Throwing stones at rocks
Leverage is a core principle of any successful force or movement, based on the idea of concentrating effort or force in such a way as to create disproportionate impact. Protests are a political manifestation of this principle, and when conducted correctly, at the right time, and for a sufficiently attractive cause, have been sources of tremendous leverage that facilitated many of humanity’s greatest social advances — not least the advent of modern democracy.
In November 2016, my own protest took shape in the form of a vote from North Carolina for the Democratic presidential candidate. In doing so, I believe I exercised the maximum leverage that was rightfully available to me as an eligible voter in that democratic contest.
The results that came in have not been to my liking, and to that of millions like me. Yet, that same result was the effect of millions of other law abiding citizens exercising their equally rightful protest votes in favor of the Republican candidate. Notwithstanding the dismay surrounding that collectively determined effect, it is a fact that I, and others like me must and should accept, and pretty quickly.
While I don’t for a second think people should give up expressing themselves through peaceful protests, I think it would help us all to recognize that the field of an effective protest following an election is fundamentally different from what it is before the election is held.
Rather than pouring so much energy, time, effort and heartache into railing against what essentially is Reality, why not re-channel all this passion into something that has a better chance of impact? Why not, for example, stop focusing on the President as a person and pivot to viewing the Presidency as an office? In other words, can we move away from moaning about Trump’s personality and mannerisms and enter a constructive discussion about his administration’s policies and presidential actions? After all, the only reason we care so much is not that Trump is Trump (which he always was and will always be), but that today he is President Trump, a title he has now held for all but 48 hours. How about we give him his democratically earned opportunity to do his job, and at the same time, apply our democratic right to hold him accountable?
To the die-hard protestors — more power to you if you can highlight and rally around causes that matter, research and support your arguments with the most salient facts and best expertise and in doing so figure out how best to influence the many policy debates that lie ahead. Indeed, thanks to the protection of the constitution which was in itself born as a brilliantly conceived and boldly executed protest against a disliked government, you are always free to boo and jeer President Trump as a person. But let’s also realize that this is probably the laziest way out that offers a temporary, self-comforting thrill in lieu of real change that is ground out by fighting the hard yards of debate and political engagement. While we’re at it, let’s also accept the other Reality in the case of this particular individual — what do we think will change by calling him names? A 90 second You-tube review of his public displays and comments should put a rest to even the most optimistic hopes on that front.
Imagine a rock in a river, standing proud and steadfast in the angry current washing up on all its sides. So you don’t like the rock? Great. Well, you have a choice: you can stay at the water’s edge and throw stones at it. As many as you like, as often as you like. Oh and feel free to call it all kinds of names as you do that. Smart plan?
Or, here’s another idea. Wade into the water and look for smart ways to build a dam upstream to redirect or concentrate some of the current — create more leverage for a given cause. Or carve out a few more channels and locks downstream to create pools of safety from the overflow. No doubt, much harder to do compared to the first option.
And even if you pick the second option, you may not succeed.
What if you fail? Then things remain just as they are today, except maybe we all learned something, thanks to your energy and diligence. And maybe you lit even the briefest sparks of optimism and momentum into our living, breathing democracy thanks to your passion and courage.
And what if you succeed?