Population and Pressure Politics
In its general, ill-defined sense, “pressure politics” was introduced by whichever hominid first realized that the easiest way to influence his leader was to gather a few malcontent males to look intimidating so that the leader decided, Ok, yeah, you guys are right, we’ll move to the next valley in search of food even though my harem likes this valley because it’s close to the river. No violence or mass revolt needed. The threat of it works fine, too.
In a more concrete sense, pressure politics could only have been invented in a democratic society powered by mass media. Wikipedia tells us that its origins are most commonly associated with 20th century social reform movements—specifically, the temperance movement, the most utopian of all progressive movements. And the master of pressure politics from the social reform era was Wayne Wheeler, the architect of Prohibition:
Discovering the power of utilizing mass media to exert pressure on politicians is usually attributed to Wayne Wheeler, the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Under his mentorship, a number of skilled practitioners of pressure politics emerged within the league. One leader of the league testified that prior to [Prohibition’s] passage in Congress, he had compiled a list of 13,000 business people who supported Prohibition. They were then given their instructions at the crucial time:
“We blocked the telegraph wires in Congress for three days. One of our friends sent seventy- five telegrams, each signed differently with the name of one his subordinates. The campaign was successful. Congress surrendered. The first to bear the white flag was Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. He told us frankly he was opposed to the amendment, but since it was apparent from the telegrams that the business world was demanding it, he would submerge his own opinion and vote for submission.
Politicians in a democracy are like willow reeds. The lightest breeze, they bend that direction. That is a feature, not a bug, of democratic politics more generally. Whoever can channel the breeze can control the entire political climate and eventually cause a typhoon.
In less metaphorical terms, 20th century progressives realized, quite brilliantly, that the pressure in pressure politics can do its work without actually assembling that much pressure. (Just a few malcontents can look intimidating.) The appearance of pressure—the appearance that ‘the people’ want something—is far more important than the substance. To make it appear as though the people want something, you don’t need the people. You just need the rhetorical construct and 13,000 businessmen with varying degrees of sympathy to your cause. Not even the businessmen. Just their names, per Wheeler.
Take any national population. Only a certain percentage of it will care enough about politics to involve themselves in politics in any way. Only a certain percentage of that percentage will be committed enough to become persistent activists.
In the past, when most of the population was busy tending gardens, raising livestock, and feeding itself, not many people got involved in politics. Today, much of the population is no longer busy, so we can expect an increase in the number of people getting involved in politics, but still, most people don’t get involved, and the statistical limitations noted above are still in effect.
The population increases, but the percentage of people committing themselves to political movements probably stays the same. But . . . math: the population increases, the percentage stays the same, but nevertheless the raw number of people getting involved in politics increases. Conservatives in their 70s and 80s are asking themselves, “Where did all these wierdos come from?” There is not a higher percentage of people than ever feeding their bizarre Rights fetish; but there are more people from which the same percentage of political malcontents can be gathered. Ergo, more wierdos with a Rights fetish. And they are the people who matter. Neither the nation at large nor the fickle politicians notice the 90% not agitating for political movements; they notice the 10% who do. They’re the few, the proud, the Neopuritans with a megaphone and an attitude that says, ‘by any means necessary.’
10% of 50 million can do a lot of damage. 10% of 300 million . . .
Online, it’s easy to agitate. You may be committed to anti-racism in only the vaguest, “I don’t want to be an ass hole” kind of way, and that’s all the Progressives need because all they need you to do is tap a dozen keys and hit Enter. In Wheeler’s day, there was a measure of commitment to be made on the part of the agitators. A letter had to be hand-written and posted; a long walk into town had to be made if you wanted to protest or send a telegram. Today? Don’t leave your bed, you can still sign a petition or share a link.
Pressure politics—and its latest manifestation, “shame politics”—relies on that relatively small percentage of the population that is bored or unemployed enough to commit to political agitation. The progressives win because they know pressure politics. They know how to control the breeze to create the appearance of a storm, which ends up causing a real storm. And with increasing population (of the inherently leftist sort) and increasing proliferation of mass communication, pressure politics is easier than ever. The progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—which was always an empty rhetorical concept—they just need one percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that one percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy. With the right leadership, a few hundred thousand puritanical Liberal Arts students can control the political climate and thus control the immediate fate of the nation.