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I know many people who devote a lot of time energy to political activism, many of whom are then bitterly disappointed when the candidates they supported either lose, or win and almost invariably fail to satisfy their expectations. They conflate political outcomes with the realization of the ultimate goal they expect those outcomes to serve, rather than distinguish them as partial and insufficient means to the realization of those goals.

Social change is both more than and distinct from politics. It both facilitates and is facilitated by electoral outcomes, but is not determined by them. It both facilitates and is facilitated by governmental action, but is not determined by it. Those who, reasonably enough, identify social change, or public policy changes that depend on it, as the ultimate goal, would be well-advised to diversify their investments of time and effort (individually or collectively), investing more in the (narrowly) non-political dimensions of contributing to social change. Otherwise, they should expect their current investments to continue regularly to yield highly disappointing returns.

The widely (implicitly) held notion among many political activists that the distribution of political ideological orientations is by-and-large a given, and that political outcomes determine public policy independently of any changes (or lack of changes) in that popular ideological distribution, relegates a great deal of political activism to the status of a semi-ritualistic activity, noisy conflicting group-therapy sessions and social events that have far less enduring impact on the evolution of our social institutional landscape than its participants would like to believe.

Activists mistakenly expect, with slightly exaggerated optimism, that their efforts determine desired electoral outcomes better than alternative “sub-political” activities, and, with vastly exaggerated faith, that desired electoral outcomes will result in desired public policies, without addressing the underlying issue of where the center-of-gravity of public opinion and popular support lies.

Focusing on social change, including but not limited to political activism, informs a more rational and functional distribution of resources (e.g., time, effort, and money) across the spectrum of interrelated challenges involved in accomplishing social change. Our most memorable social movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmentalism Movement, the Gay Rights Movement) were not as successful as they were primarily via electoral victories, but rather via facilitated shifts in public opinion, which then increasingly translated into electoral and public policy victories. Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King, Jr. ever held public office, though they both had larger effects on the world than most who have, because they affected the context in which political decision-making takes place, and it is the context which is ultimately determinative.

Not each individual activist necessarily has to reallocate their personal political investments (time, energy, and money) for a more optimal distribution to be achieved; most efforts currently in place are vital ingredients to a larger effort, and there is much to be said for a division of labor, in which some focus on some aspects and others on other aspects of the overarching challenge. But, due to the seduction of quick-fixes, and the more accessible emotional gratification of being noisily in the fray rather than more subtly effective, the overall investment of progressive (and other) activists is skewed heavily in favor of political theater (something that activists engage in as much as elected officials). Until we, as a movement, address that imbalance, we will be yielding the field to those who do, and giving those ideologies we oppose more opportunity to proliferate.

(See the following related posts: A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness, Changing The Narrative, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN), A Blueprint for a Progressive Future, The Power of “Walking the Walk”The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, The Foundational Progressive Agenda , The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of FewThe Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2, A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?)

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