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Bill McCormick, S.J.November 03, 2023
Chalk drawing of stick figures wearing blue and red shirts and arguing with each other(iStock/wildpixel)(iStock/wildpixel)

The next U.S. general election is on Nov. 5, 2024. That is about one year from today. What are you doing to prepare for it?

Here is my guess: You don’t want to tune in, but you will, and you will do so in ways that unwittingly reinforce your desire to avoid politics. But how can you hope to be a good citizen that way?

Many Americans are trying to avoid thinking about the election this far out. But between now and next November there will be a parade of debates, town halls, interviews, negative ads, caucuses and primaries, and possibly a few October surprises. Most of us are not looking forward to that. Indeed, many of us are disillusioned by U.S. politics, or exhausted into apathy. It is not just that we find the campaigns distasteful or depressing; we may not think we have a meaningful voice in the process. Besides, most of us already know how we are going to vote, even if we are not happy about it.

Many of us are disillusioned by U.S. politics, or exhausted into apathy.

And yet, we will get sucked in. We will enjoy it when a candidate we don’t like falls into scandal. We will watch viral sound bites that simultaneously enrage and delight us. We will read a social media post and, worse, the comments, and then get into a pointless online fight with a stranger. We will catch disturbing headlines that compel us to dive deeper into an article before we decide we don’t want to know any more. Our conscience will push us to engage for a moment, only to be discouraged again.

Having gone down the rabbit hole (sewer drain?) of U.S. politics, we may emerge no wiser but more frustrated, determined to leave all of it behind. Then we will repeat the cycle.

But does anything else in your life benefit from the boom-and-bust cycle that characterizes your political attention? Diet? Exercise? Cleaning?

Citizenship calls for discipline, or the training of our hearts and minds on what merits our attention.

Citizenship calls for discipline, or the training of our hearts and minds on what merits our attention, rather than on all things that distract us. Instead of oscillating between apathy and engrossment, what if we learned to follow political life in a sustained and sustainable way? If we elevated the campaign season into a period of discernment and encounter?

My suggestion: Take the next few months as an experiment. Pay attention to the campaigns, but decide howmuch attention you are going to pay, and stick to it. Escape the cycle of engagement and disillusionment. You will find that the discipline satisfies something human in you.

Here are some steps on how to do it.

Read something about U.S. politics. And I really do mean read. It does not have to be directly about the election. You might read the U.S. Constitution, or Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’,” or “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Perhaps there is an article or book you have been meaning to read on race, fiscal policy or American history. Now is a good time to do it. (If you want to get meta, read something about leisure and the need to think. Alan Jacobs’ How to Think and Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture are classics.)

Talk to someone about it. This is a reality check: Did you fully understand what you read? Either way, you may find this an opportunity to connect with someone whom you respect or admire, whether in person or by sending a letter to an author. This step helps you to make the move from ideas to persons. Come to grips with what is at stake and why someone would care, especially someone who thinks and lives differently from you.

Sit and think about it. This is the hardest part. Don’t run away from the thoughts, however unpleasant they are. Create a space where these ideas can come into conversation with your experiences, where the opinions of those you admire can challenge you, or where some of the implications of those ideas for your life can come out. In the best-case scenario, you will discover some questions you want to pursue, or people you want to explore more of the topic with.

So read something, talk to someone about it, and sit and think about it. Do this weekly. As with physical exercise, the goal is to establish a routine. I promise: Engaging political life in a disciplined, sustained way will be more fruitful than an on-again, off-again attitude, and it will feel better. Then, when you do think about politics, you will be guided increasingly by a desire to learn more and to interact better with other people, rather than by more common motives of anger, envy or sloth.

These steps are also of value to people who like to stay “plugged in.” Again, read about something new, and talk to someone you don’t normally talk to. Try to establish the kind of solidarity with people different from you that allows you to see the world a bit differently.

Exercising virtuous citizenship is challenging even under the best circumstances. But like so much else in life, it helps to see it as a series of manageable tasks. So I urge you: read something, talk to someone about it, then sit and think about it. Then do that again. You have a whole year to try it!

In the spirit of building discipline, over the next year I will be writing a series of articles moving toward the 2024 general election. Covering fundamental issues of faith and politics, I hope to offer some substance for people who want to engage their faith in political life in a disciplined, life-giving way. Feel free to drop a note in the comments about what topics you would like to see covered. And let’s pray for each other.

[Read next: “Is politics bad? It depends on your view of human nature.”]

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