Over the years I have worked in many different arenas. I have preached the “good news” in Uganda and the streets of the US; I have slaved behind the corporate counters of objectification in food service job after food service job; and I have shouted “Justice!” from the peaks of mountain tops to the spires of City Halls to the cold floors of corporate boardrooms. No matter where I am fighting though I am always pestered by one question: what difference can one person actually make?
I also worked on elections, primarily the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, and when I would meander through the hoods and boroughs of Tennessee and Pennsylvania I would usually encounter the same question from citizen after citizen after citizen: what could one vote possibly do? I would encourage them that every vote matters because that was the script. That was the message I was there to send: “your vote matters.” But did it? What could one person do against a billion dollar campaign machine?
When I think about those campaigns I remember being convicted of the fact that, yes, my and your vote mattered because we didn't know how many votes McCain and Romney would muster. It’s a basic principle of contest: hope for the best but prepare for the worst. But I was lying to them. They knew it. I knew it. You know it. There really was no democratic value to me nor any one of you, as individuals, participating in either one of those elections. If you would go ask those same folks on whose door I was knocking--who represent the worldview of a large swath of the electorate, by the way-- what they want out of their politicians you won't hear anything close to a Democratic or Republican platform. On the contrary, I hear on a regular basis from poor and oppressed people that they want what everybody else wants: opportunity, equality, and an end to violence in their neighborhoods. Sure, most of them will tell you they want clean streets too, but if those first three topics were addressed in any sort of systematic way then clean streets would be a pleasant byproduct because nobody is throwing corporate candy wrappers on the corners when kids are fed a healthy diet in a stimulating atmosphere at home. But that kind of peace and security is usually reserved for the privileged upper--mostly white--few. Those values aren’t represented in corporate bought politics. So, really what value was the vote?
Well, in reality there seem to be two opposing views prevalent in America: 1) everyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make something out of nothing (this view is normally represented by the privileged class whom do not have the social pressure of being “different” and therefore can navigate societies structures because they were built for them) and 2) the view that government has a role in shaping its structures, institutions, and laws to reflect its people’s values (normally propagated mainly by the working class which has skin in the game to work cooperatively toward a common goal because they are the direct beneficiaries [because you reap what you sow, right?]).
The first of those views is mainly disseminated by the few who sneak the stealthiest and preach the loudest. Normal regular working poor people do not benefit from "the system" because it was not designed with them in mind. It was created and is sustained with only the cold godless heartless profit motive in mind. Loss is evil and profit is divine in that world and speaking against it is blasphemy. Furthermore, they even have the resources to manipulate the national dialogue through their own megaphone--Big News. The UberRich have talking heads regurgitating their worldviews like they are preaching salvation 24/7. Literally, there are a few old rich white guys who dictate the tone and content of the news and they raise or lower the bar based on their own profits, whether economic or moral. So, I guess a single person can do a lot... if you got the gold.
The second idea I mentioned above is that collective action can produce superhuman feats. But with that power comes great responsibility. The problem with the espousers of this holy gospel is that they too are the corrupt they demonize in their sermons. It’s unfortunate and I think that the Great Left Leaders realize it but are hesitant to admit it. It’s understandable. Imagine that Bruce Wayne discovers he is the Dark Knight but doesn't leave Gotham. He would live long enough to see himself become the villain, right? (That's what Batman said anyway.) Well, villains have a tendency toward self-righteousness, not introspection. Those of us on the vanguard could help the Great Left Leaders with their growing pains but they have become so addicted to power that they need rehab, not just an intervention. Therefore, the vox populi is drowned out in an ocean of dollars... even from the left.
It’s ironic really that the most addicted among us both preach good solid ideas but are also the very villains who set brother against brother with their homeland war profiteering. The WarOnPoverty Machine is a bi-partisan machine after all. The real frightening factor is how the Machine seems to be alive and devouring everything in its jowls, even its benevolent benefactors. It has all the makings of a false god. The problem is that this time the devil has an army behind him--the police. If you think you have the freedom to speak out against the government, some big corporation, or an institution then just head down to Wall Street with a sign and see how long it takes to get your head bashed in by the NYPD. Spoiler alert: it won't be long.
We know that progress only comes with revolutionary zeal, but revolution looks less and less likely the longer we spiral out of control down the depths of the consumer-entertainment vortex. Unfortunately, revolutionaries are rarely cultivated in a world which is designed to pacify people with blood and lust at the touch of a button. So, what hope is there? What can I or you do when pitted against Olympus and all her gods?
It seems to me that the lone fighter stands little chance of changing the world. Does your voice matter? Yes, and you should exercise it respectfully and freely. However, the old saying holds true: whoever has the gold makes the rules. Therefore, faced with the question of influence I would have to say that the everyday person has little to no power. We have been pigeonholed by the powerful as taxpayers and consumers and, without action, we are destined to be chained there. However, when individuals and families come outside, talk to each other, and commit themselves to change there is no money-made-politically-motivated-war-machine on Planet Earth that can dam the flood of collective action. How people exert their collective will to effect change is beyond the scope of this piece, but the fact that we must is beyond dispute.
How can one person make a difference? By speaking up, speaking out, and getting out of our front doors and into conversations with our neighbors. Hell, I will even cede to starting online. We are the most connected generation in the history of the world. Why not leverage that influence to work together toward a common goal? What difference can one person make? A world, but only when working with others.