The late Representative Tip O’Neill is famous for saying, “All politics is local.” Over the holidays, talking with a variety of people on a variety of political topics, Laurie in particular got to thinking about a surprisingly rich metaphor for the same concept.
“It started when I was talking with a teenage friend, and he was talking about how much he hates the current political climate. We talked about things he could do, and he mentioned that he has a close adult friend who works with homeless kids. I suggested that he do the same work, and he said, ‘That’s not important enough.'”
This makes us both think of the people we know who are mired in despair over politics, and do little or nothing to change things because, “it’s hopeless,” or “nothing I could do would make enough difference.”
Both of us are or have been small business owners, and both of us come from families of business people, so it’s easy to translate “all politics is local” into “all important politics is retail.” Wholesale vs. retail turns out to be a very useful metaphor for political work. It is, of course, an unabashedly capitalist metaphor, and at the same time it breaks up some of the knee-jerk responses to familiar political language.
Here’s how we see it breaking down: working with individuals is doing politics retail. Teaching inner-city kids (math, history, or belly-dancing), serving at a soup kitchen, hammering nails with Habitat for Humanity, cleaning back yards of houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina is all retail.
Lobbying, marching, writing to your senator or representative are individual wholesale actions. Many if not most of the major political groups in this country engage entirely in wholesale activity: the Sierra Club is one example of a group whose whole effort is put into lobbying. There are excellent nonprofits and NGOs which we would call “mixed businesses”; for example, Move On follows an effective combination strategy of policy lobbying mixed with one-on-one work.
This made us look at what we do: the books are a widespread version of retail politics, in the sense that while thousands of them get published and distributed, in the end the change happens when an individual person spends time with an individual book. All of our speaking and writing and publishing has a very retail flavor, even when the groups are large, because we think so carefully about each separate talk, article, audience, and slant. This blog is mixed: it goes out to thousands of individuals (in theory, it could go out to millions) and we hope it reaches each one personally.
The wholesale work is important, and it can’t stand on its own. The retail work is crucial. What we see all too frequently is that people get “patted on the head” for retail work; the canonical comment is, “It’s so nice that you’re helping those people,” but the work itself isn’t seen as important.
As part of this trivialization, the benefits to the person who’s “helping” are often completely ignored or undervalued. Working in small groups in bad times is both one of the most effective and one of the most satisfying ways to counteract bad times. Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” While this may not be always true it is certainly true enough to be important.
As a result, people with time and money and skills sit at home and tear their hair out about how bad things are without lifting a finger, while we all know that if everyone who cared about the things we care about was doing retail social change, the changes would come a lot sooner.
Oh, and by the way. Laurie sharing these ideas with her teenage friend helped him make the decision to go work with the homeless children.