We’re still waiting for the perfect candidate. In 2016, Bernie Sanders was going to solve income inequality in America. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave us her plan to cut carbon emissions while putting Americans to work. And in the last few months, between the 20 of them, Democratic presidential hopefuls have put out plans on nearly every salient political issue.
Among my most politically engaged friends and relatives, candidates and their plans are a frequent topic of conversation. And to some degree, they should be — it’s important to think critically about who we elect to the most powerful offices. But the sometimes prohibitive importance we give candidates, and particularly presidential primary candidates, is misplaced.
Politicians need a significant constituency to approve of something before they do it. They consistently check polls, tally phone calls and letters to their office, and consult strategists before making decisions. While the plans they put out as candidates are indicative of their values and priorities, they are ultimately constrained by public opinion and the political climate. In other words, politicians don’t ultimately set the agenda — their constituents do.
The overemphasis on candidates and their plans ignores this reality. In searching for the perfect person to advocate for us, we’ve begun to forget the importance of advocating for ourselves. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s understood all too well that no president or congress would ever proactively make the changes they sought, which is why they planned sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, freedom rides, and lawsuits to force their issues onto the agenda, and used nonviolence to change public opinion.
In fact, major change is almost never made by a savvy politician with a good plan. Rather, it’s made when large groups of people come together and use their collective strength to make themselves impossible to ignore. The most classic example of this is a labor union — workers recognize both their shared interests and the power they can wield by acting together, and force their employer to make concessions.
The precipitous decline in American labor union participation — 23% in 1980 and just 11% in 2016 — is therefore highly troubling, and I think both a symptom and a cause of our inability to recognize the importance of collective action. My ideal presidential candidate’s big plan would be to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to nullify the “Right to Work” laws that have crippled unions in the 28 states that have them. That, in my opinion, would be among the most effective ways to decrease income inequality in the United States, and would do so in a way that would empower workers, unlike changes to the tax code or increased spending on social welfare.
But the bottom line is that we can’t wait for change to come down from above, and even a candidate running the most grassroots campaign will eventually fall victim to political realities. Our job is to change those realities by acting collectively to demand the changes we seek and shutting things down when they don’t happen. This could take many different forms — two recent examples of groups that have done this well are Black Lives Matter and the Fight for Fifteen — both are models worth emulating. Ultimately, however, we will have to fundamentally change how we think about politics.
We’ll have to stop blaming every problem on the corrosive influence of money in politics, because that money is really just filling a void left by people. And we’ll have to work hard to strengthen the institutions that enable us to come together as a collective far more powerful than any individual.
We might as well start soon, because if we’re waiting for the perfect candidate to solve all of our problems, we might be waiting a long time.