If you read history, the main lesson is that real change only comes about because people in power are gored in their most sensitive spot—the wallet.
This, of course, runs counter to the wisdom of reformers, who are forever trying to work within private and public systems to make our large institutions more effective, accountable, and responsive. These individuals and organizations are often admired, but they are typically ineffective when it comes to forcing fundamental and lasting improvements; they do, however, function as “useful idiots” for those in power because their existence suggests that reform of the deeply broken and/or corrupt systems is attainable. In fact, the biggest impact of these well-meaning reformers is often the exact opposite of what was intended: They forestall change instead of fomenting it because they act as a safety valve for frustrations that might have otherwise boiled over and actually forced substantive reforms.
There is, of course, the power of the ballot box. I suppose that one of the advantages of elections is that we can “fire” our elected representatives, but the campaign cash advantages of incumbency makes this fairly difficult to do, and the “punishment” often takes the form of a lucrative job as a lobbyist or a cushy position in financial services that will allow those unfortunate few who somehow manage to lose their offices to cash in on their government contacts and insider knowledge. The reality is that voting elected officials out of office typically does little but put them in line for a huge paycheck, so perhaps some of the smug satisfaction of pulling that lever in the voting booth is misplaced.
On top of this, once that person we didn’t admire or trust is out of office, we many times discover that the replacement model lacks the seniority necessary to effect any real changes or is easily co-opted through campaign contributions. Moreover, the stupendous bureaucracies designed to protect the interests of the favored few are still left behind and will frustrate reform in order to protect the contracts and paychecks that flow from the dysfunctional status quo.
Which brings us back to the power of the wallet.
Although it might seem we are making a difference with hashtags—and, I am loathe to admit, our blogging—the real change agent is our dollars. Where we spend our money, how we spend our money, and from whom we withhold our money has more power than we realize. To give hashtags and blogging (whew!) their due, social media can draw our attention to an issue, help us to think through it, and create the conditions necessary for action—all of which is good and necessary. However, it will be only by uniting to exercise our economic power that I believe we will be able to force the changes so desperately needed in so many places in our nation and society.
Boycott is, to some, an ugly word. Outright economic warfare is even less palatable to many. However, the most cursory glance at history shows that most systems of oppression or abuse ended only when the oppressed and abused made it economically unsustainable to continue. Remember that the British didn’t grant us our freedom because we held the moral high ground; they left because our refusal to comply turned us into an unprofitable venture.
Our votes will matter in November, and I encourage everyone to do so. However, also keep in mind that our votes will be only the beginning as we wrestle with the many problems facing our nation, states, and communities. Our voices—made louder and stronger by our collective economic power—might just begin to drive the changes needed to get our country back on track.