Pete Gamlen

The Most Important Thing

The first question you need to ask yourself is this: Am I registered to vote? If you're 18, and you're a US citizen, and you're not registered to vote, then all of your badass political posturing and awesome social media sloganeering is worthless, hypocritical bullshit and you should go find a political science professor right now and see just how impressed she is by your amazing reasons for enjoying the luxury of higher education while not even taking the simplest little step toward making the world beyond your privileged campus bubble a better place.

Oh, you'd rather avoid that awkward conversation?

Okay. Then pull out your smartphone right now, navigate your ass to, and get the job done. All set? Great. Now we can really talk.

The next thing you need to do is actually use your right to vote. This is also pretty easy, so long as you keep your address current with the King County Elections department. We have mail-in voting here in Washington State, which means that a few weeks before any election, you'll receive a ballot in the mail. It needs to be returned by Election Day. If you can't afford the stamp to mail your ballot back in (I'm with you, this stamp-priced poll tax is stupid), then look for a ballot drop box. If you're at Seattle Central College or the University of Washington, there is literally a ballot drop box on your campus. No excuses!

And shut up about how no one listens to young people, therefore your vote doesn't matter anyway. Google the phrase "If millennials voted..." and you'll see how different your world could be right now if more of your millennial elders had voted in 2016, or even 2014. Donald Trump wouldn't be president, Republicans wouldn't control Congress, and—assuming the Democrats had made good on their promises—your higher education would be a lot more affordable than it is right now (perhaps even free). So, yeah, your vote matters.

Still don't believe me? I'll give you another example, this one very local and very recent: Nikkita Oliver. She's the Seattle activist and attorney whose millennial-powered candidacy for mayor came very close to getting her through the August 7 primary and onto this fall's general election ballot—but not quite close enough. Oliver lost in the primary by just 1,170 votes. She might not have lost at all if Seattle's millennials had actually shown up and cast their ballots in the same numbers as Seattle's baby boomers and Gen Xers. According to King County Elections, there were 171,146 actively registered Seattle voters age 35 and younger at the time of the August mayoral primary. But only 48,415 bothered to turn in a ballot—a measly 28 percent. Want to make a difference? Vote. Want to make a bigger difference? Fight to take down the barriers that still make it hard for some people to vote.

Now, Who to Vote For?

This is actually the most challenging question you'll face, and it's related to another question you'll be asking yourself regularly as a college student here in Seattle: Who should I march behind?

In this city, we have not just the Democratic and Republican Parties but also the Democratic Socialists, the Socialist Alternative folks, the Peoples Party, and a bunch of other groups you'll find pressing pamphlets into your hands (among them Larouchies, anarchists, the revolutionary communists of "Revcom," and more). You'll also be hearing from groups that organize not so much by political ideology as by identity or a particular set of core issues—everyone from Black Lives Matter to the King County Labor Council to the Sierra Club. All of them will have rallies, marches, phone banks, listening posts, and other events. Many of them will also tell you who to vote for come Election Day. As will The Stranger, which, I am contractually obligated to tell you, offers the best, most thorough, and most entertaining political endorsements in the city. This also happens to be a true statement!

Fighting for Change on Social Media

All human beings—Republicans, Democrats, socialists, communists, you, me—are vulnerable to the seductions of mob behavior and the beguiling, addictively simplistic charms of demagogues with urgent demands and easy answers. Especially on the internet, which I understand you grew up inside (may the sympathies of every previous human generation be upon you).

Politics is all about persuasion—and people who have an agenda will try to shame you, guilt-trip you, badger you, confuse you, socially blackmail you, and even, occasionally, enlighten you. They'll entice you with everything from booze (bar meet-up!) to sex (look at all the hot people at this rally!) to cash (summer organizing job!) to get you to march and vote in their direction. That's all fair and good in a democracy. But the "informed" part of being an "informed citizen" means thinking first.

Think before you click "like" on a heated political post. Read the actual call to action before you valiantly share it with the world. Know what the leaders of a movement really believe in, and the specific kinds of change they're pushing for, before you jump into their group.

The thing you're at college to learn is critical thinking and, conveniently, that's exactly the tool you'll need for all this. How do the leaders of your favored revolution, insurrection, protest, or political party know what they claim they know? Are they making sweeping assertions that cause you to feel strong emotions? Can you find independent evidence to support these emotion-triggering statements? If you're taking a group or leader's words on pure faith, why? Being able to answer all of these questions is just good political hygiene—the activist equivalent of the advice we've given you on other pages about staying safe while enthusiastically humping your fellow undergrads.

Another Thing to Watch For

In Seattle, where progressive holier-than-thou-ing is an exquisitely refined art, well-meaning people will occasionally fall into the trap of saying to themselves, "Oh, that person seems more progressive than me, so I'll just do whatever they say." Be careful. Even—or maybe especially—when your heart is pure and full of good intentions and bursting with love and trust and wokeness and faith in other people's brilliance. In that state, you can easily be manipulated or misled.

Progressive bona fides and identity alone are not guarantees that you should be marching behind someone. The most recently elected mayor of Seattle is gay and had an impressive legacy of progressive accomplishments. He also resigned two weeks ago after five men accused him of sexually abusing them when they were minors. Last year, a woman named Erin Jones was running to become Washington's superintendent of public instruction and, if she'd won, she would have become the first African American woman to hold statewide office here—a major milestone. But then it turned out that Jones had made alarming comments about LGBTQ youth. She didn't end up winning. The point is this: Shit is complicated. People are complex. So are political calculations. Do your homework.

While you're doing that homework, remember: Change in a democracy involves policy, and policy is, when you think about it, a hard thing to get perfectly right and an easy thing to get totally wrong. Even after you do your homework, be aware: Your political heroes will sometimes let you down. If you believe that the person you're following has all the answers for all the most complicated questions in this world—or, worse, that you yourself do—then congrats, you already know everything and you can drop out of college right now and join or start a cult.

Editor's Note: This piece was written before Mr. Sanders decided to leave us for The Man. He will be back at The Stranger in 10 weeks... with a story.