Columnist Daniel Cantor Yalowitz: What we need now — ‘political literacy’

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz


Published: 06-09-2024 3:01 PM

As we approach the first of two presidential debates in just over two weeks, we are as locked and lost in political bifurcation as never before. Most of us have taken one side or the other with no looking forward or back. By now, we’ve already assembled our personal force field analyses and proclaimed one thumb up and one thumb down, or both thumbs down. We will have to live with the consequences of our vote (or absence) five months from now.

But must it really be so? Are there other ways to consider political undertakings and “news” locally and nationally? Things at this moment seem both so resolute and absolute, with so little synergy and points of connection betwixt and between political parties and their politicians. With so many minds and hearts already made up over our choices, are we so stuck in our ways of thinking that there can be little, if any, consideration of others’ perspectives beyond “my way or the highway” or “one or the other” as opposed to “one and the other?”

In its broadest definition, literacy is the ability to be able to be aware of and cognizant of the task one is doing or the situation one finds oneself in. Being literate is the ability to critically analyze texts and communication and to interpret them to have contextual meaning. Of course, this goes way beyond the mere yet absolutely necessary skills involved in writing, speaking, reading, and numeration. I want to consider another altogether new framing of literacy: political literacy. This needs further discernment to be understood, appreciated, and, hopefully, activated.

Learning something — anything — involves a complex set of cognitive operations. It is only with practice that we can become skilled and adept at something. We can only get “there” if we have vision, determination, patience, and an understanding of why any skill is important in our lives. In a sense, we can become “literate” in that domain only if we are willing to work on and work towards a larger goal. If we’re not interested, or feel that we lack the necessary fundamentals or care or concern, then it becomes easy give up, quit, and move on. But if something is of importance to us, and holds meaning, we are generally willing to go the extra step toward mastery.

In a world as complex, challenging, and unstable as ours is today, developing and maintaining a fuller awareness of politics in all its iterations is of paramount importance. Merely holding to a particular ideology, personality style, or political party affiliation is no longer sufficient when it comes to making meaning of our lives, culture, and society.

Decades ago, or so it now seems, most of us going through the U.S. public school system were required to take a course in what was then called “civics.” As I recall, in civics class we learned (and questioned) the three branches of the federal government, the importance of voting, information about civil and human rights, and how to grow into a thoughtful and law-abiding citizen. While this might now seem quaint, even anachronistic, the course content helped me to understand that which seemed vague and incomprehensible. For me, it was real learning, and stimulating as well. Back then, it was easier to see a government at work. It was functional and even pragmatic.

Now, in the middle of the third decade of the 21st century, the concept of striving for political literacy seems a reach. Political parties and their adherents seem too content with their limited understanding, identified news feeds, and ways of understanding and seeing the world to reach out meaningfully across the ever-more split political divide. It seems that there is a decrease in the hunger and curiosity to expand our knowledge and awareness beyond where we are at this moment. Are we shrinking as national and global citizens by shirking our basic civic responsibilities — learning, questioning, listening, and voting?

It’s easy to put the onus on the “other side” of our bifurcated political divide. We simply have to flip open our local newspaper to find out who said what about the “other.” The level and extent of rancor is clearly growing, and, with it, we are becoming increasingly closed-minded.

Having a greater degree of curiosity, and, with it, political literacy, could provide our country with the critical opportunity that is so vital to the one thing that is critical in a democracy: civic dialogue. We are seeing, and living, what it’s like to experience the paucity of all the above, and it is not good for our mental and political health. One day and one person at a time. Let’s strive to rebuild the concept of political literacy now, before our next set of national and local elections in just five more months. It’s up to each and all of us to challenge ourselves to make a difference.

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz writes a regular column in the Recorder. A developmental and intercultural psychologist, he has facilitated change in many organizations and communities around the world. His two most recent books are “Journeying with Your Archetypes” and “Reflections on the Nature of Friendship.” Reach out to him at