Why It is Essential to Support Activists

Photo Credit: Joe Brusky
Overpass Light Brigade
Republican voter suppression can really backfire. Big time.

With Trumpist forces in control of the Republican Party, the elections of 2024 are a five-alarm fire for democracy. The stakes, as many of us understand all too well, could not be higher.

Decades of neglect of our democratic system are now coming home to roost. We haven't even kept up the most basic civics education in our schools. There are many things that need to be done by Congress and by the Biden Administration to sustain and revitalize our democracy, but there is an indispensable role for pro-democracy voting activists and organizers right now, and this role – indeed this compelling need – will continue as far into the future as the eye can see.

Given the urgency of our situation, failure to muster a robust stream of funding for local voting activist and pro-democracy groups would be a huge mistake. These groups are one of the strongest things going for us in 2024, and a failure to ramp up support would leave potential voters disengaged - voters that we are going to need to win.

Grassroots voter registration and turnout programs are proven difference makers. In 2020, Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes, Wisconsin by 20,000 votes, and Arizona by 10,000 votes. These victories would never have happened without grassroots voting activists.

Voting activists and pro-democracy organizers are preparing now for what they know must be a massive voter mobilization effort. Many understand how important it is for Biden to be re-elected, and that outcome was bolstered by the Democrat's unexpectedly strong showing in 2022.

Supporting voting activists now just makes common sense. In fact, the importance of building up our capacity to turnout our voters using grassroots face-to-face means has never been clearer. We are unlikely to win the most critical battles in 2024 without many tens of thousands of dedicated pro-voting volunteers to get our voters to the polls.

Growing this activism now is how we can lay the foundation for victories. Democrats just need to translate what they already understand in concept into practical action – into donations, volunteering, and otherwise helping voting activist groups.

Thinking Past the Next Election

Beyond the immediate benefits to democracy and to Democratic candidates, when we consider the need for and benefits of pro-democracy voting activism through a wider lens, the true importance of this activism comes into focus.

The political world can be amazingly shortsighted, only seeing beyond the next election with great difficulty. We need to recognize and plan for the reality that the need for citizen activists is not going to go away. Activists will be critical to successfully making the transitions we need to make as a society (on every level, from local to global). These transitions will be extraordinarily difficult politically, before even beginning to consider the many objective (economic and physical) obstacles standing in the way. Activists will be the key to overcoming many of those obstacles.

Can anyone reading these words seriously argue that Democrats won't be worried about midterm losses in 2026, assuming we hold the Presidency and win both Houses of Congress in 2024. If Democrats get that far, and if they have been implementing a serious agenda of change on a scale adequate to the problems we face, it is a safe prediction that the battle for the Presidency in 2028 would involve staying a difficult course as opposed to playing it safe by compromising with powerful forces trying to slow down change. Does anyone seriously believe we will have won the struggle for sustainability by 2028? Any realistic view of the change we need throws into sharp relief the directly related need for citizen activists to push relentlessly for years and indeed decades to come.

The pro-democracy voting activists we are depending on to help push us past all manner of obstacles are engaged in a marathon, not a sprint. This has many practical implications for how the movement should see itself and prepare for the future. And it has huge implications for those of us who want to support pro-democracy groups. The opportunities to nourish and nurture this process are many. Before turning to those, however, we should pause to appreciate the deeper and more lasting benefits of the pro-democracy movement.

Benefits of the Pro-Democracy Voting Activist Movement

The benefits of democracy itself, and therefore of the movement to protect and reinvigorate it, cannot be appreciated without this context: Humanity is engaged in an epic struggle, destined to last a century or more, to protect our communities, our country, and our world while we transition, as we must, to sustainability in nearly everything we do. Failure to make this transition would ensure our collective decline, and it is only by appreciating these literally world-shaking stakes that we can grasp the real value of democracy, and by extension, the importance of democracy activism.

Activists often do far more to benefit us than mobilizing voters before elections. Many voting activists also focus on other issues, ranging from the climate crisis to racial justice to abortion rights. Many climate, racial justice, and other activists join the voting fight in the weeks leading up to an election. Overall, activists deliver many benefits that we are all much better off for having.

Activists, with their groups and their campaigns, make possible the development of the essential infrastructure of a real democracy – the permanent community-based organizations that are essential as ongoing catalysts to keep the community moving forward. We need advocates and activists in every community in the country actively supporting democracy and pushing at the local level for the changes we need. Activists will have the most impact if they organize themselves as ongoing citizen pressure groups that function for decades.

Activist groups will incubate some of the most significant leaders of tomorrow. Activists often become our best leaders. Think Obama. Perhaps we need another President who began as an activist. Think John Lewis, the man and the legend. Lewis and leaders like him are forged in the crucible of activism's pain. They know far better than most what it means to struggle. Nearly beaten to death fighting for civil rights, Lewis went on to become a widely respected, even revered, member of Congress. Activism, like all suffering not surrendered to, cultivates strength. Nobody illustrates that better than Lewis.

Activism will likewise incubate many of the literally thousands of candidates we need to run for every school board, every city council, and every office in every community. Activism is the entry ramp for many of the people who step up to play these roles and do their duty as citizens. And often this entry ramp goes up, as school board members evolve into state legislators and state legislators evolve into members of Congress. These elected officials, unlike those who enter the fray from personal ambition or out of an excess of ideological zeal, often carry with them the values that motivated them as activists. They become the type of pro-democracy people-respecting leaders we need. Leaders like John Lewis.

Activists keep the pressure on sclerotic and calcified government agencies, often run by careerists, to deliver on the policies and programs for which they are responsible. Governmental agency performance would be much weaker without the catalytic and change-prompting engagement of activists.

Activists have been and will continue to put increasing pressure on corporations. A combination of consumer activism and shareholder activism is pushing many corporations further and faster than they would otherwise go to improve their environmental, labor, and community quality-of-life impacts.

Activists with real roots in local communities can be agents for overcoming the inevitable multitude of barriers that will arise while implementing urgently needed changes. When residents are fighting about the details of what should go where and who should pay for what, progress can stall on the changes we need. Activists can be catalysts to keep the process from getting bogged down in stubborn local disagreements.

Governments will not change quickly enough unless pushed by citizens, and corporations will not change quickly enough unless pushed by employees, customers, stockholders, and communities. All of that pushing requires activists. On every front of our struggle, we must have massive activist engagement, and over a long period, to overcome the many obstacles to our success.

But beyond all of the instrumental benefits, no matter how important, citizens engaging in their communities to make their lives better together is the actual substance of self-government and democracy. Citizen activism is just as much what we are fighting for as it is a valuable instrument to advance democracy on a larger stage. It is self-government in action, and to the extent the human beings involved experience success, faith in democracy itself will be fortified.

With Farsighted Leadership, Much Could Be Done

If we want the pro-democracy movement to grow, are there things that we could be doing now to help? In the process of researching for our website, we explored thousands of websites and social media pages of activist groups across the country. One takeaway - there is a great deal that could be done to help these groups grow and succeed.

It is well within reach for an alliance of the largest national pro-democracy organizations, perhaps working actively with major funders or with Democratic Party supporters, to offer a program of support and assistance to local activists that could achieve truly significant results. For a budget of several million dollars per year and a capable staff of a dozen or so, a national support program could be created to help local activists learn organizing and fundraising skills, and thus help put them on a path to experience the success necessary to develop long-term political engagement.

The program itself would consist of training (delivered all over the country), the creation and provision of many communication templates and related communication and organizing tools, technical assistance, and hands-on advice. With an adequate investment each year over several years, a major contribution could be made to the development of the citizen movement, and the citizen power, we so urgently need.

Nurturing Emotional Commitments to Citizen Activism

The model that seems to be working in local communities focuses continuously on community scale issues while expanding to also focus on state and national politics during election cycles. With this approach, all kinds of reinforcing local victories can be won while, at the same time, moving these communities to greater participation in state and national elections.

An activist movement cannot be built without nurturing the emotional commitments of activists as individual humans. Successes along the way are key to building up activist commitments. When we think about what could be done to help these activist groups grow, part of the answer is to work with individual activist project organizers in a way that helps them succeed – while standing far enough back to let them own their successes.

The experience of success is critically important to building up a movement. When a volunteer organizes a public event, the outcome matters emotionally, especially to the first-time volunteer. If their expectations and efforts are disappointed, they'll feel bad, they'll feel like they've let down their group, and they'll be more likely to drop out. On the other hand, if they exceed expectations, they gain respect in their group and feel good about themselves. This experience will deepen their commitment to stay in the fight.

There is a huge potential for a new national effort to help activists succeed, and their successes would compound as short-term gains roll forward into the development of thousands of individual emotional commitments to be citizen activists.

Why Developing Local Funding is Vital

The funding to sustain voting activism over the long term will need to be locally derived. For today's five-alarm fire, donations from everywhere are needed. But for the far longer marathon struggle, "outside" donations, foundation funding, and rich people's largess, none of these will prove sustainable for a decade, let alone for the long struggle that certainly lies ahead.

Big money often carries unacceptable strings, and at its worst, outside money is an enabling crutch making possible the avoidance of the hard work of building local support. Building a funding base is part of building community engagement, and it must be embraced as an integral part of organizing rather than avoided as if it were a troublesome nuisance. A donor base willing to give year-after-year comes with establishing real and deep roots in the community.

Helping: Start by Getting the Right Attitude

He who pays the piper calls the tune, and most local activists definitely want to call their own tune. To do so, they cannot be beholden to outsiders. To even be allowed to help with training and the related services described above, whoever attempts to perform this role must NOT try to build in controls. The attitude of a "Helper" entity should be humble – restrained and non-controlling.

A simple metaphor reflects the attitude needed. A gardener tends her garden. Waters and feeds it. Plucks out the weeds and accepts with gratitude the volunteer tomatoes and potatoes offering themselves up from last year's crop. For us helpful outsiders, we should see ourselves as gardeners nurturing the development of activists. We water the garden with our time. We feed the garden with our dollars. Then we stand back, because it isn't really we who are growing the plants. They are growing themselves, and the sun and the soil and the rain are freely available to them. They grow larger and faster because we give them extra food, water, and cultivation, but we gardeners know the limited roles we play. The plants are in charge.

Assistance should be provided to local groups without controlling strings attached. The focus should be on creating success experiences, one after another, for thousands of individual budding local activists. With this attitude, we could cultivate a new generation of activists, feed the agency-creating and democracy-protecting pride of citizen power, and foster the spread of real, living, robust democracy across our country.

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
Maimonides - 12th Century Torah Scholar

Published: August 2019
Revised: July 2023

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