The other day I flushed a public toilet and it just kept running. I’m not talking about one of those politely gurgling high efficiency toilets you might install in your house. This was an industrial model, the kind that can send a cantaloupe to the water treatment plant at the speed of sound.
I wondered about my responsibility in this situation. I tried wiggling the handle. Then I considered reporting the toilet to authorities. Ultimately, I just stood there watching, hoping it would stop.
Something about this reminds me of our current political condition in the United States. On one hand, something is clearly wrong. Every newscast draws our attention to some horribly divisive issue that nevertheless seems distant from our day-to-day lives. The president tweets some outlandish, malformed sentiment that provokes millions of counter points, only to be forgotten before the sun sets.
As such, we are flushed to one political tank or another, sorted by our attitudes and opinions, then fed a barrage of pithy soundbites to reinforce our views. The result is a constant partisan din, a toilet roar that constantly distracts us from meaningful thought or discourse.
That’s how half the country ends up cheering for the malfunctioning toilet (frankly, it is mesmerizing) and the other half can’t agree about how to fix it. So the toilet keeps running. It has no reason to stop.
Part of the challenge in a democracy is keeping everyone engaged with the process. When people do not engage they allow others to make decisions for them. Over time this leads to trusting personalities and parties more than ourselves. Then, when we do want change, the barriers to re-engaging with democracy are high. Those people we trusted? They built tall fences around their power and created a whole new language that most people don’t speak. That leads to people viewing “the government” as some external entity, instead of the collective action of citizens in a democratically-elected republic. This is no accident.
I’ve been close enough to politics to see how this plays out. Someone gets excited about politics; maybe a young person, or maybe someone who just hasn’t gotten involved before. They start attending meetings or participating in caucuses. They volunteer for a campaign.
Walking into a modern political campaign feels like walking into the wrong house. Strange music plays, neither classic nor popular. People speak self-importantly about unimportant minutia. Myopic dinosaurs battle attractive young sociopaths for supremacy in a bloodsport that never relents. At the head of this organization sits a dynamic, sometimes competent candidate who is disturbingly comfortable riding around in a bus that has their face on it. In fact, that’s what they’ve always wanted.
Participation in politics begins with a lengthy orientation period that is in no way enjoyable or grounded in external reality. Survivors of this process become delegates or local party committee members, ensuring that their email inbox will forever bulge with fundraising requests.
Again, I’ve run campaigns. I’ve done all of this. More than most, I know how difficult it is for the non-initiated to participate in politics. I know it so well that I join most people in not wanting to be around it anymore. And yet it is so important, so ridiculously important that we just can’t ignore it.
Next Monday, Feb. 2, the Iowa caucuses begin the actual 2020 political campaign season: the real one, not just the protracted pre-campaign that began before the 2018 midterms. Primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina will follow, along with a Nevada caucus. Then, Super Tuesday on March 3.
This year, Minnesota will hold a presidential primary on Super Tuesday. Rather than allocating delegates based on preferences given at the traditional evening precinct caucuses the state’s major parties will open polls for an entire election day. Voters will be able to vote privately; however, they would be required to request the ballot of one party or another.
Absentee balloting for Minnesota’s presidential primary began more than a week ago. You can request your absentee ballot at www.mnvotes.org. You can also find your polling place there.
All this is to say that if you’ve been sitting out of politics because of how loud, stupid or outrageous it’s become, now is the time to do your research and get back in. For real.
You’ll be glad to know that the toilet that inspired this column did stop running. No toilet runs forever. A functioning democracy can fix a toilet, and much more.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at [email protected].