Axis 3: What do you have leverage over?
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,