Starting from Square Zero
Overcoming the shame of not understanding government, and seeing the beauty of standing in square 0.
Editor’s Note: This is Maximum New York’s first guest post! Liza was an excellent member of cohort 3, and I’m happy to have her kick off what will surely become a longer series this year. Government is a technically complicated field, and we’d all be better off by recognizing that.
For most of my adult life, I carried a deep shame associated with not understanding how my government operates. I experienced this most acutely when my five-page San Francisco ballot felt like a test in a language I didn't speak, but the shame permeated my life year-round. It visited me at dinner parties when peers ping-ponged ideas about recent legislation, and I felt helpless attempting to grasp how to improve the proliferation of homelessness in San Francisco. The problem with shame is that it has a way of suffocating curiosity. When there is an assumption that I "should" know, it stops me from seeing the beauty and opportunity in where I stand, square 0.
A few years ago, something shifted in me that helped break my shame spiral, and, in doing so, changed the trajectory of my relationship with the government. Having a background in computer science, I’ve frequently witnessed the sort of social celebration that follows an individual declaring that they will learn how to code. It doesn't matter what age you are; there is no assumption that coding is a skill you should just possess. This sparked my curiosity. I wondered why the same wasn't true of learning about government. I asked myself: "Why is there an assumption that (1) I should know the mayor's responsibilities and (2) be equipped to vote for who is best suited for the role?"
How I viewed myself changed when I separated that I didn’t know from why I didn't know. I got curious about where my education and life experience fell short in equipping me with the tools necessary to understand how my local and federal leaders operate. I first explored what could have been different in my life, e.g. American Government being a required course in high school, and then shifted to taking responsibility for my own education moving forward. I researched the responsibilities of both the appointed and elected roles in my local community and worked to understand the power those positions held (or, didn’t). I created a personal roadmap to create the change I wanted to see in the communities and spaces I occupy. I was no longer terrified to say: "can you explain that to me?" or "I'd need to do more research on this topic to have an informed opinion."
Ridding myself of the thought pattern that everyone else "just understood government," except for me, came with a surprising side effect: I realized how depthless most political conversations are. When you start to ask the people around you to explain why they hold a particular opinion about [insert hot legislative topic or political candidate here], you may come to realize that the conversations you used to feel lost in were smoke and mirrors. If you’re more of a numbers person, just consider that roughly two-thirds of Americans can’t name all three branches of government (not to mention the administrative state).1
It's been five years since I embarked on a journey to understand my government. By my own measurement, I’ve taken a step forward into square 1, but the joy of learning is recognizing there is still so much to learn. If you've ever felt overwhelmed by voting, lost in newspaper headlines, or helpless trying to understand if change is possible, don’t say I should know this. Why should you know it? Did you ever really learn it? Rather, ask yourself how you can learn to properly engage with government and politics. I wholeheartedly believe that our democracy would be healthier and far less polarized if more people shed the shame of not knowing, stopped relying solely on party affiliation to form political opinions, and allowed themselves to be excited that they are in square 0 and ready to learn.
If this resonated with you, and you are looking for good 101 content on government, here are a few resources I loved when I was getting started:
And of course, if you’re in NYC, run don’t walk to apply for the next MNY cohort 😀
“While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.” This is from a 2014 survey, but the idea continues to hold well.
Editor’s side-comment: and if you ask New Yorkers how their government is structured, be prepared for a far more robust level of ignorance.