Ovid once wrote “gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo]” which translates to “a water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often].” It took me a long time to truly understand what these profound words mean.
Working in grassroots politics is not at all what I expected it to be when I decided to get my undergraduate in political science. I had this idealized vision of fighting the power and educating the masses – I was going to be part of the change I wished to see in the world. I surmised that the political model is flawed because of the type of people who typically entered the field: the ruthless and power hungry driven by a personal agenda rather than a desire to add value to the world.
Needless to say, this was not who I saw myself to be. I was eager to be an anomaly – I thought if my message was pure, people who heard it would rally around my cause to promote their own well-being through smaller, properly checked government. To look back now, I can’t help but laugh at that silly well-intentioned girl. She had no idea what she was up against.
I got my start as a grassroots activist working with the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at my university. The work I did on my college campus in no way prepared me for the political machine – not to the fault of the organization, but the nature of student organizations in general. Our goal was to educate students about the issues and instill in them the drive to become activists themselves. Organizing free speech walls and bringing guest speakers to campus gave me skills that are necessary to work in state politics, but it did not prepare me for the ethical dilemmas and cut-throat nature of the field I would shortly enter.
Moving forward with my life, I left the very conservative state I grew up in to work organizing the grassroots in a state that is a bastion of the worst leftist policy. All the techniques I found so effective in my home state failed miserably in this new place I was reluctant to call home, but this steep learning curve was only the beginning of the battle I faced.
I began establishing relationships with those who also fought for economic freedom in the state and quickly realized that even the fiscal conservatives here were different from those back home. These underdogs were accustomed to having to fight for even the smallest of victories, and this cut-throat nature hemorrhaged into the way they dealt with their allies. I once took a chance on a job with an up and coming organization that promised me a huge jump in my career, worked my ass off advancing the group with the demographic they sought to encompass, only to be let go without warning after I succeeded. I took it personally – and as a hard but valuable lesson. I only needed to feel the plunge of a conservative knife into my back once before I realized the relationships I forged with fellow activists are purely political and extended only as far as I could advance their personal cause.
So I learned quickly to treat every relationship in the political realm as purely professional. But, since tyranny never sleeps, the work of a paid political activist never ends. To be good at what you do, your job must consume your life, which means all the people you interact with must be viewed as professional contacts, not friends, colleagues or even allies. If this notion isn’t depressing enough – let me address the ethical dilemmas I face on a daily basis.
As a child of Ron Paul’s brushfire, I consider myself a movement person first. This is not to say I that I think “what would Ron Paul do?” before I make any decision, but rather that I believe so strongly in the philosophy I hold that I consider forwarding it of the highest importance. But a purist philosophy gets soiled very quickly when working in politics, and there seems to be no avoiding that reality.
Just this week, I needed to turn out 60 activists to a stop-raising-our-taxes event, a feat that would have been impossible without help from another organization. As libertarians well know, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and I wasn’t going to get the help I needed without offering something in return. The activists I needed cost me integrity. I agreed to arrange a speaking engagement for a prominent establishment Republican – the type of politician I loathe for supporting hawkish platforms that divide the party along ideological factions.
With situations like these, I only hope the benefits of compromise outweigh the harms. I make concessions to my philosophy in an effort to spread economic freedom. All I can do is weigh the good against the bad, and hope I make the right choice.
The concerns I have over the compromises I make keep me awake at night. Being enmeshed in the liberty movement, I perpetually hear that it is futile to attempt to enact change through the political model. For my experiences and all I sacrifice, the worry that they are right is always in the back of my mind. I have to believe my efforts help curb the rampant statism that afflicts this state; I have to believe the naïve and hopeful girl who once filled this skin was right that political change is possible and more relevant than ever.
I want to believe that I know what I am doing, but the truth is that I have no idea if I am making any difference at all. In politics you see slow, incremental changes (if you are lucky), that may or may not be the result of your efforts. I see results that make me have to believe the work of liberty activists is slowly effective – but that doesn’t mean every compromise I make is right, and it doesn’t mean that it is all worth it. All I can do is believe the words of Ovid, that through persistence – not force – we may be successful at wearing down the bureaucratic stone.