For When You're Worried About the Election

Dog looking suspiciously sideways
Photo by Mitchell Luo / Unsplash

The other night, I was in the kitchen making cookies and listening to a podcast from earlier in the week.

I grated ginger as the hosts - two real smart cookies - forecasted the outcome of a special election for the U.S. House in Long Island. Their confidence was so dang comforting: who doesn't want to know the future?

Especially when it comes to politics. Even if it's an ugly outcome, at least there's some ease in knowing. The uncertainty is behind us and we can reorganize our thinking around this new reality.

It's worth a pause here to make a useful distinction: Policy is a course of action or plan: the Obamacare bill, say. Politics is the power to make it happen: Nancy Pelosi getting the Obamacare bill across the finish line. You can't really have politics without policy and vice versa.

Useful note here: What the news (and podcasts) cover is mostly politics: far more of us know Senator Manchin had a bone to pick with President Biden's Build Back Better Plan than what, exactly, was in the plan (raise the tax rate on corporations to 28%, give tax breaks to nearly 4 million small businesses, and more.)

Elections are roughly 5% broad stroke policy - a candidate's stance on immigration, reproductive rights, guns, etc. - and 95% the politics of those policies. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had enough policy white papers to fill the first floor of the Library of Congress. But almost nobody was checking them out. In elections, politics nearly always overrides policy.

Back in my kitchen, I poured maple syrup into a Pyrex as these old political hands laid out some pretty compelling facts. They spoke with the swagger of experience. If anybody knew what was going to happen in that special election, it was probably them. To listen to them was to know the future. There was just one thing.

They were wrong.

The election happened after the podcast was recorded and not only were these sages (whom I enjoy very much, for the record) wrong, they were completely wrong. Their predicted loser had won handily.

People who predict the future, those tamers of uncertainty, often get the lime-iest light. And even when they're wrong, we keep on looking to them. We are certainty craving creatures in an uncertain world.

When I was in D.C., my buddy Ed, a long-time Washingtonian, gave me a great piece of political and policy insight, "Those who say, don't know. And those who know, don't say." And I'd add, sometimes those who know, know that the future is a pretty twisty, misty path.

So when it comes to elections, the people I trust the most are the ones who say, "I don't know." My Mum and I used to say that life isn't about knowing everything, it's about who we are in the not knowing, the uncertainty, since there will always be more that's unknown than known to us.

Now that's all poetic and nice, but not quite comforting this frenetic year. Being overrun with uncertainty can be fertile ground for a strict diet of avoidance and eating all this cookie dough I'm making. What are we mere mortals who need a bit of certainty to function supposed to do?

Here's how I've been thinking about it: I imagine we each have hopes for what this election will hold. And those aren't just hopes for the election outcome, but for the world that outcome will help create.

I had an absolutely terrific elementary school teacher who taped a poster up in his classroom that said: "When you hope, move your feet." The great Congressman John Lewis was a fan, and practitioner, of that proverb.

We can vote, give money, door knock for the election - and those can all be good uses of our time. But the world we want to live in, we could also start building that now.

We could take two minutes for a healthier democracy.

Learn how to call a politician's bluff.

Choose one policy project in our town to do this year: work with the library to eliminate fines, work with the Parks Department to clean up a litter-filled park, work with the Planning or Public Works Department to get a crosswalk painted in Pride colors.

Commit to this one resolution for a better democracy.

I used an ice cream scoop - a nifty trick I saw my favorite local bakery do - to plop batter onto a sheet. The podcast pundits were now prognosticating confidently on the year's Big Campaign. I get it, there isn't much of a market for folks who say, "I don't know," for a living. (But remember: folks who say they do know, don't always know!)

The politics of the campaign, those can be pretty smelly and unpleasant. But if we think about the world we want to live in and commit to working on a piece of policy that supports that, this year could end up being a pretty special time to be alive.

(And here's that cookie recipe; I add grated ginger, sometimes chia seeds. It's a personal favorite.)

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