A common complaint by those that don’t “do” politics is how slow and frustrating it all seems. From an outsider's perspective, things look bizarre.There are problems in the world, like a lot of them, and our leaders don't appear to be addressing them. Why aren’t our leaders getting shit done?
Believe it or not, though, there is an actual explanation for why political change is so hard - one more than simply “politicians suck.” These are the top four reasons why political change is so difficult.
#1 YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT'S BEING DONE
I would like to preface this by saying that your lack of political knowledge does not in anyway make you “less than.” You have a life filled with employment, school, children, and bills. You don't necessarily have the time and resources to learn everything about every chosen issue.
Saying that someone is “working on it,” may be of little comfort when your health insurance suddenly decides to increase your premium, but it's extremely important to consider this when talking about political change. On any chosen issue, there are already nonprofits, leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, and businesses striving towards progress in one direction or the other. There may very well be laws or regulations already on the books that simply lack funding or proper enforcement.
If you operate under the assumption that nothing is happening, then you close yourself off to potential resources and movements already out there. Take it upon yourself to see what is being done with this issue. There may very well be people striving to do stuff that undoubtedly need your help.
# 2 - THE ISSUE IS HARDER THAN YOU REALIZE
Frustration over political change often causes “the unpolitical” to associate this lack of change with those in power (and to be fair, sometimes this assumption is correct). If only, they lament, they or the political champion of their choice could get elected and implement real change for once. There is a widespread belief that getting stuff done in politics is merely an issue of getting the right, charismatic strongman or strongmen into office.
Human history is filled with “strong” leaders that claim to have all the answers. The 45th President of the United States rose to power using this promise. He promised to succeed with issues such as healthcare and immigration through the sheer force of his personality. Anyone who followed the 2017 healthcare debate, however, quickly realized it was not that simple.The Republican Party effectively controlled all three branches of the federal government, but political power was not enough to pass a piece of legislation overwhelmingly disliked by the American public. It turns out reform is, indeed, difficult.
Political issues are difficult because they involve immense organizational and interpersonal challenges. For one, you are getting a group of people that fundamentally disagree on how life should work to agree on something (did you notice the paradox in that sentence?). Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren don’t agree on anything (A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G), and yet the two of them need to both agree on legislation for the country to properly function.
Also, the complexity of what you are trying to do is by the number of people whose lives it will change. You are trying to organize the lives of hundreds, if not millions of people. It’s hard enough getting 5 friends to show up for brunch on time. Now try 5 million.
#3 INVESTED STAKEHOLDERS DON'T WANT CHANGE
Welcome to the “well duh” part of the conversation. Once you get past your misperceptions and have a handle on how complex the issue is, you are going to run into a couple of invested stakeholders that simply don’t want things to change. Maybe they have money invested in how the current system operates. Perhaps they are culturally invested in how the system runs. Maybe both? Whatever the reason, these people are going to use their influence (and money) to stop you at any cost.
Let’s take an issue that everyone is passionate about - paying taxes. Regardless of whether you think they are necessary or not, most everyone finds the ordeal incredibly tedious and nerve-wracking. The government collects most of the information you need to submit your taxes, from your employer and bank anyway. Why do you have to resend it every year?
It would actually be easy for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to automatically send you a pre-filled version of your tax form, and then have you verify the information before sending it back to them. It would save a lot of hassle for the millions of Americans that don’t have assets beyond a job, a house, and a car, but certain companies have spent millions of dollars to make sure tax day is as arduous a process as possible. Intuit (the company that owns Turbotax) and H&R Block are two companies that have spent millions on lobbying to make sure that tax day is hell. Intuit spent nearly $2.4 million in 2016 alone. -- naturally, they make around $4.7 billion collectively every year from people using their services to simplify… that’s right, paying their taxes.
Intuit and H&R Block aren’t the only barrier to tax reform, but they are one of the bigger ones. With any issue, there are going to be those entities that profit - either economically or culturally - from your misfortune, and consequently make change incredibly difficult.
# 4 - MOST PEOPLE DON'T WANT CHANGE
There is no polite way to say this, but in general people aren’t interested in systemic change. I sound like a huge dick right now, so hear me out. Problems in society aren’t an isolated phenomenon that can be rooted out once we discover them. People benefit from inequities in our society, not only corporations like Intuit, but most likely you as well. If we're interested in solving the problems in our society, then we are going to have to face the likely fact that we need to both collectively and individually sacrifice something for it.
Climate change is an excellent example. Much of the rhetoric around stopping climate change is centered around individual choices. Campaigns tell you to recycle, to boycott energy intensive meat such as cattle, and to purchase energy efficient machines. Which is great. Keep doing all that stuff. But if “being green” is structured as an add-on people can choose to do, then that means others can choose not to.
Why is that? Well it turns out that “green” products are often more expensive, so this means that poorer people cannot always afford to be eco-friendly. We are in a society where the rich can afford to care about the environment, while the poor cannot. Pollution is pollution, though, and if we want to stop poor people from having to pollute, then that means some sort of sacrifice is going to have to happen on the richer end of the spectrum to mitigate that pollution.
Resources that those poor people do not have will have to be made available, usually by leveraging resources from those that do, which could come in many forms. A progressive carbon tax. A property tax to update the energy grid to renewables. Sharing your beachfront view with a wind turbine. Paying the true cost of meat at a restaurant. So far, we have not shown a willingness to do these things, by and large.
This applies to most problems - big and small. In order to truly rectify them, the person or group with the disputed resource will have to share or give up a portion of it, and that’s super difficult to do. It’s why nearly every movement, from feminism, to the fight for racial justice, to environmentalism - has waned in recent years.
After society learns of the problem, and makes a good faith effort to rectify it, people learn the true cost of implementing that effort, and a reactionary backlash bubbles to the surface. People turn against environmentalism after they learned that true progress requires more than simply blue recycling bins. The progress made during the 1960s and 70’s leads to the conservative backlash in the form of Reaganism. The hope and change of the Obama era turns into a reactionary movement in the form of Trump and his followers.
Now, all of this may sound really grim, but the good news is that once you understand this framework you can apply it to anything: your local PTA election; your school board's stance on gender neutral bathrooms; your company’s policy on workplace attire; your run for a local, or even national, elected office.
Research what efforts are already underway.
Understand the issues’ complexities
Identify the stakeholders that will fight change
Comprehend the true cost of implementing that change - i.e. what will the majority of society have to sacrifice?
Once you do this, you will be miles ahead of your peers. Most people aren’t doing this analysis. They are simply reacting to things as they happen. If you map out the difficulties that come with change, and anticipate how you’re going to deal with them, or even leverage them, then maybe your changes will actually stick.
This is a journey of many steps. We at ConSpot are on our own journey to make it easier for others to take these steps, and to that end, we strive to post insightful, informed and, always, actionable content that we hope will help demystify civic and political involvement.
If you have a specific question, we’d love to hear from you, and though we probably won’t be able to solve your problem right away, we’d love to help.