In a democracy, the public has a variety of crucial roles to play in the functions of government. First, the people vote on who they want to be their lawmakers. Additionally, those lawmakers will often survey the people to determine their opinions on a given issue, so that at the next election the lawmaker can show off a favorable voting record.
On top of this, the electorate have other ways of making their opinions known. Elected officials might align with a powerful special interest group against the broader public, or the official might not know what the public’s priorities are.
Even more importantly, a small group of people might feel very strongly about an issue that most other people are unaware of.
For all of these reasons, concerned citizens engage in a set of practices known as “activism”. Activism is the opposite of passivity: when people care about an issue, they do whatever is necessary to create the changes they want to see. Sometimes the goal is to change a government policy, and so activists will hold rallies, write letters to officials, hire lobbyists, and use a whole range of other creative means to convince the lawmakers to change the law. Other times, the goal is more social than political: people may want to change a cultural norm, or the way other people think and behave.
For example, activists might hold rallies for or against a controversial issue like abortion. To some degree, their goal is to change the laws regarding that issue, but they’re also trying to change the way other people feel about it. A large public rally is a forceful way of showing the world that a lot of people care deeply about a given issue.
The more urgent the issue, the more forceful the activists will be. Issues that threaten the lives or livelihoods of large numbers of people can lead to violent protests, riots and the potential that the government itself will be in danger. There is a seamless transition between activism and revolution: the only difference is how angry people are.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What issues do you care most about? What changes would you most like to see in the world?
Are these political issues, where the goal is to change a law or a policy? Or are they primarily social issues, where the goal is to change how other people think and behave?
Do other people care about these issues as much as you do? Are they commonly talked about and discussed? If not, what would you do to get other people talking about the issues you care about?
What do you think are the most effective forms of activism? What do you think makes them so effective?
Public activism to change laws or social norms is an essential process in any healthy society. It’s important to listen to what activists have to say, even if you disagree with them.