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My Fellow Citizens,

How do you follow politics? This phrase “follow politics” has been a part of the American National Election Survey for decades. That means thousands of Americans have answered the question.

But what habit would you have in mind when you answer, “yes?”

Your sister might answer “no” because she knows how involved you are, and she barely keeps up with morning headlines. Your college roommate might answer “yes” because she always serves up the political memes on Facebook (and she doesn’t care what anyone has to say about it either).

Once upon a time, it was all about reading the newspaper. 

What does it mean to follow politics today? When you think about that question now, the list of considerations as to be as fragmented as our media and politics.

Newspapers have changed. Our sources of news have changed. Our expectations of representatives, media sources, candidates, and the general political punditry have all changed. We don’t have to watch the national nightly news. We’re all pundits now!

The biggest challenge we face today might be misinformation on Facebook. In a much-quoted book from 2000, our TV habits took the blame: 

“TV-based politics is to political action as watching ER is to saving someone in distress.” 

― Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone

The habits we have today for following politics might now work any better than what Putnam describes. If we wanted to update the question about following politics, we would have to try to separate good habits from bad ones. There’s also the possibility that an old habit no longer works. 

There’s a big question hidden there. What do we expect following politics to do for us?

If you have followed Politicolor for long, you know I had to quit a Sunday morning talk show habit. I kept watching that standard-issue political spin for months after it stopped working for me. I had a habit. When I said I followed politics, I could prove it. 

We have big moments on the calendar that remind us to review habits in other parts of our lives. We announce New Year’s Resolutions to join the gym or to read two books a month. We post that we’re kicking carbs out of the house to get ready for summer vacation pics. 

Let’s make this summer before the 2020 primary session kicks off... or "officially" kicks off 🤷... our moment to review civic habits.   

Tell us about something you do that has paid off in today’s “political environment.” You likely have had to adopt behaviors to manage your sanity as much as anything else. 

On Pod Save the People’s Earth Day show, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson said she had to quit listening to podcasts. A marine biologist and policy expert, Johnson realized she was bombarded by information all day. To stay fresh for her work and manage her willpower for continued activism, she had to make time to think.

Perhaps that’s the measure of whether or not a civic habit works. What do you do to both follow politics and make time to think? That sounds like the equation for staying informed while also keeping perspective. 

Let’s compare notes. Let’s build up some resilience for the election year ahead.

Let's keep thinking together,


P.S. Let's talk about your summer!

Some of us are closer to that moment than others but there are some big plans for the months ahead. I very much want the Learning Studio to be a place that supports those academic adventures.

That might be about the reading list, staying in touch with the people you meet, or setting up our own sort of mastermind circle.

The platform is yours. Let's talk about using it to make it a little easier to bring those learning experiences home with you.

Reply to this email to send me a note or jump ahead and schedule a phone call with this link.
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Questions of Civic Proportions

"A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit."


Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our Learning Studio)

Have old habits of mind kept us from seeing new challenges that have us surrounded?

We have clear evidence that we face new threats to what we understand as a right to privacy. We should consider that it’s also time to update what we know about the harm these threats cause us. We have all given away our data for the privilege of Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Candy Crush. We think we have a handle on this bargain, but this conversation between The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and author Shoshana Zuboff will show all the ways we’re thinking about this wrong. 

One turn in the conversation includes this insight from investigative reporter Julia Angwin. She says we would do better to think of it as data pollution:
“Living in a world where all of your data is collected and swept up in these dragnets all the time and will be used against you in a way that you will probably never be able to trace and you will never know about it feels like that same type of collective harm.”

The corporate threats have not replaced the threats from the government either. Massive amounts of data have opened up new fronts there too. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently purchased “the world’s best iPhone hacking” software for $820,00. Prosecutors have started to build their own DNA databases by offering plea bargains known as, “spit and acquit,” and at least two U.S. cities have purchase real-time facial recognition program known as FaceWatch Plus.  

If only Orwell could see us now. 🤢


What’s the next move when institutions stop following their established patterns of behavior?

Longtime court watcher Jeffrey Toobin believes we’re also approaching today’s legal questions all wrong. Writing for The New Yorker, Toobin shows how a case-by-case approach of eras past has managed institutional clashes. He thinks using that approach today “misses the point” with the current showdown over congressional subpoenas, claims of Executive Privilege, and flat defiance. 

President Trump’s declaration, “We’re fighting all the subpoenas" sounds uncomfortably similar to President Nixon’s commitment to, “Let it go to the Supreme Court. Fight it like hell.” Nixon’s plan fell apart with an 8-0 decision from the Supreme Court in July 1974. No one expects a decision like that in 2019, but it explains why new voices have started talking about impeachment. That move would change the “math.” 

Toobin’s opinion piece, “The Constitutional System is Not Built to Resist Trump’s Defiance of Congress,” shows the difficulty in responding to an “open campaign of total defiance of another branch of government.” 

We asked community members to help us build a reading list on this question in the Learning Studio. Recommendations there include:

Adam Liptak writing for the New York Times, “Is Obstruction an Impeachable Offense? History Says Yes,” and Alex Shephard’s argument in The New Republic, “Should Democrats Impeach Trump? Wrong Question.”

Hint: The right question asks about the rule of law. You can still add your recommendations to the Learning Studio post too. 


Can the routine of seeing all the usual headlines blind us to seeing what’s changed?

This article looks like a lot of others. The banner on Vanity Fair says, “Why is America so violent? And will gun laws ever change?" You’ll have to listen to the author’s interview of Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. She has a long list of ways the conversation has changed and talks about how vulnerable the NRA is today. While it’s true that these events keep happening, the conversation around them has had to change as students have decided to speak for themselves and the students of some of the earliest tragedies now speak as parents

More to consider as you weather all those stories at the top of the page today and that will be there again tomorrow:

While the Texas legislature will likely pass a law that makes it more difficult to remove Confederate monuments, the state has already removed more of those monuments than any other state.

The gender balance of the states passing the most restrictive bans on abortion hasn’t surprised anyone. Take a break from the tension of those developments to read the story of Nevada’s majority-female legislature.

Spoiler—the last paragraph reads:
“Cancela said she was nervous when she defended the measure with a reference to vasectomy that day in March. But she said she willed herself to summon the courage to disrupt the usual order.

‘I wanted to be respectful,’ she said. ‘But also make a point.’”

Let's follow Cancela's lead. And Nevada's!
Don't keep those thoughts all bound up in your own head.
We have a space where you can share them with other thoughtful people. It's up to us to connect with one another by thinking together on civic questions. 
Join the Learning Studio

Have you weighed in on these conversations yet?

🤓 We now have at least six different ways to talk about how to be more democratic. Catch up with the second post from the pages of First Democracy. You don't have to finish the book or even read it to join the discussion on May 30th. Let us introduce you to what could be your next read!
🗣️ We shared Benjamin Wittes's "Five Things I Learned from the Mueller Report" in our Up for Conversation post. It's a measured wrap-up of what he has made of it what's publicly available. Have you decided what you've learned from the Mueller Report? It might be time to figure it out.

👀 Looking ahead, Keep Dreaming Democracy will pick up the idea of democracy as the practices of "citizen wisdom" and "reasoning without knowledge." Even the author says you don't have to read the book to join the conversation! 😉

✨ We'll also start sharing summer institute news and swapping reading lists as that information comes our way.

Good Work: Mandy Barker turns plastic pollution into works of art

Photographer Mandy Barker goes by @plasticpieces on Twitter. She has picked up plastic debris from the UK’s East Yorkshire coastline for the last ten years. Barker arranges those “finds” into elaborate photos that include plastic toys, fishing line, bottle caps, balloons, cigarette lighters, plastic flowers, toothpaste tubes, and soccer balls. One of her images includes 633 soccer balls (or pieces) collected from 104 different beaches over just four months.

Barker makes beautiful art. That’s part of the photographer’s plan for raising awareness:
“The aim of my work is to engage with and stimulate an emotional response in the viewer by combining a contradiction between initial aesthetic attraction along with the subsequent message of awareness.”

You can now find her work published in over 40 countries. L’Express has one of the best headlines—“Microplastiques L’Invastion Invisible.” The images and the messages break free of language differences. In this video for the BBC, she says she imagines the viewer is “drawn in to see the beauty of the image… And then, when they read what it’s about, they get the hard-hitting stab in the back of what it represents.” No translator necessary!

Today she accompanies scientists on research expeditions and hopes her work will lead to “positive action” to address a global concern. You are bound to find something you recognize in Barker’s images. Army men, a balloon on a string, and a hundred other disposable items in the images will nag at you as you wonder how all these items ended up in the ocean and in the stomachs of marine animals. 

Mandy Barker’s art tuns the consequences of our disposable habits into inescapable insights. We have to look at how it all adds up in the world we share.

And just in case you didn't click on the link above, check out these amazing images

Help us make civic questions part of the universe of things we all do to "follow politics." Share this email with a friend who always has a good perspective to share.

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