I recently had the pleasure of re-reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s memoir-of-sorts You Learn By Living. She wrote it in 1960, when she was 76 years old. It feels a bit dated in places, yet it’s striking how fresh and wise her insights seem today, over fifty years later.
She ends the book by discussing the citizens’ role in the political sphere, and with midterms looming, Roosevelt’s hard-won advice couldn’t be more timely. In fact, if you tweak just a few of her words, her urgings sound like they could have been penned this morning.
It’s an excellent book, one that really deserves to be better known. If you can find yourself a copy, please go read chapter 10. She specifically addresses U.S. citizens, and lays out how everyone can take part in politics, which she defines as “the participation of the citizen in his government.”
For those who don’t have the book, here’s your cheat sheet:
1. “The minimum, the very basic minimum, of a citizen’s duty is to cast a vote on election day.” In 2016 voter turnout was 61.6%. You know what to do.
2. “This carries with it a further duty—to vote intelligently.” Roosevelt acknowledges it’s not easy, but nothing worthwhile is easy. And you can’t learn all at once; a political education doesn’t happen in one easy lesson, but is the work of years.
3. “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own.” She cautions, “If you merely defend your opinion without re-examination, any discussion is quite pointless.”
4. “The simplest and most obvious way in which to begin familiarizing yourself with your duties as a citizen and with the mechanics of politics is to take the trouble to pay some attention to local politics.” It’s easier to learn to vet candidates in your own community, where you better know and understand the issues. “Here again, as in all education, the learning process makes each step easier…. You will discover, to your astonishment, that within a few years time you will have made yourself a discriminating citizen, able to know what you have a right to expect from a candidate, at whatever level.”
5. “Politics is not simply a career for professionals. It is a medium through which you, as a citizen, can accomplish certain things for your children or your community.”
Roosevelt reassures her readers that it’s not easy to begin one’s political education, but it’s worth it—for the individual and the community. If you don’t consider yourself politically engaged, start now. Election Day is November 6. Find your polling location here.