182 Comments

Activism may be a kind of learned helplessness. If all you can achieve is virtue signaling out people on Twitter, why not do it in the most dopaminergic way possible? You might even get laid!

The modalities of change MY discussed really only work for elites. The typical activist can’t write tv scripts, doesn’t have the grant writing ability to craft credible proposals, doesn’t know enough small donors to make bundling effective, and can only “persuade” elites by calling her legislator.

I occupy a kind of middle ground, because I’m a lawyer, I have access to the courts and judges, and I know a few legislators. Still, my efforts at elite persuasion have been basically a waste of time.

Back in 2009, Henry County used a system of racial quotas to constitute its jury list. The quotas were based on the 2000 census, and a lot of blacks had moved into the county in the interim. Accordingly, the county was 37% black (and steadily increasing) but the jury list was only 11% black. I thought I had a righteous issue, and one that aligned nicely with the interests of my clients. Criminal defendants generally want as many blacks on their jury as possible. I challenged the jury list in 10 different cases in front of 7 different judges, I managed to get American Community Survey statistics that showed the county’s racial composition had changed. This, and the fact that the census bureau attested to then with its official seal, eliminated the need to pay for experts. I appealed a couple cases challenging the jury list, and I lost. Greene v. State 722 S.E.2d 77 (Ga. App. 2011). The Georgia Supreme Court wouldn’t even grant certiorari to review that case.

This was frustrating on several levels:

1) I picked a small issue that only really affected criminal procedure in a few Georgia counties with rapid demographic change

2) I had professional expertise that should have made my work more effective

3) I pissed off judges and prosecutors by rocking the boat and probably hurt my career

4) I did the appellate work for free.

Yet I achieved nothing. At least activism feels good and doesn’t hurt your career.

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First off, I want to thank you for actually trying this.

I've had reasonable luck with the YIMBY movement, where simply being a warm body can makes a lot of difference. Basically, countering someone else's "concerned citizen" with your own actually moves the needle on issues like that one (I've heard this from assembly members.)

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That is very true about showing up. Where YIMBY has an uphill climb is pop culture. We've got decades of boomer/Gen X media in which real estate developers are villains.

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I was very pleased to see "YIMBY King Ron Swanson" make the rounds on Twitter a few weeks back. A rare and recent exception to the long legacy of vilifying the suppliers of housing.

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That's also a common, and extremely unhelpful, opinion among planners. Yes, some are jerks or worse, but that's true among any cohort.

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That’s true at the local level too. Simply showing up to public meetings and testifying is really important. Commissioners should know that the usual assortment of NIMBYs aren’t representative, but sadly this isn’t always the case.

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This why I left the practice and am now an elementary school teacher. The legal industry is just not emotionally rewarding.

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I get a squirt of dopamine when I get someone out of jail or help them avoid prison. But really it’s hard to switch because 1) nothing else would pay nearly as much per hour as I can make 2) I don’t want a boss and 3! I don’t want to work 40 hours a week. I’ve become like a highly specialized niche forager. If I could get a similar rate of pay writing a substack, I’d quit tomorrow

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Teaching pays way less. But the summers off thing is nice and the principals are great people to work for. I paid off my condo so I can take the cut

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This is true of almost everything, ever. The whole thing about elites is that they have more resources.

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given that there are 330 million people, any normal person has a minimal effect. MY has an order of magnitude more influence than I do, but really he only has 6000 substack followers who sometimes read his work and occasionally pass it on to elected officials. Even billionaires can piss away a lot of money and change very little

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You may think so, but you shouldn't be surprised when the less-influential people we're discussing disagree with you and disregard what you have to say because of this attitude.

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The legislative subsidy aspect really resonates with me. I remember many years ago hearing Mike Kelly (R - PA who has since gone a bit wacky but used to just be a typical “just north of a democratic city” Republican business owner, car salesman in particular) give a speech at a business in Butler, PA where he said people dump on lobbyists but they don’t understand that that is where they get so much of their information. He was clearly sincere in this - he felt without lobbyists, they wouldn’t find out enough about issues, even if you understand perfectly well all of the incentives behind the lobbyist’s take.

This is why I’ve always like the idea of increasing staffing for Congress or committees, raising pay, etc., as a possible way to reduce the need for this outside reliance or “revolving door” staffing. Perhaps it’s naive to think more stability and reliability in staffing can be achieved by pay raises and will also increase the quality of said staff, but given lobbyists have a lot of sway (look at what corps spend on lobbyists versus pacs, donations, etc) it seems like an area to work on that might find a foothold.

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I would add that right now, the Congressional Research Service employees ~600 people with an annual budget of a little over $100M. They would seem to me to be the obvious choice for an alternative to relying only on lobbyists, if they had more resources. In my ideal world such a service would provide a shared backdrop *against which* lobbying groups present information to congressional staff who can obtain reliable background info instead of only hearing from a mix of goal-driven and partisan sources.

Also: we used to have the Office of Technology Assessment to analyze technical and scientific issues specifically (which is of course only a subset of important issues, but an important subset), but the GOP defunded it in 1995, claiming it was wasteful and hostile to their interests. See also the Dickey Amendement from 1996 RE: gun violence research. These are just the first two examples that came to mind, I looked up the dates but didn't try to look for others.

It isn't an accident that Kelly has to rely on lobbyists to learn about difficult issues. It isn't his fault this was the situation when he took office, but has he tried to fix it? It's hard to publicly fund unbiased policy research when politicians publicly acknowledge that such research would oppose their goals, act to stop generating it, and then keep winning elections anyway.

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CRS does not draft bills. They provide research into issues, can describe factual matters, but they are not a legislative drafting service. And ever since they got attacked for some factual papers they put together that essentially said that the GOP is wrong when claiming that tax cuts pay for themselves, they are very, very afraid of making statements that could across as partisan.

There is an Office of Legislative Counsel for both chambers, but they are much smaller. Around $10 million.

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CRS does not draft bills but they do look at legislative language and offer technical assistance if you ask them. So you can send them drafts of bills and they can help you figure out what's workable and what's not. If you have a friendly administration and they are supportive of your bill, you can usually get technical assistance from the relevant agency as well.

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All of which is a lot longer of a process than the types of support outside groups typically can provide.

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Not in my experience at least. In the past I've gotten pretty prompt turnaround from both, and they are typically much more knowledgable than many of the outside groups. Not to say that CRS can't use more resources, but they definitely are insanely helpful as it is.

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I mean anything is better than the response from Legislative Counsel these days. Perhaps your experiences were pre-2017? It's also very much agency specific.

But Matt's point originally was you have a member that has a vague "I want more biotech jobs" and that is not something any of the standard support agencies are equipped to do. Outside groups have ideas and know how to sell them. Congressional support agencies know their policies and how to poke holes in a random idea. If the goal of a member of Congress is to get a bill out, I would argue that the standard support agencies are actually counterproductive to that goal.

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I said this in an evening thread last week, but maybe the Slow Boring community could get together and organize a bit of legislative subsidy. There are lots of smart people here. Why not workshop an improved version of the YIMBY Act (or whatever)?

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Matt's already spoken on this that one of the ideas being floated is that recipients of CDBG grants need to make demonstrated progress on zoning and housing.

The big challenge overall is that the federal government has only an indirect role to play on the YIMBY stuff.

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Right, but I mean someone should literally go ahead and type up a draft bill, and then others should workshop the language.

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Ok. Does this bill contain the entire wish list of what YIMBYs want? If not, maybe somebody could type up another bill that contains those other ideas.

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I think that would require an association or group of YIMBYs to sort out their priorities at the federal level. Which, if you're having an association or group of YIMBYs, maybe also decide that they are more effective in their use of time focusing on state or local issues.

Are you familiar with effective altruism? I think there's some lessons there that could be applied to governing.

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founding

One of John Dickerson's best-ever pieces: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2006/01/lobbying-and-laziness.html

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BTW it's worth remembering that radically scaling back Congress' independent staff (the CRS and members' staff budgets) was part of the Gingrich revolution, and the effects of that were quite intentional. The corporate funders behind Gingrich and his cohort _wanted_ legislators to be dependent on them for their information.

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When discussing lobbyists I think its important to note that Americans’ First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances means a lot less if there is no effective mechanism to carry it out.

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This isn’t a question of "ban lobbyists" though. It’s more "give Congress more institutional support so that members don’t *have to* rely on lobbyists to do the work of crafting policy proposals". The lobbyists could still do so, they’d just have competition from the internal congressional staff. I don’t see how that infringes on anyone’s rights.

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More congressional staff does not infringe on anyone’s rights.

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All true with regards lobbyists but a rising alternative is state level think tanks like the Pennsylvania Economy League.

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I have a similar complaint about doctor shows, in that I think it glorifies a profession that should come under a lot more scrutiny but instead they are presented as heroes overcoming immense obstacles to save lives.

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What we really need, per Matt's suggestion on strategies for cultural change, is The Wire For A Big Urban Health Care System. Is House on the take (I mean, he was addicted to pain meds)? Did the patients get dumped over the county line after they got stabilized in ER? What are the C-section and readmission rates under Dr. Meredith Gray's run as chief?

Hollywood writers: call me. I have ideas. (They might not be good ideas.)

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If you're interested in what this might look like, I strongly recommend the film "Collective" about Romania's healthcare system https://youtu.be/KLgGoT7v3ro

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Thanks! I'll give it a look. Might be worthwhile for assigning to a class I teach.

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This is why the best show about doctors is Scrubs, because it's not afraid to knock them off their pedestal.

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"[I]t’s not going to require a mass movement with dozens of local chapters....." This might be the ideal, but very few activist groups actually achieve this form. The NRA adopted this form fairly successfully, but few left-leaning groups (maybe the Sierra Club? the NAACP?) can actually claim to have a mass membership where the leaders are beholden to their members. Moreover, those that do rely more on check-book activism than local chapters, a reality that Theda Skocpol and her co-authors have underscored.

That's the problem with many left-leaning activists today. They speak for groups in the United States but don't really represent them. They were never elected by local chapters to speak for a group's issues; they just assume that they know best what should be done to address the group's concerns.

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Also, the NRA is massively funded by gun manufacturers, not just dues paying members.

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I think unions would be the main member-driven left leaning group, though not all are left leaning

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Agreed, though they have been in steep decline since 1970. Also, many observers have criticized some unions for not being sufficiently guided by their members and for adopting top-down leadership styles. As Skocpol, et al., note, the Golden Era of mass membership associations occurred in the first half of the twentieth century, and unions are a remnant of that era.

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Curious to see that when talking about loud, public activism, and why the culture thinks it works, nobody here brought up Vietnam. The whole "We took to the streets and ended the war, man!" Boomer takes are part of the DNA of the country at this point. It's easy to see the old photos of the protests and think, yes, if only we can recreate that.

And then I did a whole bunch of anti-war protests in the early Aughts, which accomplished nothing, and most of the speakers were yelling about non-Iraq topics. Free Mumia, indeed.

Thinking about this locally, after doing a decade of local civic activism, one thing I want to add is how narrowly activists can think, to their detriment. I worked on a big urban planning process for the Richmond Hwy corridor in Fairfax, Va. The general goal of the project was going to make things better environmentally, for pedestrians and biking. Yet each group would have someone at the meetings being mad because their POV wasn't the dominate one, that they weren't getting the maximalist amount out of things. It drove me nuts, and made me appreciate the local officials and staff who were able to balance all of that.

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I'm not sure the protests in the 60s and 70s ended the war in Vietnam. Protests started in 65 and the war didn't end until 75. LBJ chose wrong and recognized and it broke him but Nixon drove the war for another 7 or 8 years.

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This is an excellent point. The Boomers that did protest the Vietnam War think they are effective. The Boomers that didn't still hold grudges against the hippies and believe they were at fault. The fact that it was people older than the Boomers just getting sick and tired of the war and that's how democracy works never crosses their minds.

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I think this is a good point. The war was clearly being lost by the 70s. The book "A Bright Shining Lie" lays that out clearly. Sadly, it was probably Kissinger who ended the war.

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That is my point it is like 9 years of protests over 2 Presidents international relations just changed. The war ended because the powers that be wanted it to end not because of hippies on the streets.

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Precisely. As one of those hippies who were in the streets, I agree. And the comparison to 2003 in which I joined a crowd much younger than me by then is also apt.

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No doubt, it just isn't the dominate narrative in pop culture, at least in those of a certain age, and I think it informs some of our preconceptions of what can and can't be achieved. And what tools to use. But yeah, I'm with you.

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Arguably the anti-war protests made the war last longer! Humphrey wasn't a dove but he had become more skeptical about Vietnam by 1968. He certainly would have been more dovish than Nixon, whose incentives were to stick it to the protesters whose unpopularity helped him win in the first place.

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Really? Hans Morgenthau's take was that Nixon didn't feel any ownership of the war, the way Humphrey did, and so was more likely to end the war. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1968/11/07/the-lesser-evil/

As Gideon Rose describes it, the domestic unpopularity of the war was a major factor. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2007/01/how-the-vietnam-war-really-ended.html

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Losing the war to the North Vietnamese ended the war in Vietnam.

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As soon as the draft became irrelevant, most people's interest evaporated

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Excellent point.

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Took to the streets in 1966 and ended the war 1973… the us involvement in Vietnam is about the same as Afghanistan.

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The war ended in April 1975. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Saigon

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The us was more or less out by then. But yea hippies protesting are not why Nixon pulled us out

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This puts to formal logic a lot of what my gut has been screaming at me when i interact with, read of, or hear about Philadelphia’s activist community.

There are a number of bright or brilliant people, often coming from the backgrounds and demographics most affected by the issues they advocate for.

There are a lot more hangers-on and followers, as there should be.

Then there are a huge number of Twitter-bound pseudo-activists, purporting to care about the same causes, but with none of the lived experience, intellectual firepower, or work ethic that makes the first group of people credible and effective.

The problem arises not when they exist ( they’re unavoidable), but when their often quite privileged backgrounds provide them with connections and support to become leaders, solicit donations, or found organizations that take queues from them. That’s when we see people who plainly have no idea what they’re doing or talking about picking up the latest, simplistic fad thought from Twitter and doing their best to destroy anyone who disagrees.

When this happens it makes it impossible to build ecosystems and organizations centered on those who have fought for the skills and knowledge to effectively advocate for changes.

There’s a very real “crowding out” effect going on when it comes to donor funds and public attention, and the consequences for the credibility of major social movements are grave.

TL;DR: A lot of the activist ecosystem is dominated by academically-mediocre scions of the managerial class, able to use Mommy’s business contacts to lay hands on resources to inflate their sense of self-importance. They then do bad work and make it hard for those who could do good work to do so.

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"But I think it’s very obvious that humanizing, sympathetic portrayals of gay and lesbian characters on American television in the 1990s and aughts was a huge deal politically.

Notably, even something as broad and stereotype-driven as early “Will & Grace” does the work here."

As an FYI for other readers, the relevant social science literature demonstrating this was led by Ed Schiappa (now at MIT) under the concept-handle of "the parasocial contact hypothesis." See e.g. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17135126/; https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0363775052000342544.

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I wish progressive activists cared more about the existence of Jon Tester than the existence of AOC. The former is far more responsible for positive change than the latter.

Activists get mad at Manchin, but the reason Manchin wields so much power is the failure of several senate candidates to win a seat in 2020 (and 2018/16 as well). Some of this is clearly not their fault, of course, but I don’t believe they’ve helped.

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This is one of your best pieces. It ought to be the basis for a high school civics course. Here's a short piece I wrote on the role of think tanks in managing political problems. https://www.governing.com/gov-institute/on-leadership/col-california-fiscal-reform-elaine-kamarck-policy-window.html

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Thanks for the link—will check out the book. I have been trying to get a grip on theories of change, and this (as well as Matt’s post) seems like a great resource.

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I think the time is ripe for an Occupy Wall Street retrospective, and what contemporary activists can learn from that experience.

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All I remember from Occupy Wall Street is when they were protesting a Democratic fundraiser in DC near me, and the fundraiser was primarily left-wing Democratic incumbents and left-wing groups like labor and environmentalists. A number of lobbyists and other donors would join the crowd chanting before walking inside. It was pretty surreal.

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“Don’t be hateful”?

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While we're trashing "activists"...

Have you ever noticed how basically all celebrities get to be "activists" in their bios? But, for the most part, it seems what they do is tweet political things occasionally and talk about their beliefs in public.

When regular people do this kind of thing, people used to call it "slacktivism," but we're supposed to pretend that when some of the most influential people in our society do it they are engaged in this noble endeavor to speak truth to power? I just find it distasteful.

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I also find it distasteful, but also...maybe they're right? I mean, maybe their celebrity status pushes their tweeting into a much more effective category than your average rando?

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(effective relative to the average activist)

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I like how there are consultants who can help link busy celebrities with suitable causes and politicians

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Really appreciated this piece as someone who does a lot of "activism" (I'm the Board Chair of YIMBY Action). It made me think of some recent podcasts I've heard about Sarah Schulman's on ACT UP. There seems to be an idealization of certain activist strategies with no regard to their situational efficacy but particularly in the context of who is using them. Sarah talks about how white, cis, gay men would use their social proximity to the heads of drug companies to push their agenda while queer women of color had to use more antagonistic tactics. I think today's do-gooders, no matter their class and assets put "people-power" tactics on a pedestal and run into real trouble when some positions (Defund the Police, carbon tax, etc.) don't actually have broad support. Which isn't to say they are wrong, but that tactics that don't rely on popularity should get more consideration from people trying to create change. Matt's catalogue of other tactics is helpful in that respect.

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Re: Jon Tester

People tend to forget the fun fact that Jon Tester was reelected in 2012 because he successfully got wolves de-listed from the endangered species list via a budget bill rider. This was the #1 culture war issue in Montana at the time.

If Wolf Activists had their way and wolves remained on the endangered list, it is almost certain that Tester would not have been reelected, and thus the ACA would never have passed.

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I like this line of thought, but I have one minor correction: the ACA passed the Senate at the end of 2009.

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I think, at their most successful, recent mass movements have worked by calling more media attention to their issues or by changing the ways people in the media are talking about those issues. This has probably been the greatest more or less direct success of, for instance, Occupy and BLM. What the movements generally aren't good at doing is coalescing around particular practical policy solutions and winning legislative battles to get them implemented. Defund provides a good example of the limits of mass politics. First, the most passionate voices and extreme positions tend to drown out more cautious ones. It's very difficult for movements to confront complex issues offering suitably complex and considered solutions. Complexity just isn't going to get people out in the streets in the same way apparently clear-cut positions do. Figures urging caution and more consideration of complexities in mass movements tend to be treated as potential impediments to the necessary mass passion driving activism, if not as sympathizers with the opposition. Thus there is an inherent tendency in mass movements to embracing more extreme positions and attitudes, which further cements political polarization. The movements not only are bad at formulating and building support for complex practical policy solutions themselves, in a sense they actually tend to make it harder for others to do so.

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Just reading Julia Galef's excellent book "The Scout Mindset" and she has a relevant anecdote.

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In chapter 7, we met a band of AIDS activists in New York in the 1990s called the Treatment Action Group. They lived their lives against the background of a ticking clock; their friends and lovers were dying around them at a devastating rate, and most of them had the virus themselves. When the depressing news hit in 1993 that the drug AZT was no more effective than a placebo, it sparked an important update for the activists. Previously, they had been pressuring the government to release new drugs that seemed promising right away, instead of going through the standard testing pipeline, which can take years. They now realized that had been a mistake born of desperation. “I felt I learned an important lesson,” said member David Barr, “which is that as a treatment activist, to the greatest extent possible, let study results determine the policy positions I support and for which I advocate. My hopes and dreams and fears should not guide that which I advocate for.”18 Moving forward, their mandate became: Get the science right. None of them were scientists themselves. Barr was a lawyer; other activists worked in finance or photography or screenwriting. But they were extremely motivated learners. They started with Immunology 101 textbooks, meeting up every week for what they dubbed “science club,” giving each other assignments and maintaining a glossary of all the jargon they were unfamiliar with. They also dove into the politics of government research, familiarizing themselves with how funding was structured and how the drug trials were conducted. The disorganization they discovered alarmed them. “It sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz,” said one activist named Mark Harrington. “You’ve gotten to the center of the whole system and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.”19 The more they learned, the more they realized this fight couldn’t be won with their current brand of activism. They had been focused on attention-grabbing protests, like blocking traffic and chaining themselves to politicians’ desks. One night, they even snuck over to the home of conservative senator Jesse Helms and, under the cover of darkness, enveloped his house in a giant condom. But to improve the way drugs were being developed and tested, they would need to be on the inside, working with bureaucrats and scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That decision was not popular with their fellow activists, most of whom were still furious at the government for its sluggish and, at times, apathetic response to the AIDS crisis. “There was this sort of pseudo-analogy that the NIH was like the Pentagon or something—that we shouldn’t meet with them and that they were bad or evil,” Harrington recalled.20 To tell the truth, it was a bittersweet shift for the Treatment Action Group, too. They were “crossing over” from being outside the structures of power, to inside—and in the process, sacrificing some of their ideological purity. “I knew that we would never be so pure and fervent in our belief that we were right, because we were actually going to be engaged and, therefore, be more responsible for some of the things that actually happened,” Harrington said.21 That willingness to relinquish ideological purity paid off. The “citizen scientists” were so knowledgeable about the cutting edge of AIDS research that it didn’t take long for the scientists at NIH to start taking their proposals seriously. One of those proposals was for a new kind of study called a “large simple trial,” which one of the activists named Spencer Cox had discovered while teaching himself study design. With a sufficiently large number of patients, the study could give them answers about a drug’s effectiveness much more quickly—in just months, instead of years—without sacrificing rigor. Because they now had the Food and Drug Administration’s ear, they were able to convince the FDA commissioner to take their study design plan to the drug companies, which in turn agreed to use a modified version of Cox’s design to test the latest batch of AIDS drugs. The results were announced at a medical conference in January 1996. They were dramatic. One drug kept patients’ viral load below detectable levels for up to two years. Another reduced mortality by half. In combination, they represented a stay of execution for AIDS patients. As Spencer Cox sat in the audience staring at those results on the slide, his eyes welled up with tears. “We did it,” he said. “We’re going to live.”22 Over the next two years, mortality from AIDS in the United States plummeted by 60 percent. It wasn’t over, not by a long shot, but the tide had finally turned.

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God if HBO did 1 billion Americans as TV show…

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