Politicians are elected by the people to govern and lead on their behalf. However, often, once in the corridors of power, a politician switches tempo and starts dancing a very different dance to that of their people. That is when the people look for a way to “cut-in” on the dance. Cue the activist, either self-appointed or given that position by the people, whose job becomes that of making sure the politician and the people are dancing to the same tune.
It is a dance that never ends, once a slow dance, in the 21st century it has become fast-paced and the partners are dancing closer to each other than ever before.
The slow dance
The digital revolution and the internet have changed the way people participate in civic life rapidly and profoundly. Once to be an active citizen in monitoring the direction your neighborhood, town or city, and country was taking you:
· reading a newspaper;
· voting in elections;
· if you were angered to the point of activism itself, you wrote a letter to your elected representative;
· you could sign or organize a petition;
· at the extreme end of the scale you took part in or even led protests or revolutions.
· rarely your activism could spark a war, such as the assassination in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is credited with sparking the outbreak of World War I.
Those measures remain the same even now but in the immediacy of the connected 21st century they unfold and become bigger at a much greater pace and the smaller, more subtle methods, such as a letter, just do not seem enough.
The dance heats up
In the digital world, we accustomed ourselves to interactivity and a wealth of information at our fingertips. We are more aware than ever of how insensitive most governing bodies are to our participation in civic life and how little meaningful interaction we have come to expect from our elected representatives and other officials in power.
That led to distaste for involvement in political systems that are perceived as dysfunctional and is easily misinterpreted as apathy. Leading educators and legislators may see this as a “civics crisis” based on the fact young people take part in elections at much lower rates than their parents did. However, that misses the point – a key shift – those raised in the digital world are taking part in civic life in different ways. Ways they feel they have more impact and that impact is often outside of government.
Activism has become “cyber” – political and social activism has become facilitated through the use of digital tools like email, social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and through podcasts crowdfunding, open-source software and more. The Internet has changed almost everything we do. It is only logical it would modify the way we engage in taking political action.
The dance steps become easier
It is hard to remember how difficult it was to organize a rally before the internet. People had to door-knock, hand out leaflets, hang posters. Now, it can be as simple as a tweet that becomes viral. Suddenly thousands of people show up. It is the same with petitions. Once, you would have to find people willing to spend hours standing on the corners of streets to collect signatures from passersby. It was a lot of work, and could prove to be ineffective.
Traditional mass media – radio, television, and even print all played a role. In their heyday, each had a profound effect on organizing and mobilizing people. However, these forms were still much more hierarchical. To be heard, you had to pay, or get past gatekeepers, or force it to happen through disruption. The internet has leveled the playing field. It is entirely democratic, for good or bad, and has radically changed the way we communicate a message, then organize and mobilize.
These days the go-to for any action is the Internet.
Understanding the dance
Not everyone in this world is an active, engaged citizen and not every online generational marketing campaign makes a difference. However, in general, activism online is having an impact; it is just that it often outside of formal political participation. This emergent form of civic engagement targets politicians in government and beyond.
It is still evolving, and it is still hard to understand it fully. The world is moving from a concept of civic participation and activism that has traditionally been ideology-based and partisan to a model that is more personal and individual.
Activism is in flux; it is changing with the people who practice it. What remains constant is the role it has and will continue to have in the dance of accountability. All we have to learn is how it works and how best to adapt to this changing dance.