by Penny Teal
Originally published in the Mystic River Press on January 30, 2003
If you want to get yourself off anyone's guest list these days, the easiest way to do it without insulting their parentage is to talk politics at their parties. Unlike the good old days of the 1800's when it seems talking politics was the hippest thing to do, our society's tendency is to squelch any mention of the subject. This works out very well for those who have power and who wish to retain it unmolested. And those people are not necessarily our elected officials, but the ones behind the scenes who control the purse strings.
The taboo against talking about politics is one powerful way in which our democratic rights have been eroded over the past several decades. Another is the training we get, beginning in grade school, that we are all here to follow someone else's orders (in school, even when we need to relieve ourselves, someone else has to decide for us whether or not it's critical). There are leaders looking out for us; we ourselves are not part of that elite cadre. If we feel the need to be involved, we can vote.
How many of this paper's readers, for instance, have ever considered running for public office? Unless your name is Rob Simmons (or Cathy, Lenny, etc.), your answer is probably some variation on "What, do I look crazy?" When people asked me, a year ago, why I wouldn't run, that's exactly what my response was. Then I went crazy, or something (maybe it was an unfortunate alignment of the moon and Mercury), and decided to give it a try.
Believe it or not, apart from spending my nineteenth summer backpacking in the Rockies, it was the best thing I've ever done. Finally, after 40 years of complaining from the sidelines, I was actually working toward changing the world (or at least the state of Connecticut) in ways that I feel are necessary. I must've shed half a ton of guilt, overnight! And it became clear, fairly quickly, that I am not the only person in New London County who feels we need to fix the budget, take care of the needy, cut corporate welfare, and so on. Years of isolation ended just like that.
Moreover, the people who were sympathetic to that message came from every age group, from all different neighborhoods and backgrounds, and from both ends of the supposed political spectrum of left to right. I learned, in a profound way, that the divisions we believe in are largely fabricated, used to manipulate, to divide and conquer, and that we all have more in common than otherwise... a comforting realization.
Perhaps the most surprising benefit, though, of running for office is that it caused a whole new person to emerge from under a painfully shy and insecure exterior of 4 decades' persistence. Friends have commented on how I've "changed," and it's definitely a change for the better. What a relief to find that it's acceptable, even respectable, to speak my mind. All those years of being told to be quiet and to let someone else think for me, gone!
If you care about the mess we're in (and I think most of us do, even though we sometimes feel so overwhelmed that we try to hide from it all) you have all it takes to become politically active. Well, unfortunately the system is currently rigged so that you need time and money as well. But if you're watching Seinfeld reruns, not working 2 or 3 jobs, you can probably make the time. Don't worry about the money part: that needs to be changed anyway, and it's a campaign issue you can speak about with genuine passion.
Getting involved, openly, in politics is like admitting you breathe. We are all affected by the decisions made at all levels of government, and if we're not actively participating in getting the people who best represent our views into office, then we're passively allowing those who don't represent our views to govern. Feel like you're the last person on earth who could or should run for office? You should definitely run.
Penny Teal is a former Green Party candidate for the CT State Senate