THE NEXT TIME SOMEONE SAYS, “There’s no point in calling my members of Congress, it doesn’t make any difference, I already know how they’re going to vote,” I’m going to scream.
If there ever was a case of a massively destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s this. This doesn’t just apply to electoral politics, either: I’ll get to that in a bit. When people don’t participate in the political process—when they don’t vote, don’t call or write their elected officials, don’t organize, don’t protest, don’t volunteer, don’t talk with friends or family about politics, don’t stay informed—then yes, their representatives will absolutely ignore them. But the happy flip side is also true: when people do vote, call, write, organize, protest, volunteer, talk with friends or family, and stay informed, then our representatives listen. Not always, not all of them, and not as much as we’d like them to—but they listen.
Exhibit A: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (usually shortened to the Affordable Care Act or ACA).
Here’s the thing to remember about the Affordable Care Act: it was doomed. Everyone with any expertise said it was doomed after the 2016 election, so progressives were scrambling to build a safety net for people the ACA would abandon and figuring out what else to prioritize. Conservatives had already moved on in their heads and were planning their next step.
But the ACA wasn’t doomed. It was saved.
There are a lot of reasons the Affordable Care Act was saved and the craptastic “replacement,” unimaginatively called the American Health Care Act, was defeated before it even came to a vote. Republican lawmakers thought they had more of a consensus than they did (they seriously underestimated the absurdity of the Freedom Caucus); they didn’t have a real plan; and Donald Trump is utterly incompetent at governing. (As my wife Ingrid says, he has a five-year-old’s idea of what it means to be president.)
But one of the biggest reasons the ACA was saved is that people spoke up for it. In droves. People called, wrote, faxed, lobbied, demonstrated, sent letters to the editor, showed up at town hall meetings, and used social media to get their friends and family to do all of the above—all to let their senators and representatives know that they wanted the ACA, needed the ACA, weren’t going to let the ACA go without a fight, and would bloody well remember who did and didn’t support it when the 2018 elections came around.
And it worked. The massive uprising persuaded Republican representatives and senators to support the ACA: not all of them, but enough of them. I don’t know if any of them had a real change of heart, but it sure persuaded them that their jobs were on the line. And the uprising persuaded Democratic representatives and senators to hold firm, to not accept an unacceptable compromise.
If there’s one lesson we can learn from saving the Affordable Care Act, it’s the same lesson I shared in my last column: resistance is not futile. And it’s a lesson we must keep in mind as the House moves to resurrect its healthcare bill.
This doesn’t just apply to electoral politics. It applies to cultural politics, to moral issues, to just plain old mistaken ideas. If resistance never worked, we would never have seen any change. Women still wouldn’t vote; we’d still have slavery; hell, we’d still be ruled by kings and think the sun orbits the earth. Societies change when people press for change. Institutions change when they’re pressured to, from the outside and the inside. Individuals change when we’re persuaded to change—or simply when we see lots of people around us changing. If the arc of history bends towards justice, it does so because people are pushing it.
And this certainly applies to religion. Resistance to religion is not in the slightest bit futile. Rates of religiosity are falling and rates of nonbelief are rising all over the United States and around the world. I’ve heard way too many humanists and atheists insist that there’s no point trying to argue people out of religion, because it never works. I’ve also heard tons of humanists and atheists say they were persuaded out of religion, in part, by arguments against it. Arguments against religion don’t always work, and they rarely work right away—but they can have an effect.
Resistance is not futile.
Human brains have a hard time with nuance. If something doesn’t work all the time, or if it doesn’t work perfectly, all too often we conclude that it doesn’t work at all. And I think this is what happens with politics and social change. The practice of politics, pretty much by definition, is imperfect. Politics is the art of compromise, of the least bad solution. When you’re crafting laws and budgets and policies for hundreds of millions of people, even just for hundreds of people, it is impossible to please everyone. Even cultural politics are the art of the imperfect, struggling against human nature, persuading people to listen to their compassionate side instead of their selfish side, knowing that lots of people won’t do it enough and a fair number of people won’t do it at all. So it’s easy to become frustrated, demoralized, and even cynical.
But there’s a flip side to this. Yes, politics is the art of the imperfect. Another way to say that is that politics is the art of harm reduction. It’s the art of small victories, with some occasional big ones. It’s the art of plodding ahead, two steps forward and one step back. It’s the art of planting seeds and hoping some of them will grow, working and building structures, and co-operating with other people to help more of them grow.
And when there are dangerous or damaging structures, politics is the art of putting cracks in the foundation, knowing that millions of other people are doing the same. I sometimes say that resisting the current regime is a giant, nationwide game of Whack-A-Mole—and when you have millions of people playing, a lot of moles are going to get whacked. It’s often frustrating. It can be demoralizing. We’re going to lose some important battles. But the fight is not futile.