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The New York Times shared some tips on Election Day for readers to manage their stress over the elections. They were … interesting. Counting backward from 100 was one. "Breathe like a baby,” or expanding one’s belly while breathing to boost oxygen levels to the brain, was another. My favorite tip — judging by how hard I rolled my eyes, at least — was “take a deep breath and then plunge your face into a bowl or sink filled with ice water.”
For severe, clinically diagnosed anxiety, such measures are probably pretty helpful. For election-related stress, they seem a bit excessive. Yet they were shared in earnest — with the kicker that “elections and anxiety often go hand in hand.” Two thirds of American adults, according to the American Psychological Association, said that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was a “significant source of stress” in their lives, as reported by The Times. Granted, that was 2020. But the point seems to remain, not just in 2022 but likely beyond: Election season, anymore, turns some people into a bundle of nerves.
Elections do not have that effect on me. That’s not to say that they don’t cause me stress. Combined with my work for this publication, my work as an early voting official, which I’ve written about extensively, made for some exhausting 60-hour work weeks. But does campaign rhetoric cause me worry? Do I fret about the results of the races? Does the impending doom of our political civilization keep me up at night? No.
I’ve noticed that those who indeed experience that type of election-related stress are the ones who invest so relatively little of their own time and effort into the political process. They cast their votes, sure, but the rest isn’t so much participation as it is consumption. They consume their news and commentary outlets of choice. They bury themselves in their social media feeds, sharing and reacting to every post about how the other side is stupid and horrible and a threat to our rights. They watch every debate, not to discern between candidates, but to root their chosen side on. Elections are by and large a spectator sport, but instead of bragging rights, victory means salvation instead of destruction. If my team wins, they’ll save country; if it loses, the other team will destroy it. Talk about a high-stakes, zero-sum game. No wonder some people apparently can’t deal with it.
So we retreat. Civics and politics are now two separate subjects. Many of us let our disgust with the latter preclude our participation in the former. It’s a shame, because the best way to channel that anxiety is, believe it or not, to actually participate in the election process. My own experience volunteering for political causes over the last decade tells me so.
I found out pretty quickly that involvement in the process allowed me to replace those feelings of disdain and resentment with a sense of ownership in the process — win or lose. And losing happens. Almost all of the candidates I supported with my volunteer efforts that first year in 2012, from the bottom of the ticket to the top, lost. (Yes, I volunteered for the Mitt Romney campaign. Yes, of course you can laugh at that.) I tried to convince myself that election night that our country was doomed, but the sun rose the next morning and life went on.
Like any good athlete or community leader will tell you, there is more to be learned from losing than winning. A dose of humility is like a plateful of cruciferous vegetables. It doesn’t taste very good, but it plays a role in optimal health. Losses are painful, but invaluable to tempering our expectations. Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen more than one candidate run a very good race — posting impressive fundraising numbers, canvassing thousands of households, connecting personally with voters and performing well in debates — only to come up short. It’s an important — and helpful — thing to understand, regardless of one’s level of involvement in the campaigning process: Sometimes voters just see things a different way.
Win or lose, if a candidate and their supporters want voters to see things their way, they must find those voters and talk to them. Political involvement has a way of forcing a person out of their echo chamber, for no votes are to be earned by talking only to those who already think and vote like them. When asking for the support of a potential voter, one must be able to articulate to that voter why they should vote for their candidate. Suddenly political engagement becomes less about playing for a team and more about engaging on issues that matter. Politics isn’t so bad when it’s a friendly face at one’s doorstep instead of the hundredth TV ad with unflattering photos and ominous background music.
Sometimes my candidates win. Yes, it feels good, but sometimes winning isn’t everything. In fact, winning isn’t anything if those who win neglect the wishes of those who elected them. One of the most enlightening periods of my political involvement happened right after the 2014 election, when “my team” (the evil Republicans) flipped a few big seats at both the federal and state level. I was enjoying participating in the process and wasn’t ready to pick up my ball and go home, so I pivoted from advocating for candidates to advocating for policy. During the 2015 legislative session, that meant opposing a 10-cent increase to the state fuel tax under what the organization I was volunteering for saw as a hollow promise of fixing roads. It also meant that I would find myself at odds with some of the very people I had campaigned for only months earlier. It turns out that the political process involves a whole lot more after Election Day than it does before.
I learned several valuable lessons during that (failed) attempt to convince legislators to not increase the gas tax that year. The first — some (but not all) voters will gladly let their government tax them if they believe it’s for “fixing roads and bridges.” The second — many of the same people who refuse to engage their legislators before they take up an important issue will not hesitate to condemn them afterward when they feel let down.
Last — yes. Your elected officials will, at some point, let you down. Especially if you are oblivious to the process by which they operate. Most people know who represents them in Washington. But do we know who represents in Des Moines? On our city councils? Our local boards of supervisors? If we do not engage with our representatives in government at every step throughout the process, how then can we be surprised when they make those decisions without us?
Being involved in the political process isn’t about diving in to save the world. (Ugh.) We let our candidates convince us that they will, but when you think about it, you have to admit that we demand that rhetoric of them before we go to cast our votes. Real involvement isn’t as glamorous. It’s learning about how a bill makes its way through the statehouse and following along with what kind of items are being taken up, and encouraging your friends and neighbors to do the same and speak up on issues that matter to them. And maybe even swinging by a legislative forum or making a trip to Des Moines during the session.
If we do that, we can perhaps find ourselves at peace with how our process plays out, even if we don’t like who is representing us at the moment. There’s always a next general election, always a next opportunity to get involved. If we find ourselves disillusioned over politics, the answer should not be to withdraw, but to engage. Should some Americans continue to experience stress and anxiety simply by the events of each political cycle, they should ask themselves an important question: Has the American political system failed us, or have we failed it by not participating?
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