Stages of political activism

Throughout “#TheResistance” I have perceived many similarities between it and my own initiation into political activism at a local level, commenced about two years before a nationwide counterpart.

It seems worth examining the possibility of some broad patterns.

A Crisis moment probably launches many political activist careers, unfortunately. Most people, from what I can tell, seem in fact to spend their entire lives largely disconnected from politics and government, not perceiving any compelling reason to get involved. But sometimes, something happens to alarm some minority of a community with the realization that “this can not be right!” An activist is conceived.

The reliance on crisis to spur political activism is depressing, given how much it tends to mean that one only begins playing after falling way behind. One may pick up on it immediately, or only a bit later, but eventually one realizes that during one’s years of political somnolence, bad people consolidated a lot of formal power and laid plans which are probably quite advanced by the time one tries to stop them.

I suppose that the birth of an activist is when some of these people find one another and begin to organize for some form of political activity.

Protest is usually the first stop for organized opposition. In the short term there is little else for most people to do in the kind of crisis situation described above. So: signs, banners, public demonstrations, chants; voicing objections at public meetings, as well as on every other open channel; trying to engage more of the public with leaflets, letters to the editor, social media, etc. Petitions of one sort or another often circulate in this stage, often to little effect.

As a whole, vigorous protest does seem to worry people in power, at least when it’s new. Some times an idea is even withdrawn, more or less completely, in response to protest. More often protest just slows things down, at most.

Meanwhile, organizing usually proceeds along familiar lines. Activists  formalize their pop-up association to some extent, with a name, meetings, leadership, some sort of record-keeping, e-mails and other communication.

At this point, presuming those in power don’t fully back down, resistance movements face a choice of possible strategies beyond protest.

Sunlight Approach: An effort to discover and publish more information about what those in power are up to. This is almost indispensable as a tactic, though as a strategy my impression is that it results are highly unreliable. More often than not, I think some activists’ focus on sunlight as a strategy is based on an astonishing faith in the system, i.e. “this bunch of bad people somehow sneaked into power, but otherwise the checks and balances work, and if we just alert the people to what’s really happening they will demand it be stopped.” My own impression is that this expectation bears limited relationship to reality.

Courts Approach: Lawyers file lawsuits. The effectiveness of this as a strategy also varies a lot, depending on how far the bad people trespass against the law in their objectionable agenda. Often, sadly, they don’t need to; interestingly, they seem to do so in many instances when they don’t need to; unfortunately they can still get away with it some times. Even when they don’t, meanwhile, I am skeptical about the courts as a strategic solution to political crises. One of a limited number of lessons that I feel prepared to suggest explicitly, based on my “head start” in political activism, is that plain-as-day violations of the law can do remarkably little to shift the front lines in a political struggle.

Ballot Box Approach: The other big lesson that I feel I can explicitly endorse is that replacing the people in power is the ideal strategic solution. At the state and local level, referendums and initiatives also have their place, but I think all else being equal winning away power is preferable even to them.

Replacing enough people in power may take four years, at minimum, thus this can never be activists’ only approach. Ballot-box efforts don’t always succeed, either, and even when they do, they don’t guarantee total satisfaction of activists’ wishes.

Politicians do get into office and disappoint hopes, for one thing. I think that the solution is to try again, but not everyone has that much faith in this process.

Also, in one more minor lesson, I think that the interim stages between regaining enough power to provide a limited check on abuses, and gaining enough power to set the agenda, are perilous for activist movements. I have seen this, and I expect to see more of it at the national level during the next two years. A minority presence in government is a big advance over being shut out entirely, but it is a very long way from being a majority. Not everyone wants to hear this.

Shaking out and moving on are part of the reason why I nonetheless see the ballot box as the most important strategic approach. Most of the time, activist movements and organizations take off (if they ever take off) in the short-term response to a crisis, then gradually peter out.

Over and over. I’m sure meaningful exceptions can be suggested, but most of the time, those who declare “it’s not a moment, it’s a movement” prove to be wrong. People just drop out, or drift out.

This is also as good a point as any to bring up leadership reevaluation. Grassroots campaigns often end up with leadership that just kind of happens; that leadership may not prove up to the job, but particularly in a pop-up organization, confronting this may be an awkward and unclear process. Some times there isn’t ever a good direct solution, and one organization simply fades away to be superseded by former members who decide they might be able to do a better job.

Those who discover that they can will, I suspect, often drift toward roles focused on the ballot box approach: into more durable, formal organizations including parties, into running for office, or into recruiting and supporting candidates to run for office. This at least has been my experience.

Trying to get politically friendly people into power, and to block unfriendly people from power, seems like a more or less natural “result” for political activism. Certainly this doesn’t always work, immediately or completely, so other approaches to activism usually remain important. I suppose that the real end goal for activists is a cultural change so complete that the unfriendly position goes more or less extinct, but good examples of this are rare.

These are my observations after four years of dedicated local activism (and about two years of comparable state/national activism). Let’s see how things look in another couple of years.

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