Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead
This quote is often repeated in order to remind us that, in the midst of an apathetic majority, a small minority of people can make big changes. Even major social movements begin with small acts like lunch counter sit-ins, or consciousness-raising groups for battered women held in living rooms and over kitchen tables.
The antics of the Tea Party Caucus of Congress serves as a good, contemporary reminder of the power of relatively small groups. The religious right wing‘s bottom-up takeover of the Republican Party and near domination of social issue debates over the last 30 or so years is another.
The religious right, like the Tea Parties, never represented more than a minority of voters. Yet, through organizing, coordinated action, and just being plain old loud and persistent, they were able to change the political culture of our country. We are now engaged in a national discussion of women’s reproductive health that is polarized around the incendiary idea that abortion is murder because of them.
That same religious right wing popularized the lie that LGBT people are perverts who build their ranks by recruiting children. And by polarizing conservatives around this idea, they have trapped the Republican Party into continuing opposition to marriage equality, even when that opposition is costly them dearly among a new generation of voters.
The power of these small groups lie in the fact that they represent the largest, most well-organized, unified and reliable minority of voters. This reactionary minority may not be big enough to win national elections anymore, but they are just large enough to swing local ones and that’s enough to wield powerful influence.
But that voting bloc was not always so unified and organized. Conservatives were once much more deeply divided by issues of gender, race, and class. That changed because of the actions of a few.
The Tea Parties and the religious right are the latest generations of a permanent counter-insurgency against democratic accountability of our government to all of its people. That counter-insurgent faction has played a role in every historical period in America. A small group of racist vigilantes were the key to the fall of Reconstruction. A minority of residents of the U.S. kept women from the polls until 1920. And a minority of libertarian cowboy entrepreneurs were key to the deregulation of finance that led to the great crash of 2008.
The changing racial and cultural demography of the U.S. won’t marginalize any of these reactionary minority groups by itself. Those of us who believe in pluralism and democracy must understand the power of thinking small and take action. And we must act with the confidence that we can change the world, because the actions of small groups of committed people is the only thing that ever has.