We live in politically turbulent times. Despite unprecedented access to information about politics and the mechanics of decision-making on a regional, national, and global level, voter apathy and anger have never been higher. Indeed, many people are left feeling that the situation is utterly hopeless, and that real change has never been further away.
But is the cynical cliché that you can’t change anything true? Is what you do on an individual level unable to influence world events? Well, it is undoubtedly the case that implementing meaningful change is incredibly difficult, but it is probably more accurate to say that what feels impossible is merely almost impossible. Yes, history tells us that political activism is a long, complex, and difficult road to go down, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth the effort.
A clear pattern
Political activism can take many forms, both peaceful and aggressive. At times, it might be instigated by people in influential positions; at others, it is more grassroots. Probably the most famous example of successful political activism is the civil rights movement, where a combination of non-violent protest and civil disobedience eventually succeeded in breaking down the oppressive racial laws found in many parts of the United States. Though some major political figures played their role, the movement’s success was mainly founded on individual acts by people such as Rosa Parks, whose quiet and dignified protest turned into a national phenomenon. By simply deciding to sit down at the front of a bus rather than the back, Parks helped highlight the absurdity and inhumanity of the rules in place. Of course, Parks herself took her cue from generations of black activists before her who had fought courageously for equal treatment.
Consistently applied pressure, time, and the shifting waves of public opinion are all crucial elements in the process of change. Indeed, if we look back at even more recent examples of successful political activism, we can see that many causes that must have initially appeared hopeless would eventually prevail. In conservative 1950s America, for instance, who could have guessed that by the start of the next century, Congress members from both sides of the political divide would join together to vote in favor of gay marriage? Again, this momentous change was spurred on and inspired by a century or more of political activism and thousands of examples of people who stood up bravely to point out unjust or unequal treatment, often with the risk of losing all they had.
People continue to be willing to take that risk because history has shown that decision-makers are usually only willing to change the status quo once the general public has applied enough pressure to make inaction all too uncomfortable. There is a clear pattern to this. Initially, activists (usually from a marginalized group) are often met with scorn and derision for daring to challenge societal and political norms. Then gradually – particularly if their cause is just – they begin to gain supporters and ground in their fight. Eventually, after decades or even centuries of struggle, they finally start to achieve at least some of their goals. At this point, as societal norms adjust, lawmakers and the public begin to see eye-to-eye with activists, at least on some issues. Typically, complacency sets in as the new status quo is accepted as an inevitable fact of life. However, in most cases, the struggle is never truly over, as each new generation is subject to the same prejudices and human weaknesses as the last.
A never-ending story
This is why the struggle often extends beyond mere policy changing – not only do old prejudices die hard, but there will always be people in positions of power trying to reassert their dominance. Today, for example, despite significant progress in the last century, the Black Lives Matter and transgender rights movements have highlighted the constant need to continue to fight for equal treatment for all. On a global level, there are many other notable examples of continued political activism, from the current protests over raising the pension age in France to the worldwide environmental movement.
In the US, another long-lasting struggle is the right to political representation, fueled partly by issues with the two-party system. Voter apathy is common across the world, of course, but many feel that this particular aspect of US democracy is one reason why citizens feel like change is so hard to enact. In recent times, the No Labels organization has been looking to address this issue through a series of efforts to support bipartisan, centrist solutions in government and now with the suggestion of creating a third option on the voting ballot for the 2024 elections.
Reactions to their efforts have been mixed. While in some quarters, there is strong support for a new avenue to express political thought, in others, there is trepidation that their efforts could simply pave the way for Donald Trump to return as president. It is perhaps no surprise that citizens burned by the rise of influential Super PACs and countless examples of astroturfing in apparently grassroots movements remain skeptical. The questions are many and often pertinent: Is their cause just? Who are they funded by? What are their real aims? As always, the only solution is to try and look objectively at the situation and do our best to understand the potential future impact.
A long and winding road
These are difficult decisions, and there is no question that political activism is a messy, often corrupt, and frequently infuriating endeavor. In all likelihood, you must be prepared for a long series of struggles and disappointments, as in many cases, the results are only seen decades or even centuries down the line.
Despite this, it always makes sense to fight the good fight. The path may be arduous, but the rewards can also be immense and far-reaching. As that famous Martin Luther King saying goes, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’