Political entrepreneurs, fighting every day to improve the republic, are wrestling with a particular and ever-present bruiser: our own fear. Fear of ostracism. Fear of economic instability. Fear of failure. Each is a powerful factor by itself. Together, they become a combustible cocktail. Fear does not paralyze us, but it certainly does a number on those who dedicate themselves to this sucker bet called political reform.
Others have it a little easier day to day. Being a working member of either political party, for example, is like being an enthusiast in a sprawling club. The Democratic and Republican parties provide a certain warm-blanket comfort to the normal among us. They are a place to validate and edify our most insistent ideological moorings. We can talk lustily about the baleful tendencies of the other guys and look around to find the like-minded nodding their heads in agreement. Best of all, party membership alleviates greatly the mental energy required to decide whom to vote for every election.
I'm firmly a Republican. But, with Gallup currently putting approval ratings for Congress at 15 percent, would I really vote for these folks over and over if not for the party? Would anyone?
Political entrepreneurship is a lot of things, but it isn't like being in a comfy party. We are creating ideas, thoughts, coalitions, tools that -- to be potent -- must sit outside the normal continuum of everyday politics. We are moving faster than the election cycle. We are relentlessly pressuring sitting representatives for not embracing our peppy pace. We are pushing under-observed issues right into the faces of the powerful. We are reading, dissecting, and then recapitulating through action the works of our greatest modern political science thinkers. For us, academics and politicians move too slowly. We want to try stuff. A lot of stuff. Now!
And because we are such natural outsiders, we are living in persistent terror.
Change is so important to us that we are constantly willing to sacrifice for it. But I also feel that, day to day, the desire to be inside something has equal pull. C.S. Lewis in his famous lecture "The Inner Ring" put it this way:
I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.
One thing you can say about elections is that they provide a steady income and support to those insiders lucky enough to work campaigns. And the movement back and forth, from elected official, to lobbyist, to TV personality, has become so efficient that you barely notice the seams of organized corruption that happily bind the entire system. There is currently no such binding for political entrepreneurs and no superstructure to provide economic stability for those who do this work. Just a knowledge that these efforts place us squarely outside of the realm of normal life.
Despite the steady support of several big foundations and other impact investors who finance the reform work of political entrepreneurs, the dollars currently circulating are a fraction of what is needed to make real change. This translates into smaller staffs living in tiny apartments, driving older cars, eating in cheaper restaurants, and giving plenty of "thoughtful," less expensive gifts to our long-suffering spouses. Being a permanent outsider wears one way down.
Learning to master fear is not a new requirement for change or successful change makers. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
At this early stage, political entrepreneurs do not always, or even often, succeed in a sustainable way. Giving in to fear just makes it harder to succeed. Overcoming our fears is a means to increase our odds of success. Those who win in this field -- like freedom to marry advocates or charter school advocates -- are learning to master their fears. The successful have even learned to turn individual terror and loneliness into the sinewy toughness required to win these fights every day.