Electing the right leader will not automatically save the country. Liam Glen writes on the importance of grassroots politics.
A basic concept in psychology is Lewin’s equation, B = f(P,E). Behavior is a function of person and environment. Put simply, different people in the same situation, or the same person in different situations, will act differently.
Like many social science theories, it seems mind-numbingly obvious, yet it can provide new insights when applied to real-world situations.
In presidential elections, like the one going on now, personal factors are everything. Each candidate acts as if, the moment they get the job, they will remake America in their own image. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the right person ends up in the Oval Office.
Die-hard progressives live in constant fear that Bernie Sanders will falter and the party will fall into the corporate-backed clutches of “fake progressives” like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. Meanwhile, moderates hope that Joe Biden will maintain his lead and save the Democratic Party from socialist madness.
But it is a mistake not to consider the political context. Most obviously, the president relies on institutions like Congress in order to make any meaningful change.
Further than that, though, when we place candidates into neat little categories like “progressive” and “moderate” we forget that politicians are politicians. They will change their stances if the situation demands it.
Abraham Lincoln long believed that abolishing slavery was outside of the federal government’s purview. FDR’s 1932 campaign promised to balance the budget. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush opposed foreign interventionism and nation-building.
It is easy to think that the forces governing political decision-making are outside of ordinary citizens’ control. Some have thrown up their harms and concluded that politics is a pointless endeavor. But it is in fact ordinary people, when properly organized, who have the greatest impact in a democracy.
A Case Study of the Right
In the 1950s, the Republicans were the center-right party, with an emphasis on the center. Their 1956 platform boasted support for liberal policies like unemployment benefits and the minimum wage.
Republican politicians believed that they would lose voters if they adopted conservative policies. But the party base had different ideas.
A mixture of rugged individualists distrustful of government regulation, militant anticommunists seeking to curb Soviet influence abroad, and Southern Democrats incensed by their own party’s support for civil rights worked tirelessly to create a unified conservative movement.
Later on, they would be joined by Evangelical Christians following charismatic right-wing preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Meanwhile, businessmen like the Koch Brothers would go on to bankroll conservative campaigns, partially out of philosophical convictions, and partially out of financial interests. This strategy was especially effective as the leading voice for left-wing economics – labor unions – rapidly lost members.
This conservative movement succeeded not only in electing its own to public office, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, but also in bending moderate Republicans to its will.
During the 1980 Republican Primaries, George H.W. Bush supported abortion and denounced Reagan’s platform of low taxes and high spending as “voodoo economics.” When presented with the opportunity to become vice president, however, he flip-flopped on both issues.
Still, conservatives distrusted Bush. He stayed true to their cause for around a decade, but the moment he agreed to raise taxes in 1990, he initiated a political maelstrom from which his administration would never fully recover.
A specific example of how masterfully the conservative movement leverages its resources is the NRA. Contrary to popular belief, it does not contribute all that much money to political candidates. Rather, its strength lies in a dedicated base of members whose job is to end the career of any Republican who supports gun control.
Even when Democrats bring up overwhelmingly popular policies like banning people on the no-fly list from buying guns, the fear of NRA reprisal is too much for most Republican lawmakers to sign on.
A Revolution, If You Can Keep It
If the first Democratic presidential debate showed anything, it is that the party is following the same path that the Republicans took decades ago.
Policies that were fringe just four years ago – like unrestricted abortion access, universal healthcare, and decriminalized border illegal crossing – took center stage as candidates tried to appeal to a growing base of vocal left-wing activists.
No contender represents this better than Kirsten Gillibrand, who evolved from a conservative representative to a Wall Street-friendly senator, to a firebrand against corporate power on the presidential debate stage.
Gillibrand’s opponents on the left fear that if she wins the presidency, she will immediately betray her supporters and return to her centrist ways. If someone like her wins the nomination, the best option may well be to just vote third party.
In reality, though, a President Gillibrand (or even a President Biden or Delaney) will enforce left-wing policies if she faces enough pressure to do so.
The trick for progressives is the keep the momentum going. In the early 2000s, a massive liberal activist movement helped propel Barack Obama into the White House. After that, most of them returned to their daily lives. They assumed that Obama was a progressive messiah who would reverse everything that went wrong in the previous eight years.
Thus, once Obama took office and surrounded himself with advisors from Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the CIA, he did not crack down on the banks or end the endless wars.
One narrative that took hold on the left is that Obama was a traitor. If the right person had been elected in 2008, it all would have gone differently. In truth, however, Obama acted as most politicians would have. The activist left was weak, so there were no consequences for him going against its wishes.
While presidents are certainly impactful in their own right – a Biden presidency would be quite different from a Sanders administration, for instance – choosing the right person for the job is often less important than putting the right pressure on them once they enter the office.
Meanwhile, there are quite a few people who are alarmed at the prospect of a left-wing minority taking over the Democratic Party. Some of them think the answer is to support a moderate candidate. But a President Biden, Hickenlooper, or Klobuchar would still face massive pressure to appease the party’s growing progressive wing.
Those looking for a change should not simply hope that an elected official will fix the world for them. Rather, their focus should be to create a mechanism that will influence politicians regardless of which one is in office.