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Politics, Public Policy, and Activism


In a free society, the will of the public is almost omnipotent. If a large majority of people wants strongly enough for something to happen, it will come to pass as long as it does not violate the rights of others. The laws change in response to focused public opinion: Legislators pass new measures, government executives take certain actions, and judges rethink past interpretations of the law. The actions of businesses and other organizations change because hostile public opinion is sufficiently focused that a loss of business, maybe a boycott, is possible. Even the actions of private individuals change if public opinion is sufficiently focused to make people question their habitual behavior. Divided public opinion sometimes results in deadlocks that frustrate the activists on either side, but change is inevitable when public opinion unites.

Change does not happen randomly. People have so many daily concerns that mere chance will not cause them to join in paying attention to one issue and caring about it sufficiently to demand change. Instead, public opinion becomes focused because of the efforts of skilled individuals.

Some of them are politicians who draw attention to an issue to garner votes from their constituents. Some are political campaigners, either volunteers or paid staff. Others are volunteers working to advance a point of view in a nonprofit advocacy organization. Still others are professionals who shape public opinion and the laws: public relations workers, including lobbyists; editors, journalists, and news analysts with interests in certain issues; and legal workers who call attention to an issue in the law courts. These professionals may be employed by (or work in concert with) politicians and advocacy organizations. So do a few amateur solo activists who have a media presence or are able to create one. The entry routes into this field are just as diverse as the kinds of people working in it: local elections, law school, political science scholarship, journalism school, union leadership, filmmaking school, and many other routes.

Despite the diversity of these various paid and volunteer workers who galvanize public opinion, they may be viewed together as the industry of politics, public policy, and activism. Although these different workers may seem to work in unrelated fields, it is significant that they sometimes shift easily from one job title to another very different title. Many politicians formerly were lawyers or officials of advocacy organizations. Many lobbyists are former politicians. Some news commentators are former public relations workers for political campaigns.

The industry has a large presence in our society. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are approximately 51,900 legislators in the United States, but this includes neither the many elected officeholders in the executive and judiciary branches nor the many appointed officeholders, most of whom are not immune to changes in political power. One measure of the importance of this industry is the size of the government budgets that ultimately are controlled by the officials and laws that our political process puts into place. The federal budget for expenditures is now around $4.83 trillion, and the budgets of the 50 states now add up to more than $2 trillion. The budgets of local and county governments add more billions.