Texans don’t like talking politics because we’ve let Washington dictate what we understand politics to be.
The 2018 Texas Civic Health Index produced by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, reports that only 23 percent of Texans discuss politics often with their family or friends, placing Texas at 50th in the nation. How did we wind up at the bottom? And what can we do to pull ourselves up? We suggest reevaluating our routine understanding of politics. As many voters in our state slide towards silence and civic apathy, we must mute the screech of partisan conflict emanating from the national stage and reengage with the politics of city halls and backyards, the politics that has a tangible impact on citizens and their day-to-day lives.
These findings come at a time of broader national political disenchantment. A series of 2017 Gallup polls found that public dissatisfaction with the government was nearing a historic high. This dissatisfaction was centered on D.C. and the federal government, and back in Texas it showed on Election Day: Texas ranked 47th in the nation for voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. Of those who reported not voting, 28 percent said they didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues and 13 percent said either that they weren’t interested or felt their vote wouldn’t make a difference.
Clearly, Texans and all Americans are increasingly repelled by the prevailing style of politics, a blend of national conflict, of us-versus-them, and of vitriol and incivility. But politics doesn't stop at the swamp's edge.
It’s time to rethink what we mean when we talk about politics: with pollsters, with friends and with those with whom we disagree. The discord that comes to many Americans’ minds when the word “politics” is mentioned is an incomplete representation of America’s political breadth. Much of the progress and policies made that visibly affect average Americans’ lives begin at the local scale. In school districts and backyard barbeques, in city councils and PTA meetings, the American experiment is energetically renewed every day.
The Texas Civic Health Index begins by noting that “thriving communities and a healthy democracy depend on active citizen participation. Through political engagement, citizens have an opportunity to influence governmental actions and the policies that affect their lives.” This cannot occur without people talking politics. Political dialogue engages individuals in the governing process, allowing them to know more about the decisions being made in their communities that impact their lives. Talking politics is the crucial first step in becoming an active citizen.
The antidote to today’s venomous political dialogue lies in reframing our conversations around the humble politics that affect people’s everyday lives. Through respectful cooperation rather than ideological combat, we can counteract top-down political disenchantment with bottom-up civic engagement.
So, the next time that you set out to discuss politics with a friend or neighbor, ask them about the city’s public transportation, get their opinion on the school board’s latest policies, talk with them about policing practices, zoning and recycling regulations. Each of these subjects is as much a part of American politics as the Mueller investigation.
We can also try abandoning the breaking news alerts in our pockets for the flourishing civic spheres in our front lawns. It is there, downstream from the chaos consuming the nightly news, that most Americans have a personal investment in politics. It is there that we can subvert partisanship and find common ground that unites us as citizens. It is there, where politics is most tangible, that a renewal of civic engagement must begin.
The University of Texas at Austin and the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.