Eleanor Roosevelt’s five ways to take part in politics

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.


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  1. Sarah Christy says:

    I have found Eleanor Roosevelt a fascinating person. As an older adult, I recall her serving as ambassador to the UN. She was certainly a force for good in our culture. Three years ago I was able to tour her personal home, Val-Kill as well as the big house. The guide pointed out the two chairs where she and JFK sat when he came to ask her for a endorsement in the presidential election. The guide said that she pushed for racial equality policies as part of her willingness to endorse. Thanks for selecting the book and the blog about her. She was a admirable pioneer.

  2. Seana Mohr says:

    I’m actually filling out my absentee ballot today, so this was very timely advice! I’ve been following some of her advice since the last election. I think it’s made all the difference in how I’m voting this year.

  3. Gita says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post.I was looking for a way to get mentally active in politics,and I think I have found a guideline

  4. Ally says:

    I have a question in case anyone has any ideas. I have a brother that is very apathetic to politics and just found out that he had never voted. I was shocked! I pretty quickly realized that I was not the first to convince him. But that he had many people who he knew with a similar perspective. “What is my vote really doing to do?” “I don’t like politics, so I’m just staying out of the whole thing on principle.” “What’s going to happen is going to happen, and it doesn’t really affect me either way.” I couldn’t come up with any reasons that resonated with him. Any ideas? Or should I just stay out of it?

    • Veronica says:

      My parents always told me that if I don’t vote, I can’t discuss or complain about the outcome. Effectively, you’ve lost your voice. I always make sure I vote! I passed that on to my children.

    • CYNDIE LAKE says:

      Start with the local and state elections this is where your vote actually does “count” these are the people who directly affect you daily life. Understand who they are and how they vote and what their values are. Party affiliations are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned I look at each candidate and pick the ones for each office that fit with what I personally value and will do the best good/least harm to us now and hopefully in the future.

  5. Aimee says:

    I love that you posted this! Thank you for engaging a potentially divisive topic so informatively and graciously. Posts like these give me hope for the future of political discourse in this country.

  6. Eleanor (and you) nailed it!!

    Here in Australia, we have compulsory voting, and yet disengagement with the political process is still the highest I’ve ever seen it. There seems to be a perception along the lines of “It’s nothing to do with me!” or “I can’t make a difference!” – and yet, so many of the problems and concerns that make up our days and lives are inherently political. I’m watching and cheering you all on from the other side of the world, band together and show us how it’s done! 😉

  7. Janene Misak says:

    I loved this! I think that so many people today could benefit from the third point of listening to learn from people with different points of view than your own. I think too many today are so polarized in their viewpoints and completely certain that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is evil and dangerous! If we could tone that down by listening, it would be a great step in finding common ground and start to find solutions to many issues our country faces. Thanks for these words of wisdom!

  8. Andrea says:

    I’ve had that edition of the book sitting on my shelf since it was released, but haven’t read it yet. It just shot to the top of my TBR. Thanks for this post!

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