Political engagement may be the key to fighting our loneliness epidemic

In "Democracy in Retrograde," Emily Amick and Sami Sage argue activism can be good for mental health

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 9, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

People watch the CNN presidential debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a debate watch party at Shaws Tavern on June 27, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
People watch the CNN presidential debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a debate watch party at Shaws Tavern on June 27, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Engaging in politics can be a form of self-care. That might seem hard to buy, especially if your main form of political engagement is doom-scrolling and posting scary stories on social media. The authors of a new book, "Democracy in Retrograde: How to Make Changes Big and Small in Our Country and in Our Lives," argue, however, that getting off the couch and into the political mix not only helps the larger community, it is good for your mental health. 

Emily Amick, former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sami Sage, cofounder of Betches Media, offer a guide to getting into political activism that has tones of a self-help book. The goal is to find a form of activism that fits with a reader's skills and emotional needs so that getting involved is nourishing instead of draining. 

Amick spoke to Salon about this unique approach to motivating people to do more to save democracy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Why did you and Sami write this book? 

This book is the answer we want to give to all of the DMs we receive where we can only give a two-sentence answer, but we want to give a 200-page answer. People say, "I'm totally hopeless. I feel exhausted. I don't know what to do." We have some ideas! Here's a way to figure out what you want to do.

You format this book like a self-help book. It reads like a book on how to improve your life or improve your relationship. But in this case, it's improve your relationship to political engagement and activism. Why did you use that framework?

We consider the book to be a self-help book. Civic engagement is something that will improve your own life for a lot of different reasons. It's self-help for yourself. Also for your community, your country, and your kids' future. It's doing double duty, in which all of that comes back and improves your life again.

There's a loneliness epidemic in the country. Civic engagement, activism, and getting involved in something meaningful to you are great ways to fight the loneliness epidemic. Build a community of people who you share values with. It tremendously enhances your life.

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People are often skeptical when I say you can fight the feeling of hopelessness by volunteering. People worry getting out into the world will make them feel even worse, like they're just a drop in the bucket. What do you say to that particular objection?

I think that's a valid feeling. People are facing a political establishment that's a gerontocracy, of disproportionately old white men. We also have minority rule and the fact that democracy is in retrograde. Even media headlines have statistically gotten more negative over the past 20 years. The vibes are bad. I don't want to negate that. Everyone's feelings about the whole endeavor are valid.

"Voting is one tool in our civic tool belt. It's a big one, but I want civic engagement to not be a biannual freakout."

Still, I appreciate that you talk about drops in the bucket. My political philosophy is that a rising tide lifts all boats. The way you lift that tide is thousands of raindrops. At the end of the day, we live in these communities because everyone is willing to do a little bit of work to help other people. That's the only way we're able to reap the rewards from having the communities that we formed. It involves everyone just doing a little piece.

Over the years, I've done so many different types of things. But from my personal experience, it is the smaller things where I  impact one person's life. That's what I look back on as being the most fulfilling. Part of the narrative in this book is pushing people to engage with local politics. So much of our time is spent talking about these massive national political issues that are somewhat calcified and intransigently rooted in a Supreme Court that will take a while to change. But if you want to get speed bumps put on your street because you are worried about kids getting killed by cars? You can spend a year or two working on that. You get to see the speed bumps. You get to feel a sense of accomplishment and progress. That's motivational for continuing to get involved in the future. 

I'm so glad you're talking about people's feelings. Many people underestimate how much it will make them feel better to just do something. It's so easy to sit and stew and tweet and rage and complain to your friends, and often that makes us feel bad. So it can feel like taking action will make it worse, but, it actually can make you feel so much better. Even if it's just a small action. Why do you think that even taking small actions makes us feel so much better?

Action is the antidote to despair, as Joan Baez said. The way I always think about it: I'm building a snowball, right? Every little thing I do builds it bigger and bigger to like get me to a point of feeling positive and motivated to do the work.

I want to also respond to your comments about social media. An inherent contradiction in the writing of this book is that Sammy and I met on social media. We are both social media professionals writing a book about folks should maybe go touch grass and get offline. So much of today's hot-take environment is focused on sound bites that don't encapsulate contradictions. But the reality is I love social media. Talking about politics on social media is important. It's the most fantastic public square we've ever had in human existence.

But I also think it's not real. It's so important for us to be in a real public square and have conversations with people who we live with. We have to figure out how to get clean water together and make sure the fire department is working and make sure our kids are educated and the roads work, etc. Those conversations also help bring us back to reality. So much of the political conversation we see is dominated by extremists who are staking out positions for the sake of staking out positions. I'm always yapping with people, and the vast majority of political conversations that I have in the real world are normal. They're not extreme. They're not arguments. They're just two people having a conversation. We need to bring that back and have more reasonable people just having conversations about politics. And having a conversation about what it is that we as communities need to do to make life better for everyone.

Yeah, I'm very critical of social media and I get a lot of defensive reactions. But nobody is saying "no social media," just be proportional about it. But when it comes to getting offline and into action, what are some of the steps? A lot of people don't even know where to begin. It's one thing to say, "take action," but how does that look? Where would you recommend people start?

What is so awesome about the book "Democracy in Retrograde" is that it takes you through the process of figuring out how to have a sustainable civic engagement plan that is authentic to you. A lot of people find making cold calls uncomfortable. If the only political action you tell them is available to them is making cold calls, they're not going to do anything. You want to figure out what you can do that's meaningful to you and connects with your values. Something you find fun and cup-filling. We offer different steps to build you along that process. We have a way to develop your personal civic mission statement. We have a personality quiz to help you figure out your civic personality. We have a step-by-step process to help you distill down with questions like: What is your news diet? What is your civic calendar? How are you going to build community around this stuff? By the end of the book, you have a full civic action plan.

I can imagine you have critics who don't like this individual-oriented approach, who object to this frame that puts an individual's personality and desires first, as opposed to what is "needed." Why do you think it's so important for somebody to focus on their emotions before they try to take action?

Your lived experience teaches you about what needs to be done in your community, in your life, in your kid's life, and in your friend's life. It's a disservice to people to assume that they don't have an instinct about what needs to be changed. The point of delving down into your personality isn't necessarily to figure out what issue you want to work on, but how you want to work on that issue.

It's human nature to have different ways. Different passions and skills. For example, I'm a yapper. So I want to civically engage in a way that involves my favorite activity, yapping. Other people would rather die than yap all day and that's cool. There are a million other things those people could be doing. All of these things contribute. It's a false narrative that there's a finite number of political actions that have meaning. 

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Especially in an election year, so much of the discourse about political action is geared around voting. No doubt that's extremely important. But it can feel very unsatisfying to people to be told "just vote," as if all they're good for is helping secure power for certain leaders and otherwise they don't feel heard. They often feel voting is not moving the needle much. What's your pitch on the relationship between voting and other political action?

Voting is one tool in our civic tool belt. It's a big one, but I want civic engagement to not be a biannual freakout. It should be a daily habit. It is something that you integrate into your life, so that it's cup-filling and not draining. Throughout the book, we try to drill down on why voting is so important. It's a means to strategically build political power. Use the leverage of voting to help build the community and the country that you want. It's not just the presidential election. There are tons of down-ballot elections, some of which get decided at very low margins.

No one likes to be reprimanded. So much of the "you need to vote" discourse feels like you're getting reprimanded by a school teacher who's disappointed in you, which is not pleasant. The book is not a reprimand. It's specifically written to say that wherever you're at is a good place. Starting from where you're at is a great thing. We're not here to judge you for what you've done before. Even if you've never voted before, you can read this book and help get a strategy to get involved. We are here to help you get more involved in a way that is sustainable for you. 

"If it's not fun, they will choose those things instead of choosing civic engagement."

If you are a person who is working three jobs, you cannot do as much as someone who is retired. That's a restraint and is totally OK. We don't prescribe what people should be doing. We want to help people figure out what it is that they can do for themselves that will add meaning to their life, add joy, add value and help get more people engaged in civic life. What we need is to rebuild communities that have become so divisive and frankly have been creating this loneliness epidemic that we're experiencing.

It's true: When I suggest people spend less time on Twitter and get out there, people often respond by saying they're busy and overworked. I believe that's true for a lot of people! What is your suggestion when folks feel overwhelmed by the expectation that they become politically active?

My suggestion is to start local. Figure out one local issue or group that they care about. Start tracking it. When it's a small universe of information, it's much easier to get engaged quickly. A lot of people are busy raising kids and putting food on the table and dealing with doctor's appointments. I don't think it's helpful for me to tell people you need to spend four hours a week engaged in civic life.

But maybe your kid's school has a big sale for the library and you could do that. One of the people we profile in the book is a woman who became very active in her school board. She started as a mom volunteer in her kid's classroom. She took on more leadership over time, because people looked to her for that leadership and she was so good at it. She realized how much she could give to the community and how much the community could give to her. She kept getting asked to run for bigger positions. She realized the influence she could singularly have and how necessary her voice and her viewpoint were. That is what I hear so much from people. They didn't start with the intention of becoming a big deal. They start with the one thing that needs to be done and then it grows.

I want to ask about fun. We, as a society, don't talk enough about fun, especially when it comes to politics. It can, especially these days, it just feels like a slog. How do we make it more fun for ourselves and for everyone else?

I saw someone on some social media platform post, "Forget it. They tell me every election is the most important election of our lifetime. Are we expected to do this, every year?"

It's like, yeah, actually you are. Democracy is forever and democracy always involves us feeding it. It is a garden that constantly needs to be watered. There will always be people who want to restrict our rights, who want to mold the system to allow them to make as much money as possible on the backs of workers and by destroying the environment. Those are things that will continue to exist. If we want to continue fighting them, we have to keep at it. And if there's no way to keep the spirit of doing that without being able to find joy in the work.

Admitting that you want to find joy in the work is not saying that there's not also incredible heartache. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. If you want people to come back to your club, the club that I like democracy, you have to make it fun for them. The easiest way to make things fun is to build friendships. That's certainly what keeps me coming back. When I hear from my friends who have continued civic engagement, they always tell me that they go back because of their friendships.

The other thing that keeps people going back is feeling that there's like meaning behind it, that there's going to be a success at the end of the day. That doesn't necessarily mean legislative wins. Or Supreme Court wins. There's a way to frame progress through the incremental steps forward that people can understand and celebrate. We have to give people that or else they're not going to participate. There are other things that they could be doing. They could play video games. They could go to a party. They could play pickleball. If it's not fun, they will choose those things instead of choosing civic engagement.

I like what you said about meaning. When people complain that we're expected to do this every year, it feels like a chore they check off their list. It's not making meaning every day. How do you recommend keeping this work meaningful? Especially when there will never be absolute victory. There's never going to be a day when the people that are coming for our rights give up.

The workbook section of the book, which is the bulk of the book, starts with digging in on your values. It's looking at the things that are most impactful to you as a person, to your core identity, and what values you want to see reflected in the community. That's the way to start. If you are trying to live your values, there will never be something more motivational. When you look at religious communities, what brings those people together — and they are very organized — is they want to see their communities reflect their values. They have a same set of shared values. Those values are probably top down, whereas what I'm arguing for is more bottom-up. But it's that same sense of shared values and community that motivates people. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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