Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Futility

Jay over at Wizbang wrote an interesting post:

Last weekend, I mocked a bunch of liberals in Massachusetts who were trying to get a ballot question on whether the governor should bring Bay State National Guardsmen home from Iraq. I pointed out the futility of this action -- once troops are nationalized, governors have no power over them whatsoever. But that got me thinking about something.

Liberals tend to do a lot of things that I consider silly and futile. They call for Bush to be impeached or resign. They apologize to the world for our exercising our democratic rights. They find utterly futile ways of protesting that do nothing but royally piss off those they are trying to "persuade."

Jay is quite happy about this because he is conservative.

I, sadly, have to agree - even though I wish it wasn't so. Having worked for progressive causes for over ten years now, I have come up with this rough categorization scheme of different types of liberal activists...

  • Dilettantes: Sympathy for liberal causes runs deep for most Americans - equality, privacy, opportunity, higher wages, decent health care - but most rarely act on them. For many, the internet is beginning to change this. But for most, it hasn't. They may donate money, volunteer occasionally, or post on Daily Kos. They will almost always vote, and can have a significant impact on local primaries. Often they will start uncomfortable conversations over Thanksgiving dinner. But these "activists" have never really accomplished anything substantial, and are prone to view futile activities (blogging, online petitions, showing up to couple of protests) as activism.

  • Shooting Stars: 99% of liberal college students fall into this category. They read Eichmann in Jerusalem, Silent Spring, or The Yellow Wallpaper, and suddenly discover how unjust the world is (or how cute the hippie who sits next to them in Women's Studies 201 is). They join campus organizations, volunteer on local campaigns, and generally spend more time on activism then any other type of liberal activist, albeit for a very limited period of their lives. Most of these are futile activities, unconnected to an attainable goal. However, once college (or grad/law school) ends, most have to deal with the realities of student loans and getting a real job. Some will genuinely be changed by the power of ideas and the ability to create positive social change, and will nobly dedicate their lives to liberal causes. Most will become Dilettantes or Ossified.

  • Ossified: These are people who were once liberal activists, usually Shooting Stars, but now have day jobs and families that conflict with being an activist. They settle down, work for a private company, and worry more about their 401K plan then the next election. Due to the busyness of work and family life, they rarely take part in any activism anymore, and when they do, they are often futile activities (which often require little effort). Due to tight budgets (kids, mortgage, etc.) they rarely contribute to any causes. Usually they still vote for liberal candidates and keep up with news. Sometimes they worry about their property taxes or grow old and uncomfortable with cultural liberalism (especially as it relates to sex/sexuality/sexual orientation) and they turn into moderates or conservatives. Occasionally, they can be roused by a particular social movement or liberal candidate, but this rarely happens once their youthful idealism fades. Most Baby Boomers who took part in the 60's are now Ossified.

  • Organized: The heart of liberalism in America - normal working Americans who are organized by or otherwise regularly active in a larger group committed to social change. The largest of these are unions, local Democratic parties, and faith based organizations, with a few notable non-profits and political organizations. Most have normal lives and families. But they also take an active part in creating social change through organized activities. Insiders often overlook (or fail to include in their ill fated political machinations) the importance of the social aspect of being organized - its fun to hang out with your friends and do stuff. It's a great way to meet new people, have a beer, feel good about yourself, and put your beliefs into practice. But when this becomes the main focus of the activism, Organized activists fall prey to the futility problem. Going to a MeetUp.com event once a month to talk about how much you hate Bush with ten other people who hate Bush doesn't accomplish anything.

  • Apparatchik: These are former Shooting Stars or Organized activists who now run the organizations built on liberal accomplishments. Most government employees, social workers, public interest lawyers, and many people who work for non-profits and faith based organizations are apparatchik. They are highly educated, and are usually experts in their field (poverty, civil rights, abortion, etc.) Their defining characteristic is that they rarely have an impact on changing society - rather, they tend to be very active in perpetuating the status quo, usually because they control the government agencies and organizations that have domain over their policy niche. This is often a very good thing, as many previous liberal accomplishments have had a huge positive impact on American society and require a large cadre of professionals to administer - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, FDIC, SEC, NLRB, plus Planned Parenthood, NAACP, ACLU, and dozens of other organizations provide crucial regulation and services. But they rarely have a positive agenda for social change other then "give us more money." Sometimes they are barriers to liberal change, as their jobs are often directly tied to maintaining laws and programs in their current arrangement. While they rarely take part in futile activism, their jobs tend to be very Sisyphean.

  • Insiders: Elected and appointed officials or others who hold positions of power, and the people who work for them or attempt to directly influence them. Generally, you have to either be born into this group (Bush, Gore, Taft, Kennedy) or dedicate your career to politics in order to get into it. As individuals, Insiders have the most power. But they are also the most subject to the fundamental reality of democratic politics - facing voters in the next election - so many otherwise liberal activists moderate their positions in order to hold onto power. Even activists who are not elected usually have to put their liberal beliefs aside because they work for a more powerful Insider who is. A few Insiders lead powerful membership organizations (NARAL, AFL-CIO, Sierra Club) or have lots of money, which allows them to remain unabashedly liberal. As a group, Insiders are the most responsible for positive incremental changes, but only when Democrats are in power. When they are out of power, they mostly defend previous liberal accomplishments. They are almost never responsible for liberal social movements, but will follow or cater to them once they are big enough. Insiders are extremely knowledgeable about almost every aspect of politics, but are often insulated from the rank and filed Organized activists and normal voters outside of whatever constituency elected them.

Its important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive, nor are they static. You can belong to more then one group simultaneously, and liberal activists will often cycle through some or even all of these groups over the course of their lives.

These categories are built on my personal observations, so maybe I'm completely wrong or blinded by my limited experiences. If so, tell me how, but back it up with a reason why.

I would also be very interested to read how a conservative categorizes conservative activists - and wonder if they would be similarly brutally honest about it.


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