Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Activism in the country of Smallonia

When you're trying to understand something complicated, like American politics, it can help to start by imagining a simplified "model" that strips away some of that complexity. So, without further ado...

Welcome to Smallonia

Imagine that you are a Leftist activist in the country of Smallonia.  Smallonia only has 100 citizens. Like America it is a capitalist society, but the government taxes some of the rich people and uses the money to help some of the poor people. Smallonia has only two political parties – the Left and the Right, and each party has a “moderate” and “radical” wing.

  • Those on the Radical Right want Smallonia to become a purely libertarian society – no taxes, no welfare, just the “free market” doing everything. 
  • Those on the Moderate Right think the basic system is fine, but want lower taxes and less generous welfare programs for the poor
  • Those on the Moderate Left also think the basic system is fine, but want higher taxes and more generous welfare programs for the poor. 
  • Those on the Radical Left (including you) want Smallonia to become a purely socialist society – where the government distributes wealth equitably, and there are no more for-profit corporations. 

Smallonia is run by a democratically elected President. Each party chooses its nominee by majority vote, and then whole country votes on which of the candidates should become President. In the case of a tie, the winner is decided by a coin flip.

Right now, Smallonia, like America, is evenly divided politically. It looks like this:

There are 50 members of each party. If the election were held today, it would come down to that coin flip. 

It may seem odd to have an election decided by a coin flip, but this is just a simplification (usually) of how things work in America. If one candidate in wins the popular vote by a decent amount, then they just win. If the election is close, like in 2016 or 2000, then it goes to the Electoral College, which might as well be a coin flip.

Now, imagine you are an activist in Smallonia’s Radical Left. Over 80 percent of Smallonia disagrees your position. Even though the rest of your party agrees with you that the government needs to do more, and that corporations are too powerful, they’re not OK with doing away with capitalism all together. Your views are a minority even within your own party. So to get anything done, you need to change some minds. 

Whose minds do you want to change?

If you are anything like American activists, your first strategy would be to try and convince some members of the Moderate Left to become part of the Radical Left. You criticize them when they advocate compromise with the Right, and try and explain to them how being on the Moderate Left is really not that much better than being on the Right. If they really care about making Smallonia a more fair and equal society, they need to join you as radicals!

Let’s assume you succeed in convincing 10 members of the Moderate Left to become Radicals. Now Smallonia looks like this:

Your wing is now the majority in your own party! That means that you can nominate your own candidate in the election.  But there are still only 50 people on the left in Smallonia, which means your chance of actually winning the election haven’t improved at all. It’s still going to come down to the coin flip.

The Right Reacts

Unfortunately, your actions probably also triggered some reaction by those in the Moderate Right. These people may not like the Moderate Left, but they really don’t like the Radical Left. By making your party more radical, you have ticked these people off, and made it easier for activists in the Radical Right to do the same thing you just did – convince 10 of their party’s Moderates to become Radical. If they succeed, then Smallonia would look like this: 

The balance of power between Left and Right still hasn’t changed. The presidential election is still going to come down to a coin-flip. But the stakes of that coin flip are much higher than they were before. Each side is going to nominate a Radical candidate for President. If your candidate wins, that’s awesome, but if the Right’s candidate wins, that’s really bad. The Moderate Right’s candidate would have just lowered taxes and welfare benefits. The Radical Right’s candidate will abolish them altogether!

It gets worse…

But there’s another reason that your strategy might backfire. After all, there are probably some people in the Moderate Left who feel closer to the Moderate Right than to the Radical Left. They agree that we could be doing more to help the poor, and that the rich should pay more in taxes, but they also think that overthrowing the entire system is a terrible idea.

By making your party more radical, you may alienate some of these people. If the Right as a whole doesn’t become more radical, then some of these people on the Moderate Left may decide to become part of the Moderate Right. If just five people did so then Smallonia would look like this:

Now you are going to lose the election 45 votes to 55. You have made your party more radical, but you have also thrown away your shot at actually getting anything done and have handed victory to the Right.

Another approach

Let’s try this again. Smallonia is back to being equally divided:

If you want to increase your likelihood of actually winning the election you need to get more than 50 people to join your party. To do that you need to convince some members of the Moderate Right to become part of the Moderate Left.  If you succeeded in convincing 10 people to change their minds in this way, then Smallonia would look like this
Now you’re sure to win the election. You can actually get stuff done – you pass the kinds of laws and policies that you want! On the other hand, you’ll have to settle for a Moderate Left President. Your Radical wing is a much smaller part of the Left Party than it used to be, so it’s the Moderates who are going to be running things. There’s no chance of a socialist utopia, but at least you can raise taxes on the rich and use the money to help more poor people. 

Maybe you’re just not willing to accept that. You are a radical after all. 

Can we do even better?

What if you tried both of these strategies at the same time? What if you convinced five members of the Moderate Right to join the Moderate Left, and five members of the Moderate left to join the Radical Left?

Now you have enough votes (55) to win the election, but you didn’t have to make your party any less “radical” to do it. In fact the Left party is slightly more radical than it was before. It used to be that 40% (20 out of 50) of our Left party were radicals. Now it’s 45% (23 out of 55). This is the best of both worlds. You can win the election without sacrificing your principles. Congratulations!

Back to Reality

In America, things are much more complicated than this. Smallonia doesn’t tell us anything definitive about how we have to focus our activism in America right now. But it does give us some helpful suggestions. 

For a while now liberal activists have been almost exclusively focused on convincing people who are already liberal to become even more liberal. 

  • When Elizabeth Warren makes a passionate speech in Congress about the greed and callousness of cooperate America – what kind of people share the video on social media? 

  • When John Oliver or Trevor Noah “destroy” some conservative figure or argument on their shows – what kind of people are watching?

  • When a film like "Get Out" highlights the continued pervasiveness of racialized inequalities in our society, who is it talking to? 

The answer is usually other liberals.

There’s nothing wrong with activism that targets other liberals. But the example of Smallonia shows that, no matter how effective it is, this sort of activism won’t actually increase the number of liberals in America. And if you don’t increase the number of liberals in America, how are you going to make America a more liberal country?

If we want to do that, we would need to actually convince some people who are not liberal to become liberal. 

This isn’t just true in Smallonia. For example, creating a million more radical liberals in Massachusetts isn't going to add a single Democrat to Congress, or give a Democratic Presidential Candidate a single electoral vote that they wouldn’t have gotten already. But if we had convinced just 400,000 voters in five swing statesto swing just to the left enough to vote for Hillary Clinton, Trump would have lost the election.

All of a sudden the Affordable Care Act is safe, there are no executive orders on immigration, and a liberal Justice replaces Scalia on the Supreme Court. That would hardly be a liberal paradise, and if you are a radical it might still be unacceptable. But most liberals would probably agree that it's better than what we have now.

Smallonia is simple, but we can use it as theoretical "sandbox" for thinking about activism. It helps us to see that there may be limits to how effective liberal focused activism can be. It suggests that, if we actually want to get things done, we're probably going to have to start talking to people who aren't already liberal.

More generally, Smallonia points to a basic principle that political scientists and philosophers have know about for hundreds of years:

In a country that is equally divided politically (like America), you can aim for ideological purity, or you can win elections, but you probably can't do both at the same time. 


Specifically: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. Trump's combined margin of victory in these five states was less than 400,000, and together then have enough electoral votes to have changed the result of the election. 

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