hate crime (the shooter has since been convicted of first-degree murder), ran for Congress in Georgia’s 6th congressional district and won. Remarkable, unbelievable things. The Democrats took back the House. Perhaps the most glorious upset, however, was Florida’s passing of the constitutional Amendment 4, a “key ballot initiative that will restore voting rights to citizens convicted of certain felonies after they have served their sentences, including prison terms, parole, and probationary periods,” as described by NPR. 1.5 million people are currently unable to vote because of this restriction, and this initiative utterly upends this injustice. Over 20% of African-American Floridians who are otherwise eligible voters will be able to vote now.
I wanted so much: a victory over Ted Cruz for Beto O’Rourke, most ardently. I wanted Democrats to take the Senate, which I knew was nearly impossible, but I wanted, of course, anyhow.
We didn’t drape the country in blue like we wanted to, in a ravenous and expansive blue, but we are a country gerrymandered to extremes, with the right to vote deformed into an elusive privilege by the Republican Party. The voter suppression was rampant in areas heavily populated by marginalized communities, and this severe disdain for democracy, this weaponization of the most elementary tool of our democracy, should not surprise us. It should intensify our intolerance to the oppression-reliant ideology of the current Republican Party in Congress and the White House. It should worry every citizen, should unnerve conservatives, because democracy, what America wants to embody, should not look like what it does today: participation withheld from so many Americans. It should be accessible. It is supposed to be a right.
The midterms are over, but what I must insist on is this: our activism cannot begin and end at the ballot box. Too many people are denied their ability to vote, and more so, voting is not a cure for tyranny—it is a starting point for civic engagement. Now, we fight on. To engage in changemaking only through voting, only in election years, cannot on its own drive the radical change we need.
What I suggest: fighting like hell to dismantle voter suppression. Although it is not an end-all-be-all, voting matters. Undoubtedly. The extreme measures (almost exclusively) Republicans take to suppress the vote should make that obvious. Why else would anyone invest so much effort in suppression? In engaging with the system of voting itself, young people can reshape what representation looks like. We are uniquely capable of reconstructing politics, and to do so, our activism must extend beyond a single vote or election into the difficult trenches of systemic, radical change.
In Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks says, “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” The shift in American consciousness must be an opening, an extending. Activism isn’t a hat you pull on once in a great while, or a one-time event; it is how you engage with the people and country around you, with its history and its fractures. It is even how you engage with yourself. We must take care of ourselves and allow ourselves the room to breathe, grow, ache. We must also wade into discomfort, often, and prioritize the work of change.
You need not be a capital-A Activist, but, to call oneself “apolitical” is a privilege, often a cop-out or resistance to critical self-examination. If you’re “not really into politics,” let me say something: politics is certainly into you. We are steeped in politics. Politics does not exist in a vacuum. It touches everything, especially in 2018, and to not at least think about that, about its inextricable omnipresence in the lives of those with marginalized identities, is letting yourself off the hook. If you think politics doesn’t affect you, it does. It affects everyone.
To the family members I have who still somehow support Donald Trump and his agenda, who still support the current Republican Party in office, there seems a strange disconnect. It’s as if these family members believe that politics can be isolated, put away at times, that it is something we can nicely tidy up and shove under the couch while we have dinner, as if their politics don’t directly conflict with the existence of people they love. As if their adamant support for a hateful, reckless, cruel, incompetent man is separate from the hateful, reckless, cruel, incompetent “policies” he fights to enact. As if I, a queer young woman, exist disconnected from these policies.
Let me say it this way: they have the privilege to “put away” politics. It is not written on their face, their body, their moving through the world every single day. Or they pretend it isn’t. I must constantly repress elemental parts of myself with these family members. I contain myself: do not mention anything even hinting at queerness, do not mention how you helped organize a march, how you love your gender studies class, how you wrote a new piece about feminism, never even say the word “non-binary” or “pansexual,” nothing. I know it is far worse for so many others, who cannot “pass” or suppress facets of their identity, but still, these little containments build up, burn in my gut. And you know what? They matter.
So yes, we must vote and fight tenaciously for every American’s right to do so, uninhibitedly. We must do more than that, though. We must vote and try to dismantle the forms of oppression that tangle with our lives “outside” of politics. Because really, that “outside” doesn’t exist for marginalized people, not at all.
I mean not that every person must be a perfect activist, but that we should strive to understand that lofty, vague thing we call “civic engagement” as something far more everyday, entrenched in the roots of our lives. We should call upon ourselves to do more than vote, if we are able. Slacktivism is not activism. To post about issues is not bad, but one’s political consciousness and efforts should not end there.
I want to offer up a list of ideas and resources to throw yourself into civic engagement, beyond voting, at whatever level you can handle. As an often-anxious introvert with a terror of phone-banking and incessant social interaction, I want to highlight activities uniquely suited to the more introverted, perhaps highly sensitive activist. Really, for everyone, though—this list is just a diving board. The opportunities abound.
The ideas and resources I have outlined should be a mere starting point for newbie activists. Google can direct you to infinities of creative, helpful resources. To truly challenge yourself to expand your activism beyond voting, to prioritize civic activity, to reframe our general conception of political engagement, to volunteer outside of election seasons—all of this matters. Our mechanisms for political action are varied and expansive, and it all starts with voting, but that is not an ending in itself. Politics shape our lives and our lives, in turn, should shape our politics.