Political Will is a Quilting Bee

Why progressive politicians with majority mandates don’t pursue more aggressive climate policy is one of the great mysteries of our time.

Apparently. Or not. Because to me it makes perfect sense. This conundrum comes from a complete misunderstanding of what political will is and where it comes from.

Political will is not like iron ore.

It is not a pre-existing resource that you need to look for, and, once found, can be used to make things like policies or new law.

And political will is not like a thunderstorm.

It isn’t a mysterious, difficult to predict source of energy that just shows up and dumps a bunch of rain and wind that you can then use to power change.

Political will is more like a quilting bee.

It is produced by people in groups acting together, in public, towards a common end.

You cannot make it on your own, and you cannot make it in private, but YOU CAN MAKE POLITICAL WILL.

Voting is one way of creating political will, but it is very weak due to its substantial flaws: it’s only semi-public, for one. No one knows who you voted for unless you tell them. And it’s dispersed: no one knows why you voted for someone unless you tell them that, either. Political platforms generally contain dozens of policy proposals or promises, and you probably didn’t like all of them, or all of them equally–so what are your priorities? And how are you communicating those priorities to your elected officials?

You should still vote, because that is your best chance of having elected officials who are open to your priorities and concerns; but it’s not enough, not by far. As a bare minimum, you should reach out to your representatives after elections to tell them what your priorities are, what changes you are counting on them to make, and what changes you are completely opposed to (particularly if they ran on those changes). It’s an email. You can write an email.

The public, declarative process of creating political will is why sustained protest movements have such a history of success: you have many people acting collectively in public who are very, very open about their priorities. Not any one person is single-handedly responsible for the political will created but, like a quilting bee, each one of them is contributing a square or a stitch.

Petitions, letter-writing campaigns, civil disobedience, organizations and organizing efforts, strikes, speeches, public meetings and events–all of them work. Ideally, you have a bunch of all of them as part of any sustained movement for change. If they happen often enough and there are enough people participating and they have a common-enough message, congratulations, you will create political will.

The politicians are the last stage in this process.

I don’t know how we ended up with the idea that politicians need to display leadership. Oh hell no. Politicians, particularly in democracies, have always been and will always be followers. Politicians who lead are consistently punished in elections. For progressive politicians, the line of doing the utmost of what is possible with the political will that’s been created without overstepping such that you lose elections–a la Wynne and Notley here, most recently–and see the incoming parties dismantling your legacies is particularly fraught.

Lots of politicians want to make positive change in society, but they can only do so if they have the political will required for the scale of change proposed–and that is the responsibility of the public to create. We can argue while the world unravels about us whether or not it should be that way, but it is; the public’s responsibility is to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions, publicly, in groups.

It doesn’t need to be terrifying. If you have an unholy fear of protest marches or have been completely indoctrinated that marching down a street with a sign is a sure way to be arrested, great, don’t do that. Go to a public meeting, a book reading, a speech, a fundraiser. Put a sign up in your window. Start or sign a petition. Write emails or make phonecalls. Send a cheque to an organization working on the issue.  And make it public. Don’t do it quietly. Let people know–friends, families, and your representatives. Do as much, as often as you can. In this way, you help to stitch the quilt of political will that our democracies need to create legitimate, lasting change.

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