Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Axis 3: What do you have leverage over?

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This is the third post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.


Having established what is important, and then what is changeable, we still aren’t in a position to move forward politically until we ask a final question: what do we have leverage over? Much political talk feels a bit like a bunch of people sitting in their living room watching football having heated arguments about what the coaches on their favored team should do. No matter how well one analyzes the problem, no matter how persuasive the argument, the person on the field who is calling the plays and making player substitutions is completely unaware. Worse still, if you somehow got on the field and offered your expertise, you would likely be hauled off before they heard a word.

Similarly, political discussions tend to be heavily focused on the relative merits of choices by top officials, whether they be the president, a presidential candidate, congressional leaders or union heads. For the bulk of us, those people will never notice our arguments. They and their staff aren’t culling our Facebook comments or tweets for ideas. They probably aren’t reading this (excellent) blog post. What’s more, every one of those people has hired people to give them advice and help them strategize, and other people to occasionally consult with. If you haven’t gotten that call (I’m still waiting) then odds are that even if you could get their attention they probably wouldn’t be interested. Which is a shame. My guess is you’d be helpful.

A related issue is how much attention goes to critique decisions that have already happened. Should Bernie Sanders have run for president? Should he have run as an independent? Was a Women’s March the right way to respond to Trump’s inauguration? Should the Movement for Black Lives have framed the movement differently when it first began? Should Occupy have used different tactics than occupation?

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask these sorts of questions, and no doubt critique has its place. But the centrality of critique and strategy discussion around things that have already happened seems questionable to me.  Far better questions then, are what we should do rather than what they should do (or worse, should have done).

Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting that what you have leverage over is an individual matter. Politics is necessarily collective affair. Any approach to politics that focuses on individual action is an unhelpful one. You are unlikely to achieve anything in politics on your own. That said, we should think about what role we can play individually. All sorts of skills or strengths are useful in political action. Social position will make certain courses more possible, and foreclose others.

How do you figure our what you have leverage over? This is probably a more difficult question than our earlier ones. Access certainly matters. It is difficult to pressure those that are physically far away from where you are. A member of congress is more likely to respond to pressure from within her district than from outside. On a different level there is plenty of reason to think it is easier to do outreach and to organize among people who are similar to you on the sorts of social categories that are significant. (Easier doesn’t mean easy, and I’m not making a categorical argument here, only a relative one.)

One pitfall to avoid here is to presume that one’s leverage is limited to one’s formal roles. Yes, voting out a politician, and the threat to do so, can create pressure. But so can disrupting their district events, town halls or fundraisers. Nor must one target the person who ultimately has the power to do the thing you want. If you cannot get to that person, you can seek out elites who could and pressure them. Much of the time mass protest happens in the places in which people already are, where the smooth functioning of institutions require people to follow their prescribed roles. Disrupting those roles pressures those institutions, and those who are at their head can in turn pressure others. Perhaps more importantly, citizen* is not the only role we have–we have (some) leverage as consumers (1, 2), far more as workers, some as clients of different government agencies, or as students, etc.

As with our previous axes, figuring out where one has leverage can require experimentation, although the answer here may be easier when you can connect with those who have experience. At this moment, a lot of people are suddenly interested in getting active in politics. and my sense is the first step generally should be looking to those who were already there to see what you can learn. Again, when it comes to the strategy question, it’s worth remembering that most of us are not generals, and none of us can make mass mobilization happen on our own. Political activity is often better understood as a stream that you can join, not a battalion you can order to charge. And as should be obvious, we often will have far more leverage over things at a local or organizational level, especially at first.

Too often, people treat what is important as the key strategic question in politics. This leads them to focus their attention to things that sometimes are not changeable, or on things that are but where they can have little impact because they lack leverage. Simply put, to know what is to be done, we have to think through the answers to all three of these questions. To have useful strategic discussions, we have to address all three dimensions.



*Obviously many people don’t have this role in the place where they reside. If we look at politics formally, then people in this situation are not political actors, which is nonsense,


Written by David Kaib

April 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. […] Axis 3: What is you have leverage over? […]

  2. […] Assuming we have determined that a thing is important, and further that it is changeable, we still aren’t done. Next we need to ask what we have leverage over. […]

  3. I’ve come across people who do put counterfactual questions (eg what if bernie ran as independent, didnt run, what if usa hadnt entered ww2, or let south secede… ) at the center of their acitivism and discussion ( some quite active in various social movements, mostly as speakers, book writers, etc).

    They make a living writing histories (often somewhat redundant or possibly trivial—-eg ‘while 100 books on lincoln have been written over his early life, presidency, legal philo, etc.mine is the only one that documents in detail lincoln’s thoughts on morning of jan 87th , -1886, between .0076545 and .0089 am just before his 7th birthday.
    we were able to obtain using dna analyses and also from records of electromagnetic radiation in the light cone in outer space from that era the unique EEG pattern of Lincoln’s thought. Using Gabor transforms of the data we are able to identify signatures of brain wave activity consistant with our analyses of how this time period was a major contributor to lincoln’s legal philosophy.. my research and book were funded by grant # 187 from NSF and 5-0 from March for us Scientists, inc.

    It may be that politics is neccesarily a collective affair. (This is something one usually hears fromm those who have a vested interest—paid role, in some way–possibly in-din rather than cash–as organizers.
    (implicitly political activism=good=politics=my organization.
    sortuh like god=good=religion=my church= tihe.

    That may be why alot of perople are essentailly apolitical. eg ‘ok, maybe what i do is not political—individual action is ‘unhelpful’ to collective political action’=the common good=my organization=guiding principles=. laws, roles, jobs, payscales, crimes and unishments.

    so some say forget poltics. (interestingly some groups tytypically apolitical like punks, goths, and scientists will all be meetings together in some places at the ‘march on science’. Of course when paychecks hang in the balance, the fun but hard sceintific quest for knowledge or punk/goth career takes a back seat. I bet in ww1 and ww2 some of those people who normally only were on usually primarily indiviudal quests for knowledge about physics but their notebooks away while fighting the germans, or for them.)

    i dont think one can cleanly seperate individual from collective action. (i heard ‘steering committee’ of March on science, like that for womyn;’s march, fissured over inclusiveness/equity issues. some similar stuff was in green and blm movements among all the rest.

    people make hypothesis about what is changeable and what isn’t. where they have leveredge and where they don’t. noone really knows, and the ground shifts all the time. (i personally thought for example that the last eection didnt much matter anyway–i thought it would be either bush or hrc, congress would remain the same, so nothing would really change and if i recall my news i was correct. (i think mybe hrc had a sex change and also divorced clinton and married a trump, tho its possible i’m wrong.)

    i thought gays should settle for civil agreements not marriage, because i view marriage equity as more lie affirmative action ensuring 50% of us billionaires are womyn, and 16% or so black. thought maybe it might be to get rid of marriage and billionairs as social goals though this could lead to jobs–eg gay divorce and domestic abuse olaw and psyholigical counseling etc. Female hedge fund managers…
    gay marriage nonetheless now is an issue that provides leverage. its a constituency.

    i also thought blm was wrong to keep repeating its standard mantra/line that ‘we are not talking about black on black crime’ or culture of violence in general. we are dealing with unjutified police brutality against blacks, by racists, psychopaths, or fellow travelers (eg black cops). my imptression of blm people is for the most part they have little contact with or in common with with inner city crime scene (most of which consists of people who dont go to protests).
    but blm people raised hell and now they are a constitutency. and like birmingham bridge which brought the attention of the white middle class us majority population.
    i also thought blm people were too oriented towards gaining positions with the status quo—that is power. (some have connections with soros and DLC). but there is a tendency for that to become the main goal. if they werem’t doing blm they might be working for a hedge fund or starting a megachurch. gotta pay the bills if you dont want to be on a street corner.

    i think too many movements basically try to pigenhole people—they look around at their goal and organization and say we need so many geenrals, privates, sargeants…and then put people in those roles. sometimes it works sometimes it doesnt. anyone who doesnt fit in the organization or colective is seen as outside it. those outside often feel little interestn in it. to me one ha sto ‘mae the neans like the ends; as muuch as possible. if one wants a democratic society, one has to have a democratic movement, and also a democratically defined definition of society. democracy is innefficient if even possible, so nowdays one just compeitition among groups. .

    Mart Malakoff

    April 21, 2017 at 2:45 am

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