I recently saw a picture of a sign that read: “Think of the most vulnerable person you know, and vote in their best interests.” It was one of the best summaries I had seen online that summed up the way that I feel about our current US politics.
The statement is intended to challenge all of us to consider how our voting choices affect other people. I started thinking about all of the people I know, the friends and family members who by all appearances are doing well and those who I know are struggling with a pile of issues. I was forced to admit that what would benefit me wouldn’t necessarily benefit them. The reality is I am an educated white woman, we are comfortably middle class, and my family is relatively healthy. I’m not concerned about my basic needs and because that isn’t my primary concern, I’m able to look ahead to other issues that face my family. But that isn’t the case for a lot of people.
I’m not sure when it happened, but it seems that much of the online battlefield centers on the way that we view our responsibility to our fellow humans. Empathy should not be political. We are not all going to feel the same level of empathy for everyone, mostly because that is influenced by our personal experiences and relationships. But our political decisions, from people running for office to ballot initiatives, should be not be driven by what is best for us in a given moment. Why? Because a group is only as a strong as their weakest members and we have a lot of weak members in this country.
The truth that far too many are willing to ignore is that we are all a major life event away from seeing everything we know turned upside-down.
We discovered this during the housing crash that started in 2008. We watched as families more vulnerable than us lost their homes in our lower middle class neighborhood. Slowly, house after house went into foreclosure. And then we discovered that we had to move to another city because of a job transfer, something we hadn’t asked for. The vulnerability of others made us vulnerable to a housing market over which we had no control. We had a house we couldn’t sell, we intentionally bought a house that was falling apart because it was what we could afford, and we were unexpectedly bleeding money into repairs in one house while monthly deciding if we should make a house payment on a place we were never planning to live in again. Then we turned on our furnace at the end of October and discovered that we needed to replace the whole system, putting us further into debt with a new furnace and an interest rate well over 20%. The day after we hosted Thanksgiving, our well pump went out. I was pregnant, we had a toddler, and in our desperation to get the repair handled we picked an inferior company that charged us more than they initially told us, took longer than expected, and cleaned out the savings that was our only safety net. We closed out the year forced to skip a house payment until we were able to find a renter for a house that we couldn’t sell.
Most of us do not live in a bubble entirely of our own making. For better or for worse, the vast majority of us are interconnected in some way, our actions impacting the health, finances, and general well-being of those around us. It took years of observation, but I’m discovering that one of the places this is most true is at the ballot box.
Politicians don’t get very far when they appeal to our better nature. While we all praise John F. Kennedy for famously challenging us to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we prefer that those running for political office tell us how they are going to make our lives easier or better. But maybe, instead of allowing our politicians to ask, “Are you better off than you were x-number of years ago?” we should be demanding that they ask, “Are we better off than we were x-number of years ago?”
It brings up all sorts of questions, doesn’t it? Most importantly, it forces us to be real with ourselves and consider who we are going to include in the “we.”
If we care about the health of our country, the answer should be “everyone.”
When we consider the needs of the least of these, when we seek to improve the situation for the most vulnerable among us, we demonstrate a clear understanding of the interconnected nature of humanity. And in working to make the lives of others better, we create a safety net for ourselves should we ever be knocked off of our own feet.
We are at a crossroads, people questioning an overhaul of the entire system. I would argue that we don’t need to turn the Constitution upside down. But we can’t leave people outside in the cold just because we see it as benefiting our immediate self-interests. It’s time we start thinking long term, considering the human cost, and finding a better way.
It’s more than the American experiment at stake; it’s our humanity.