Many activists, and many politicians, view the road to change as composed of two separate lanes—one spanning the legislative agenda and the inner gears of institutional systems, the other, home to the world of ‘soft power’ – civil disobedience, protest, co-ops and community organizers. On this highway, lane changes are verboten—you pick a side, and you’ve made your choice, no backing out. The problem is: this isn’t how the world works.
Take the Voting Rights Act; the V.R.A. may have been signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but not even the most ardent electoralist would contend that its passage was the spontaneous result of legislative goodwill. Rather, it was a response to years of lobbying by the SCLC, SNCC, and an organized movement of Black activists. At the same time, there remains no conceivable way that marches and rallies alone, unassisted by congressional action, would have secured unburdened suffrage for minorities in the South; or that the House would have been able to pass the V.R.A. absent the mass of liberal northern Democrats elected in 1964.
Very often, and very quickly, these situations devolve into a chicken-or-the-egg type paradox. The least-satisfying answer—that both forms of change are near-equal in importance—is in my view, the correct one. More importantly, I think that acknowledging this intersection, instead of dealing in absolutes, allows us to better improve each model.
Legislative action’s sheer power can be seductive, but it’s also extremely vulnerable to the soul-less magnetism of electoral math— shaving down broad strokes and bright visions into meaningless compromises and blue-ribbon commissions. How do you counter this trend? By connecting legislators to constituents and stakeholders, via direct and indirect pressure.
Soft power coalesced in community action offers the flexibility and spark lacking in most institutions, but when its objectives lack focus it can stagnate— if it falls off policymakers’ wavelength, significant effort can be exhausted with few results. How do you counter that trend? Again—by connecting activists to legislators with awareness of policy windows. More often than not, what each side of the equation needs most is the other half.
Living at the crossroads is right where I want to be.