How To: Pick Your Politics (Part II)

Now that we’ve finished the easy part of choosing your personal politics, the real challenge is up next: turning those individual preferences into society-wide shifts. Now, this is the citizen’s guide to political activism, not a guide to becoming a major activist or world-changer on a huge scale. This won’t turn you into a Congressperson or political activist; it is only a roadmap to small, frequent political actions you can take for yourself to see if your political goals are being met.

That starts by staying aware of the developments and changes happening in topics that you care about. Something as simple as setting up a Google alert can let you get information on the topics that are most important to you. That does not mean that you have to be an expert, but it does mean that you have a working understanding of the groups that are already involved in the topic, the general interests that people represent and what the major historic milestones are. Example: if you care a lot about civil rights,  you would know that the NAACP, HRC and ACLU are big organizations working in that field, that people generally want civil rights to expand, contract or gain definition, and that the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Title IX are big milestones anchoring the current understanding of civil rights.

The next step is really an extension of the first one: know who shares your politics. Now, the real magic of this one is that people who largely disagree on things can still have a tiny point of agreement. If you want to get something done, you’ll need to bring in everyone that shares your specific goal, even if you don’t share anything else. For example: northern and urban Democrats partnered with most Republicans to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This didn’t happen because Republicans and urban Democrats had tons and tons in common; they were largely opponents. But they both felt that the Civil Rights Act would be best for the country, and they were able to partner to get it done.

Once you’ve built your alliance, you’ll need to use pressure whenever you can. On issues that are important to your coalition, push from all directions. Whenever your topic is mentioned on the news, whenever a Congressperson or Senator has a town hall, whenever you see a representative at a fair or event, remind them of the goal you and your coalition share. This doesn’t have to happen every single time, but the more important a goal is, the more pressure from more directions you’ll need to apply. It also helps to have a goal that is very broad. The more people that you have on your side, the more often the representative or executive will hear about the issue, even when they aren’t expecting it. Example: the marches of the Civil Rights Movement and the reaction they inspired provided a lot of pressure on elected officials to make changes to a system that seemed clearly unequal and unfair, despite the 14th Amendment.

Lastly, be prepared to compromise. You may be 100% committed to a goal, but your elected official has other principles or is less committed. Maybe your coalition isn’t very large. Maybe they think going for all of it is too much or will be too complicated for their colleagues to manage at once. Remember that your goals will only be as easy to achieve as they are popular, regardless of how right they may be. So if you can get halfway, go back to the end of Part I and ask if that’s enough for now. And then keep trying to get the other half once the first part has settled in and the effects are felt. Example: the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement really wanted voting rights addressed, as they felt that many of their gains in day-to-day civil rights would not hold if they could not address the disparity and terrorism that affected the ballot. Yet the Civil Rights Act did not help voting rights. Instead, the movement settled for the dismantling of segregation first and fought for an explicit law on voting rights until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law the following year.

Was that so painful? (Don’t answer that.) Much of this is straightforward and doesn’t take up too much time in your life. Keeping each step in mind will help you achieve many goals as a citizen, even if you never end up marching or organizing at a high level. This isn’t a guarantee, just a guide, but hopefully it will help move your action where you want.

Happy politicking!

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