I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I’m a political science major. So it stands to reason that I might be the type of person who enjoys learning about politics, that I’d keep up with the news, or that I’d have a worldview skewed by an education in political theory. On those points, you’d certainly be right. Armed with knowledge and stacks of newspaper articles and connections with friends who work for various government agencies, I do find myself involved in the political sphere on a regular basis.
But it’d be a mistake to think that my involvement alone made me any kind of authority on American politics. Just because I take a foreign policy class, that doesn’t mean I know anything more about national security than anyone else. Just because I understand the structure of the electoral college, that doesn’t mean I have any incentive to share with you my thoughts on the upcoming congressional elections or who I might be voting for. Just because I seek to understand as much as I can, that doesn’t mean that I do.
Stephen Hawking once said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” And if there’s one thing I’ve come to know with certainty through my studies it’s that understanding the politics of even a single country is not like becoming fluent in a language. I will never be finished learning and I will never understand the full picture, even if I think that I do. Politics is an ongoing arduous web tied up with historical, social, economic, anthropological, legal, and a hundred other factors and anyone who denies that fact is kidding himself.
Which is part of the reason I hate taking sides in elections. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in the universal right to elect one’s own leaders and I have exercised that right without fail for every election since I was eligible to vote (even when I was studying overseas or out of state). But even though I have picked a side, I don’t like to and I don’t like to talk specifically about candidates with other people. That is the approach that I apply to all campaign seasons, if not to specific political issues up for debate as well.
In my family, I was raised to never discuss politics at the dinner table. We spoke about current events, but always in as bipartisan a way as possible. I never asked my parents who they voted for, never saw any signs on our front lawn, never volunteered at a campaign office. Politics were a personal affair as far as my parents were concerned; they wanted my brother and I to form our own opinions. So I would read news articles between classes, watch the news before school, tune in for important speeches whenever I could, and all the while kept my opinions to myself.
Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” The listening approach isn’t that popular during campaign season, but I feel like I learn a lot more by applying it anyway. People talk about this candidate or that one, but in a way that’s kind of like proselytizing. I just sit and listen, taking in what they have to say, but for the most part I keep my opinions to myself. I don’t feel the need to convert anyone to my cause or persuade them to join with my views. I’ll speak up and talk about issues sometimes, but rarely if ever about specific candidates. I vote in secrecy, as is my right as an American.
Still, I always run into people who believe I should be some kind of authority, or that I should be more involved, or that I should “obviously” understand their side of the argument because of my studies and my attention to the everyday world. But I don’t. I don’t take sides if I can help it. Instead of looking at things as red, blue, or green, I try to see the hundreds of different threads that go into any particular situation. I try to evaluate it as more than a party or candidate specific issue. And I remind myself that the President and members of Congress will continue to be affected by all of those contributing factors long after any votes are tallied.
Politics is not simple. It’s multifaceted, complex, and frustrating. And as much education as I have and as much time as I spend trying to educate myself and keep up to date on current affairs, I refuse to pretend that I actually understand it all or that I have any right to speak authoritatively on the subject. I don’t intentionally proselytize my views, either. Everyone has the right to form their own opinion, same as I did.
And that is all I will say on the subject of politics.