A couple of days ago Conor Friedersdorf wrote a post explaining his reasons for not voting for Obama. His case against the Obama administration’s execution of the war on terror is a compelling one, and, judging from the response, hit a nerve among many frustrated that this issue has received so little attention. Friedersdorf writes that he will either vote for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or not at all, and encourages others to do the same:
If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.
That statement is undoubtedly true, but for all of the retweets Friedersdorf’s post has received (well over 2,000 so far), his planned course of action is not likely to have any impact on the policies he opposes. Friedersdorf acknowledges that there is a bipartisan consensus behind most of these policies. As a general rule, if politician after politician, from both your party and the opposing party, continues to do the same thing, it’s likely that a large majority of the general public supports it (or is at least indifferent). The only way to change things is to convince a critical mass (not necessarily a majority) of people otherwise. Any other action is purely symbolic. As Wil Wilkinson writes in response to Friedersdorf:
trying to convince folks to vote to send a disapproving message about Mr Obama’s national security policy seems an unpromising way to change public opinion. The root problem is that too few Americans think drone attacks and kill lists are completely beyond the pale. Persuade enough of the electorate that they are and policy designed to appeal to the median voter must needs follow.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with a symbolic action taken on principle, but it’s important to note that there is a difference between that and taking action to effect real change. Too many attempts at changing policy are designed to provide psychic satisfaction to the activists, rather than reaching out to people who may be persuadable if exposed to the right argument. This is usually done by invoking the image of a remarkably powerful, immoral enemy in the form of either a lobbying block or an opposing party/candidate. That image can be galvanizing, stirring people’s passions, building mailing lists, populating rallies, and bringing in thousands in donations. It also makes failure self-reinforcing as the enemy is blamed for any setbacks, increasing the proponents’ sense of both the fearsomeness of their opponent and their own bravery and righteousness in standing up for what’s right.
But that only works on the people who already agree with you. It’s not likely to convince anyone else. The result is a brand of activism that is more about the activists than about the ostensible goals of the movement. Instead of regrouping and rethinking tactics that have proven ineffective, activists double down, becoming an insular club committed to a set of truths it no longer feels the need to prove to outsiders, railing at a series of elected officials who are found wanting.
This mind-set is not only counter productive, it’s anti-Democratic, rooted in the idea that change should come from above instead of below. Living in a democracy means not having the luxury of making your case to a handful of power players–the audience you have to persuade numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
A lot of causes would greatly benefit from the realization that success does not necessarily require defeating “special interests” or “moneyed elites” or morally repugnant elected officials, but respecting fellow citizens enough not to dismiss them as apathetic or brainwashed victims on whom your favored policies must be imposed.