You may not care about government but government cares about you is a venerable maxim that you should take seriously. It has persevered since ancient Greek times precisely because it contains a great deal of truth.
Whether you vote or don’t, whether you let those in power know how you feel or not, however you feel about the size, reach and function of government: None of this affects the fact that government is in your life. It tracks you if and when it wants, and demands that you pay your taxes, show ID to fly, obey traffic laws, buy car and health insurance and get official permission to marry or divorce.
Those of us over 50 have an especially high stake in government. Here are just a few reasons why:
- Most of us have worked for years and, in the process, have amassed quite a bit of property, savings, pensions, various retirement accounts and other wealth that is subject to literally tens of thousands of pages of rules, regulations and taxes at the federal, state and local level.
- A special set of laws relate to citizens over 60. Besides Medicare and Social Security, there are requirements about withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement accounts. There are specific deadlines for signups (for Medicare and Social Security) and IRA withdrawals that have material consequences (like penalties) if they’re missed. And if policies change—for example, if the minimum retirement age is pushed back two years, or if Medicare is “reformed” or dismantled altogether—a wrench will be thrown in your plans for the future.
- Many of us still work, and may face discrimination in the workplace. There are legal remedies in cases of ageism. Knowing them will help you understand your options in case legal action is warranted.
- Our political voices are stronger than ever. Older people vote more often than members of the Millennial, X and Y Generations, and louder voices get more attention from lawmakers. Baby Boomers are an especially influential voting bloc, and organizations like AARP are powerful lobbies for our interests.
All of this is to say that participating in politics, government and voting is simply rational self-interest. Here are a few things you can do to further that self-interest:
- Stay informed. Actively seek out objective and reliable sources of information. Try Project Vote Smart (votesmart.org), Politifact (politifact.com).com and public radio and TV on public affairs programming. Look for pragmatic ideas and independently verified facts, not reinforcement of what you already believe or think you know.
- Insist that officials discuss issues beyond superficial talking points. It’s up to you to separate fact from rhetoric.
- Don’t just vote but vote smart. Start with careful thinking and soul-searching about what your economic and social self-interests really are. You may end up crossing party lines to vote on certain issues, and you may end up voting against someone you once supported and for someone you never thought you would.
- Between elections, make yourself heard. Be a polite but persistent and knowledgeable squeaky wheel. Call and/or email your elected officials to register your approval or disapproval of a policy, point out problems that need more attention, and join organizations that lobby for issues that are meaningful for you.
- Above all, understand that the only way government will care about you is if you make sure it does.
Jeffrey R. Orenstein is a former political science professor and the author of Fixing American Government (www.FixingAmericanGovernment.com), a treatise on how to end gridlock and hyperpartisanship. The book, published in 2015, was described by Dr. George Schofield as “a must read for those who want to understand our democratic process.”