I entered college not knowing the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. I also didn’t understand what “feminism” meant and had only a rudimentary understanding of race issues thanks to a tattered copy of Roots I found in my garage and read when I was 12. Nobody in my world talked about politics — at least, not in a way that enabled me to understand. I didn’t learn about politics in school, despite being a committed student; a history course taught me the basics of U.S. government, but that’s it. And definitely nothing about current events.
If I, an overachieving bookworm, somehow managed to reach adulthood understanding almost nothing about politics, I can see how someone could get even farther into adulthood and still feel uninformed and overwhelmed. By the time you get this far in life without the basics, where does one even begin?
We’ve got you covered. If you’re like me and didn’t receive an education on politics, and now you’re a full-fledged adult and a little embarrassed to admit how much you don’t know, this article will provide a starting point to educate yourself on how things work. This is a process, of course, so keep in mind this is just a starting point — a primer on learning the mechanics of our government as well as tips to begin to delve into current events.
1. Read our Constitution.
The best place to start is the National Constitution’s Center’s interactive constitution online. In addition to providing the full text of the U.S. Constitution, it includes explanations for important or debated sections, as well as articles that break down the meaning of its parts.
2. Read the Federalist Papers.
The Federalist Papers, a series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, were published in various New York newspapers between 1787 and 1788. The essays were published anonymously under the pen name “Publius” and were meant to persuade the public to adopt the U.S. Constitution. They are considered some of the most important writings for understanding the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, and they are brilliant and fascinating. 230 years ago Alexander Hamilton was talking about freaking confirmation bias. We haven’t changed much, folks.
3. Hit up your local library.
Librarians love helping people learn stuff, and libraries are literally treasure troves of resources and information. Find a reference librarian who will direct you to books that will break things down for you. If you worry you’ll be bored to tears by reference books with tiny print and no pictures (you and me both), ask for books aimed at young adults to get your learning started.
4. Start with what you care about.
When you ask yourself, “What do I care about?” what jumps into your head first? LGBTQ rights? Fixing our busted healthcare system? Institutional racism? Education? Gun regulation? Whatever jumps into your head first, start there. Join an online group and start reading up on your topic. The issues are vast and no one can know all the things, and we all have limited bandwidth, so it’s okay to start by fixating on what you care about most. You will find that once you absorb the history and current events of one issue, it will become easier and easier to move on and do the same with other issues.
5. Listen to Podcasts.
Start with NPR’s “More Perfect,” because it highlights Supreme Court cases that have shaped “everything from marriage and money to public safety and sex.” In an entertaining documentary style, it will give you a solid understanding of how Supreme Court decisions dramatically affect people’s lives. After that, move on to NPR’s other podcasts that are more current-events focused, like The NPR Politics Podcast and Left, Right & Center. Yes, NPR is my favorite — mainly because they are so thorough with their research and reporting, but also because they present information in an incredibly entertaining way.
6. Set up Google Alerts.
Once you’ve identified some key topics you want to focus on, keep yourself informed by setting up Google alerts. It’s simple — go to google.com/alerts, type in the keywords for the topic you want to follow (for example, “LGBTQ rights”), and Google will send you a daily email with a list of articles that have been published on that topic at a specified time of your choosing.
7. Pay attention to your smart friend.
You know that smart friend who posts thoroughly researched political commentaries and news articles in their social feed and always makes you think, “Damn, they are really informed?” But like, no one ever comments on or even “likes” their post because people are sort of sick of politics and quite frankly annoyed by this person’s aggressively earnest commitment to bettering humanity? Read that friend’s posts and use them as a jumping off point for further education.
8. Read the “other side’s” stance too.
Google alerts can help with this one too. The keywords you select will typically yield results for opposing views on your topic of choice. Read those too. If you ever find yourself in a debate with someone over an issue that is important to you, you’ll want to understand where they’re coming from so you can better make your point.
Take the information you have acquired and vote, in both local and national elections. And remember to vote for results, not principles. If you’re voting for a party that has no chance of winning, you may as well not be voting.
Again, this is just a place to start. Don’t get frustrated with yourself when you feel overwhelmed by how much information there is to absorb. Know that doing something is better than doing nothing, and no one knows every single detail of an issue. Do the best you can, and know that’s enough to make a difference, because we really are all in this together.