You have to start with the principle.

You have to start with the principle.
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

You can't win unless you know what you're fighting for.

Many of the most important and valuable milestones of progress in society have been achieved through compromise and incrementalism. It's no surprise that idea of negotiating a brokered future in collaboration with those who might disagree with your views has become so appealing that there's an almost religious attachment to the idea among the traditional left. Bipartisanship is valued beyond reason. And, at a moment when democracy is fundamentally under attack, it's even valued beyond rationality or self-preservation

The truth is, though, that you have to stand for something. For the most effective movements of our era, the clarity and purpose of their goals is absolute. The values that underpin their aims are obvious.

Let's take a look at an example. For me, a movement like #FightForFifteen is a perfect benchmark in this area, demonstrating several essential traits:

  • Is the idea grounded in a bedrock principle, based on humanity and compassion?
  • Is the idea so simple to understand that people can articulate it to one another, even if they're not trained advocates?
  • Is the purpose so obviously broadly beneficial that everyone can understand how it helps them or someone they care about?
  • Is the goal so clear that everyone can tell if it has been achieved yet?

These are simple criteria, often fundamental to grassroots community organizing, and yet so often overlooked. One of the most common modes of failure is when everyone agrees that there's a groundswell of support and passion about an issue that's sufficient enough to ignite a successful movement, but that energy gets channeled into vague, unclear, undefined or incomprehensible goals. In the Fight for Fifteen, everyone who's heard the phrase knows what the goal is, can easily explain to someone else why they might want it, and anyone can tell whether it's been achieved simply by looking at their paycheck.

For another positive case, we can look at the fight for marriage equality. Though there was refinement and evolution over the decades since the fight began (exemplified by the rhetorical shift from "gay marriage" to "marriage equality"), it was plain as day what the goal was, and anyone with even a modicum of decency could understand how it would benefit either themselves or someone they love. A milestone that can be marked by lighting up every major public space with rainbows is probably the ultimate example of having clearly-defined goals.

Today, that clarity is most often found in regressive movements. Those who seek to fully criminalize abortion care have an unambiguous goal and they can tell they're making progress toward it, even if it's incremental. Poor people being forced to carry pregnancies to term are the grim, but patently obvious, proof of their goals being achieved.

But too many of those who fought to advocate for increasing access to healthcare, or other similar goals, have been pulled into the trap of "reasonableness". Reasonableness is a slow method of failure in which the first step is to concede half of the goal up front, the turning point is losing the passion and backing of the most enthusiastic supporters to disillusionment, and the final step is poisoning the well for future efforts by providing a cautionary example of defeat.

Gradually, and then all at once

Change is always incremental, though. So it can be hard to know if the incremental progress that we see is the first bold step on a successful path to a better future, or the half-assed high-water mark of a movement that's failing in slow motion. We can look for clues to determine which way we're headed. Are the incremental victories (and inevitable setbacks) along the way greeted with a response of "Well, that's one more step toward our goal." Or, do the members of the movement end up asking each other, "Does that count as what we wanted?"

If you don't know what winning is, you will certainly never win.

It's worth reflecting on the other goals and movements in our lives, and to evaluate them on the basis of whether they've met all the traits of successful movements. In my own personal journey of trying to challenge the consensus dogma of the last century under which I was raised, I had a chance to reflect on this as I looked at this in my personal life and in very local focus that I try to have for issues. But it's easier to understand in the more universal, mainstream narratives that we've all discussed to death.

For Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016, I often found myself asking advocates and surrogates, "What is she really for?" While I have no doubt that she was a thoughtful and experienced leader whose heart was in the right place, when I'd hear things like "healthcare" in response, I couldn't get clear, believable answers about healthcare for whom, and when, and at what cost? It was obviously a goal grounded in humanist principles, and in fact was more frustrating because everyone could understand the potential benefits. I just couldn't get a strong sense of what winning looked like. And if an empathetic supporter can't articulate what the goal is, a movement is going to struggle mightily to win over more adherents.

By contrast, one of the most inspiring parts of Barack Obama's first presidential campaign (which, after a decade and a half, seems oddly almost forgotten) was his principled stance on the Iraq War. Though his public persona has, due to his great efforts to make it so, solidified into an almost frustrating insistence on bipartisanship, the truth is that his ascent to national leadership was galvanized by taking an unpopular, values-based view that was clear and easy to articulate. When we withdrew from the damnable, broken war in Iraq, amidst all the grief, it was at least clear that we were headed toward the goal that all supporters had believed in.

I think this focus on a principle-based, articulated goal is a hallmark of almost all the modern, vibrant movements of our era, particuarly those spearheaded by young people. The reasonableness and a priori concession of the 20th century consensus have been proven ineffective, and are uninspiring even when they've gotten wins. So many of the policy victories and hard-fought civic battles of the last few decades have been beneficial to real people, and have advanced progressive values, but were so obtuse or obscure that nobody could even articulate the success to each other.

A story you can't tell isn't a victory. It's a fable that fades too quickly.

I'm making all these notes for myself, to remind me of the things I want to catalyze, in my personal life, in my work, in my neighborhood and community. But I've had this conversation one-on-one with so many people in my life over the last few years that I felt like I'd be remiss to not make a public note in case others might find value in it too. If it sounds right to you, if it resonates, take this list and give it to the people in your life who are making positive change happen. Then see it through.