I feel like I’m having this conversation a lot in email and over DM lately, and it’s reached the tipping point that suggests perhaps it should also be made more public, so I’m just going to come out and say it, even though some of you may get your hackles up: You need to get ready for a long slog. If you are accustomed to easy, quick, instant results, you are not going to fare well in the coming years if you retain that mindset. It’s time to think strategic marathon, not frenetic sprint.
I know that my readers come from all walks of life and all experience levels in politics, but there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to conversations about resistance. Some people have been doing the work for a very long time with no recognition or support. Others have been abstractly interested, but only started digging in on 9 November, 2016. Those people aren’t bad and terrible and wrong, but it does mean they have less experience and institutional memory. And depending on how long you’ve been at this game, you may have a skewed perception of how we create change.
I see a lot of agitation from the left for instant results nownownowNOW and I know where that comes from. Some of it is naïveté and unfamiliarity with the system, which, yes, you do need to work with to accomplish lasting change. (Yes, this includes changing the system itself.) Some of it is also clearly the result of living in an era of social-media based ‘activism’ that consists of occasionally retweeting hashtags and signing Change.org petitions.
Petitions do not work. Screaming about things on social media for your audience of people who think like you does not work. Hashtags don’t work unless they are backed by a movement of people who ware willing to do the work on the ground — like the Black-led and coordinated #BlackLivesMatter. Linking to stories by progressive media outlets you like doesn’t work. Tweeting at federal and state electeds doesn’t work.
What works is doing the work. And there are a couple of things about the work that are challenging for the narcissistic, immediate results-obsessed left.
One is the fact that often doing the work happens in a place where people can’t see it. Unless I’m livestreaming my office, you can’t see when I call my electeds and what I say to them, for example. We live in a highly performative era — something I have repeatedly criticised — and it makes people uneasy to do something that other people can’t see. There are people all over this country who aren’t even on the internet who are changing the world. There are people on the internet who are highly active on the ground and talking on the internet. And there are people who do a lot of talking on the internet, but not much actual work, because that can’t be seen.
There’s also the problem that change doesn’t happen all at once. A lot of people are engaged in work that doesn’t have immediate tangible results: I don’t go to City Council to push through an amazing liberal resolution every time I go. I go because when I speak up, people listen, and when I approach people, I’ve put in the time for them to take me seriously as a constituent. People stubbornly call their electeds every week to push for things that make take months, years, or even decades to accomplish. The Civil Rights movement didn’t go from angry letter to Civil Rights Act in a day.
But people seem to struggle with recognising this, finding the reality of political work unsatisfying because it can be very, very sluggish. We’re going to be here a long time, and so are your electeds — which is why I look askance on primarying any Democrat who doesn’t do precisely what you want. You don’t know what people are working on. You aren’t in the position of having to balance a huge constituency with a lot of complex and sometimes conflicting issues. You haven’t spent years building credibility so that when you move, other lawmakers sit up and pay attention.
I’m excited to see people enthused about political engagement. I fear, though, that it means we will be facing a sudden uptick in energy, followed by a slump, followed by people abandoning ship. It happened during the Bush years, where there was a tide of marches and protests and then people quietly slipped away because things didn’t change immediately. The same people who always do the work were left doing the work, and now, they’re gearing up to get burned again by people who are all enthusiasm and lofty pronouncements, but who may well disappear in six months.
This is going to be a slog. You need to settle in for something long and slow and complex that will not proceed as fast as you want. While that happens, lives will be destroyed. People will die. Horrible policy that will take decades to reverse will happen. You must keep your eyes on the prize, as they say. You must acknowledge that you may get involved with initiatives that will fail. That you may dedicate hundreds of hours to something that won’t come to fruition for years. You need to be okay with this. You need to not give up when it feels like nothing is happening and the status quo isn’t changing.
We’ve seen sea change in this country happen because people were willing to do the work. No matter how long it took, and no matter how much it cost. Are you willing to do the work?
Photo: Anti-Trump Protest, Chicago, Alek S., Flickr