Sometimes when I see Trump supporters ridiculing “sensitive snowflake” Democrats on Twitter, I think of my reaction to the last presidential election and can’t help but feel, well, seen.
In November 2016, I was the soggiest of snowflakes: weeping in the streets, foretelling death and destruction for America’s most vulnerable (and that was before the pandemic). Mostly, I felt shame.
I had done a few volunteer sessions for Hillary Clinton and donated probably the equivalent of a midweek grocery run to her campaign—the bare minimum. “If I get a chance to do this again in four years,” I promised, grunt-sobbing, “I’ll do so much better.”
A few months before the 2020 election, I started asking myself: What have I really done to prevent results in the White House and Congress and in smaller, local races? Sure, I’d gone to protests, signed petitions, and given a few bucks here and there. But there was a major gap between my professed values (supporting politicians whose platforms include access to basic services and a commitment to civil rights) and my behavior (looking at pictures of myself from high school to judge whether I was hotter then or now).
I spent some of this summer phone-banking—sometimes just for a half an hour while flipping through Instagram, sometimes for two hours on a Zoom call with friends. And I have concluded that doing this feels more like self-care than any spa visit or clothing purchase I’ve ever made. (This is not at all to discount working with a therapist and panic-buying loungewear sets, both of which I also do.) I volunteer because I want to see change. But I also do it for myself. With one month left until the election, I just want to be able to genuinely say, “I tried.”
I don’t think I’m alone. “The universe of people who pay attention to and care a lot about politics is much larger than the universe of people who are involved in volunteering or substantial activity to impact politics,” says Leah Greenberg, founder of Indivisible, an organization which works to mobilize voters.
There are a lot of good reasons for that. For some people, it’s the fact that they have to focus on basic needs like putting food on the table. Some people just don’t care. But for a lot of us, there’s one predominant roadblock: feeling anxious, and like we have no power.
People are in pain over politics: Following the 2016 inauguration, in a survey of a representative sample of Americans, 38% of respondents felt that politics made them “stressed,” and 11% felt that politics made them physically ill. The tools that a normal person has to correct the political status quo are well-publicized: Besides voting itself, there’s volunteering, fundraising, and donating. We know this. So what is stopping so many of us from taking simple actions that might make us feel less miserable?
“Getting unstuck in moving through our values when we are feeling anxious has to do with having self-compassion,” says Jennifer Douglas, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
Doom-scrolling Twitter and news sites? That’s a side effect of evolution, Douglas says. Our brains have been practicing gathering information about danger since the caveman era. But that information is supposed to be a fact or two about predators, not coverage of every bad thing happening in the world at every waking moment. “We actually deplete a lot of our energy and time by absorbing the news,” she says. “Part of the reason that I believe people are not hitting the ground running is that they come to the idea of contributing and they’re already overwhelmed.”
When we do to take action, Douglas adds, self-doubt creeps in. “Many of us in modern professional society have a fairly heavy streak of perfectionism in us,” she says. “It can be really hard for people to move toward what we want to see in the world when we can’t do it perfectly.”
For example, she says, people decide not to donate because they think $5 won’t make a difference. Or they don’t sign up to volunteer because if they can’t commit to doing it weekly, they figure, Why do it at all? “A lot of folks can feel really powerless, like they can’t move the needle,” she says. “The problem is, when that happens on a very large scale, you have hundreds of thousands of people who want to do something, who stopped short of the action piece because they feel like they can’t do the action unless they do it perfectly.”
And each of those people, points out political science professor Eitan Hersh, has the power to double or triple their impact on an election with just a few hours of volunteering. Hersh notes that first-time phone bankers are often put off—people on their lists aren’t home, or they hang up, or it feels like out of a dozen calls, only one made a difference. “That instinct has got to change,” he says. “It’s gotta be, ‘Oh my God, I just doubled my vote! That’s huge!’” You can start an hour of phone banking with the one vote you’ve had since you were 18, and end it with a second vote. Tell me that’s not the self-care equivalent of $45 of Lush products.
Hersh, who wrote the book Politics Is for Power, makes the case that many people, especially educated white men, engage in “political hobbyism”—the habit of following politics as one would follow sports, rather than “doing” politics to better people’s lives. (If you have ever been cornered by a white man with an IPA and a strong opinion about a social issue that will never, ever affect him, you know what Hersh means.)
I would add that women, to generalize, often don’t get involved in politics because we are not taught to think of ourselves as capable. In spite of that, women actually do grassroots political organizing at higher rates than men, Hersh points out. And our direct political involvement is only growing since 2016. “The number of women we have talked to who are teachers or who have done sales or events in their lives, or ran their PTA—that gives you a lot of organizing skills,” says Greenberg. “People [are] finding that, in many ways, the things they thought of as apolitical professional or personal pursuits made them really well-qualified.”
Still, it’s hard to start political volunteering if it’s something that’s not common in your friend group or your community, or if you feel unqualified. But if you care about politics, you are qualified to try to change them. “Sometimes I might be the only woman in the room and in many cases for me I'm the only young Black woman in a room,” says Tiffany Dena Loftin, national director for the youth and college division at the NAACP. “But that's not impostor syndrome; that's opportunity. I have an opportunity as a woman to stand confidently in my experience and powerfully in the spirit of where I come from.”
What opportunity would you take if you were not too anxious, too scared, too in doubt of your own abilities? Here are some ways to start.
Realize phone banking isn’t about getting yelled at by strangers.
Contrary to stereotypes, phone banking doesn’t usually involve getting screamed at by strangers who disagree with you. More often, it’s about reminding people to vote and making sure they know how. Sure, people will hang up on you, which is discouraging, but it’s not personal. Pretty often people will thank you. Every person who you can point to a poll station might be a slap in the face of voter suppression and another vote for your candidate.
You can make calls to swing states any day, using this tool that requires about 30 seconds of training. You can attend Zoom phone banks literally any day with Indivisible or Swing Left or Mobilize America or by googling the name of any candidate you like. A trainer will walk you through every step, and the other volunteers on the Zoom will make you feel like part of a kind, weird team.
“Personally, I’m a shy introvert,” says Greenberg. “But I love canvassing. I think that the best advice for any individual person is just: Try it once.” She also recommends giving yourself a reward afterward. (I always give myself a giant latte.)
If phone banking isn’t for you, don’t give up.
It’s okay to realize that you’re just not up to phone banking. “If you have social anxiety, don’t just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and volunteer an hour a week of phone banking, which is going to leave you with crippling anxiety,” says Douglas, the psychologist. “You can find the things that matter to you and you feel like you can give back and can make you feel good—you can lay your head in bed at night and say, ‘Yeah, I did my time.’”
Those things might be text banking, which is less effective than phone banking but can reach many more people in a short time. Or letter writing or postcarding, which can bring out the writer or the crafter in you. Do it with friends, social distanced or over Zoom, with drinks and a movie on. “Volunteering is about being creative,” Loftin says. “It’s about doing what you enjoy doing for a great cause.” That can mean getting wine-drunk with friends and putting too much glitter on a postcard to a nice person in Texas.
Donate to campaigns you like.
Even small dollar donations can make a huge difference—and donating counts as a form of volunteering, Loftin points out. “You've got to go to the polls with the issues that you care most about, the issues that matter most to your family, and the problems that need to be fixed in your community.” The same is true for donations—putting money toward a candidate you care about is putting money toward your values. Even though every single text and email from a candidate sounds like it was written by your neediest ex or a dog who gained the power of speech. (“Jenny, please? I need this.”)
Help your friends and family vote.
Celebrities don’t tend to mention this in their Get Out the Vote PSAs, but the logistics of voting can sometimes be purposefully confusing. It is hugely impactful to identify the people around you who would vote for your candidate and encourage them to actually cast their ballots.
Take it upon yourself to remind your broke cousin that, for example, Joe Biden wants to introduce loan forgiveness, and to tell your grandma whose meds are never handled right to vote for the Senate candidate who plans to expand Medicare for All. Tell your former crush who no longer holds power over you that his polling place is the fire station two streets down from his house, and it’s not weird that you know that, it’s fine. You have a real likelihood of persuading people in your life to vote, and to vote their values.
Find a political home.
A major reason people might not see themselves as political volunteers is because we think all political things will be loud, angry, and combative. Luckily, most political volunteering isn’t like that. “The goal of politics is to be part of a community of people where people rely on each other to get things done,” Hersh says. Walking into a neighborhood meeting of grassroots organizers (or logging on to the Zoom gathering), you’re not going to see pundits screaming at each other like on the news, he adds. “These people care about each other and have a mission, and their mission is to increase the power of their values. It’s just so positive.”
A great first step, Loftin says, is to “find your social justice home.” Look for a group where you can set down your anxieties in the safety of people who are working to make the world a better place. “People think that getting involved in politics is an individual activity,” she says. “It's not—politics is all about people.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour