There’s a visceral thrill and power in voting, and for the past 17 years, back home in Ireland, I never missed an opportunity to cast my ballot. Having moved to the United States earlier this year (hopefully for good), I find myself in a political no-man’s-land as the November midterm elections loom. I can’t vote until I become a US citizen.
It’s disconcerting, being unable to make my voice heard in a new country whose politics I’ve followed closely my entire life. I knew it’d be like this before I came, but the feeling of powerlessness is more frustrating than I expected.
Not being able to vote also feels like the perfect excuse to disengage from politics completely as news alerts assault my phone and computer ahead of the midterms. But the same sense of social responsibility that got me to vote in Ireland year after year keeps tugging at my brain, so I’m eager to engage.
The view from abroad
Growing up in Ireland in the ’90s gave me a skewed view of US politics, heavily weighted in the Democrats’ favor. Despite the intense media focus on former President Bill Clinton’s infidelitiesthe Democrat-led America of that time played a vital role in bringing Northern Ireland’s Troubles to an end. That helped foster romanticized notions about America in my preteen brain.
My perception of American politics became less romantic under the next decade’s Republican government, led by President George W. Bush (being a cynical teenager probably didn’t help). The US military used Irish airports as a stop on their way to Iraq, making the neutral Ireland seem like an accomplice in the controversial War on Terror that followed 9/11.
I only started thinking about the mechanics of US politics early in my career as a journalist, when I realized just how vital the press was in holding elected officials accountable. With the 2012 presidential election approaching, I was determined to develop as balanced a perspective as possible. It was during this period of intense curiosity I read Irish journalist Terry Prone’s 2011 column. In it, she quoted a New York Times column by economist Paul Krugman, who eschewed “the cult of ‘balance,’ the media’s “insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts.”
At the time, I remember feeling like any attempt at adopting a balanced perspective was hopelessly naive. (Prone didn’t respond to my recent request for comment about that column.)
All that feels downright quaint compared with the drama of 2016 and . The last six years of US politics have left me — and I’m sure many others — so jaded it’s easy to forget that much of this is pageantry designed to deflect our attention from reality: Like many jobs, the day-to- day work of politics can be pretty boring and is well within our power to grasp if we don’t get caught up in the theatricality.
The games and reality
Too many people are obsessed with the games of politics — the endless posturing and overblown scandals — presumably due to decades of watching well-groomed people in suits sneering about the other side on obscenely partisan cable TV networks. Aren’t they just advertising their personal brand or promoting their latest book though?
The proliferation of social media influencers only seems to have made this worse, especially since they feel the need to lean in to every hot topic — politics, pop culture, sports, whatever — to keep their name trending and their audience focused on them . It all feels horrendously narcissistic, and pulls us further and further into rage bubbles and away from reality.
Strolling around the streets of New York City (my new home) these last few months, surrounded by a sea of humanity in a place of extreme wealth and poverty, has felt like a powerful dose of reality. It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour, but it’s also absolutely gut-wrenching to witness people who have nothing.
I recently asked myself why I look away from the homeless. Their situation seems like a nightmare, and glaring at them for more than a moment feels like facing a problem with infinite possible causes that lacks any obvious solution. It makes me feel helpful, even more so because I can’t vote for decent, fair-minded candidates presenting reasonable improvements.
So what can I, and other people in my situation, do to stay politically aware and engaged even if we’re “outsiders” who can’t vote? We live in the US now, and we care about the direction of this country.
For the moment, as I get acclimated to life in the US, the simplest way to remain engaged is through thoughtful conversation with my partner, friends and acquaintances, and trying to focus on the practical issues we can imagine solutions to rather than delighting in the latest trending Twitter nonsense, mocking politicians for minor slips of the tongue or drummed-up controversies that’ll fade in a week.
Getting into intensely debated topics likeand too often leads to discussion of party allegiances and generalities about the dichotomies they may represent. My friends and I can respectfully listen to one another and work from there by assessing local politicians’ stances and characters. I might be able to influence the votes who can cast a ballot, and understanding their ballot choices will gradually shape my sense of topics’ political nuances.
Outside the realm of conversation, there are other ways I can make a difference in the short term as a non-voter when it comes to issues that matter to me, such as homelessness. I gave away piles of books, clothes and other possessions to local charities before moving here, so I know how eager many such organizations are for help, how easy they make it to donate and the little endorphin rush such giving creates.
The less inspiring work will come in powering through the mountains of free political literature I’ve previously only scanned — having the patience to sit and read feels like a superpower sometimes — in the hopes of grounding myself in the reality of politics rather than theatricality. Ultimately, I want to view every political issue impacting my new country through the lens of compassion and trusted sources.
Being new to the US presents an opportunity to cast off my old assumptions and engage with politics in a more reasoned way. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be ready by the time I can actually vote again.
Citizen Later, if you will.