The Antidote to Despair

7 mins read

A reader of this blog wrote this after reading yesterday’s list of real issues and problems to face in the next few months:

Yale Professor Timothy Snyder offers insight about despair. He says: “shock is pre-helpless.” First we’re shocked. Then paralyzed with helplessness. This generally happens when people think: “This is entirely new! Nothing like this has ever happened.” If it’s never before happened, we see no way out.

But we’ve been here before, and we’ve gotten out before. If you think we have never been here before, imagine being African American in the year 1850. Or a woman. Or both. Yeah, it’s been worse for a lot of people.

To make a lasting change, we all need to own our democracy and take constructive steps to strengthen the institutions that are currently being battered by the human wrecking ball in the White House and the major political party supporting him.

Here is some good advice to help motivate people out of their despair:

If you can get people moving, they’ll find that volunteering not only helps save democracy—it also saves our sanity. The weeks I spent in 2018 in a Texas detention center offering legal assistance to asylum seekers through Raices lifted me out of the exhausting daily news cycle. (If you’re curious about my experiences, they’re here.)

I didn’t even read the news. I ignored the daily outrage without guilt because I knew I was pushing back in tangible ways. Trump’s game is to keep us spinning with outrage. If you’re spinning, you can’t plan. If you’re in a what-if rabbit hole you can’t respond to the emergency in front of us.

Let me give you an example of what good community organizing can do. Outrage and anger won’t help when with an election day disaster—but a good organization can send a fleet of drivers to take voters to the polls or take water and refreshments to people stuck in long lines.

So become a community organizer.

Another example: Suppose at the last minute, a Republican-held state suddenly change their voting laws to make something difficult for lower-income communities. A good organization can mobilize resources to get what they need.

The cure for what ails us is more democracy, or what Obama calls “citizenship”:

OK, so what do you do?

First things first: Make sure you’re still registered to vote. Lots of people are being purged from lists. There are lots of resources out there for checking your registration and how to vote in your state. I’ve started using the Biden campaign’s link because I assume they’re keeping it up to date.

Volunteer to be a poll worker if you canThis link can get you started. Many of the problems we’ve had in recent elections, including the Georgia primary, could have been solved with more poll workers. Each state has a different procedure.

Elections are monitored locally, and most of the work is done by volunteers. In some states, you can apply for the job of counting votes.

Wanna make sure it’s done right? Do it yourself.

Our democratic institutions are under attack. So what should you do? Defend them. (Stop bashing them. They don’t always work perfectly.) Become an institutionalist. How? See this post.

In some states, you can become an official volunteer voter registrarJames Williams tells how he did it in his state. He completed his course and keeps his certificate and paperwork with him so he never misses an opportunity to register a new voter.

Want to really make a difference in politics and government? Don’t just march, run for something. Do it! Run for Something recruits and supports progressives running for local office with the long-term goal of building a bench for decades to come. Click here for more information.

If you don’t like (or don’t trust) how elections are monitored, run for office to be the person making decisions about how they will be monitored. Do you think someone else should do all the work for you?

Nobody owes you a democracy.

If you’re a lawyer, volunteer to help monitor the election. Call your local Democratic office. Oh, yeah, and contribute to Biden and local Democrats. The Senate race is super important. We need to counter the lies, and that takes money.

If you are a teacher consider an assignment requiring students to advocate on behalf of an issue of their choice, or allow / encourage them to substitute an assignment with a civic engagement activity of some kind.

Americans of Conscience has ideas for letters you can write to elected officials. (If your elected official is someone like Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz, or Mitch McConnell, you may make more progress trying to talk to a cinderblock.)

Volunteer in your local Democratic office. If you find the place a bit disorganized, get to work and organize it. Why not set up a fleet to drive people to the polls?

Georgia Protect the Vote needs poll watchers. Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be able to help. (This job is different from poll worker. Poll workers (are also badly needed in most places) work for the county or state.)

Despair comes from helplessness. The antidote is to get busy.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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