Slacktivism. The term refers to the “feel-good” illusion that many people (the slacktivists) get from lending support to worthy causes in some painless, often costless way involving minimal effort. Signing a petition, wearing a bracelet, sending a contribution are three stand-bys for the slacktivist. Nothing wrong with any of those except the smug sense that one has actually made a difference. India experienced a spate of slacktivism in the weeks -- petitions and street demonstrations -- after the November attack on Mumbai, prompting a scornful critique by Uma Asher in The Times of India (“The e-war on terror,” December 12, 2008).
As I ponder the cloudy prospects for transformative change in America in 2009, this portmanteau (a combination of two words, in this case slacker and activist) haunts me. In my analysis, corporate interests have a vise grip over US trade and tax policy, the government regulatory apparatus, both houses of Congress, and both major political parties. Despite Obama’s astounding success in raising cash from small donors, large donors dominate the money game and thus the political process.
I’ve long believed that the only way to fight such dominance is through grass-roots activism. The keys to effective grass-roots activism seemed to be a) the existence of a crisis atmosphere which opened the door to real change and b) an actionable agenda of solid, well thought-through policy alternatives. Certainly, the present economic conditions qualify as a bona fide crisis and thus a genuine opportunity for fundamental change. Groups like the Coalition for a Prosperous America, the Coalition to Fix America’s Economy, and the China Currency Coalition – all of which I am active in – are getting close to having the necessary sort of action agenda.
What may yet stand in the way of real change is our own slacktivism. Let’s cheer for Obama and watch him deliver “change we can believe in.” Let’s give the Democrats in control of the Congress larger majorities, an ally in the White House, and watch them produce real change. Such slacktivism is delusional and undermines the chances for real progress.
Shalesh Gandhi, a good government crusader in India, was quoted in the Times as saying “Our political class is bad because we do not keep on questioning it.’’ Gandhi added the crucial point that the real work of improving one’s country is not exciting, but dull.
India’s problem is also our own. I’m confident that after the feel-good inaugural ceremony on January 20, the new president and his entourage will parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in front an ebullient crowd. Meanwhile, a horde of lobbyists will descend upon Congressional offices laying the groundwork for killing the Obama program in committee. They know what they want (or don’t want) and back it up with cash, cunning, and ceaseless effort. By contrast, many reformers seem content to feel good about themselves and their beliefs.
Slacktivists of America, unite! You have nothing to lose but your e-mail chains! Now, right now, is the time for all slacktivists to aim higher, to demand and question more of public officials and the media, and especially to do more themselves -- no matter how difficult, daunting or even dull the work may seem.