Can Activists Become Politicians? (Hint: Jeannette Rankin)

On, Ambreen Ali  ascribes some of Christine O’Donnell’s electoral difficulties to her background as an activist:

It was shortly after college when the Delaware Republican embraced an identity aspiring politicians usually avoid: She became an activist.

Though political candidates often work closely with the activists who lobby them, the traits that lead to success in the two fields couldn’t be any more different.

Activists are deliberately controversial because it gets them and their causes attention. Politicians do the opposite, choosing their words carefully so they don’t alienate constituents.

I’m not convinced.  O’Donnell’s activism produced something of a paper (actually, video) trail of odd comments, most notably an interview on MTV nearly fifteen years ago, in which she took a tough stand on masturbation: she’s opposed (See Will Saletan at Slate).  Her activism produced no record of organizing events or groups, nor influence on any matter of policy.  O’Donnell’s activism was idiosyncratic, sporadic, humorous, and ineffective.  Her Senate candidacies have stayed true to form.

Most of what O’Donnell has done in the last decade is run for office–unsuccessfully.

The Tea Party has surely generated a new wave of populist conservative activism.  Some of those activists have run for office.  But many of the candidates were veterans of wildly unsuccessful campaigns for office, newly successful only by surfing the wave of Tea Party activism–as noted by Kenneth P. Vogel at Politico.  In addition to O’Donnell, Joe Miller (Alaska), Allen West (Florida), Keith Fimian (Virginia), Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Charlie Bass (New Hampshire) had recently lost in campaigns for office.  Some ran notably more moderate campaigns in the past.  The activist tide lifted all kinds of boats,  including both stronger and stranger candidates.  [I’ve already posted on how movement candidates disappoint.]  Most, however, were aspiring politicians, albeit not very successful ones.

Can activists make the transition to electoral politics?  John Lewis, the civil rights hero who was Executive Director of the SNCC moved the civil rights movement to Atlanta’s City Council to the US Congress.  Massachusetts Senator John Kerry‘s first appearance in politics was as leader of Vietnam Veterans against the war.

Joe Lieberman (a case study in disappointment) participated in Mississippi Freedom Summer as a young man. (See Manning Marable’s comments when Lieberman was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president.)  Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank helped organize Freedom Summer–although he doesn’t advertise this background on his website.

Not long ago, Ambreen Ali herself published a list of members of Congress who started as activists.  It includes veterans of civil rights, anti-abortion, and human rights campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, there are more local politicians with activist backgrounds.  Jackie Goldberg, an organizer in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and a GLBT activist, served for years in the California State Assembly and on the LA City Council.

Just one example.  Take a look at your school board or city council and you’ll probably find others.

And elected officials can graduate to activism as well.  Democrat Kweisi Mfume, in his fifth term in the House, left office to run the NAACP in 1996.  Republican Dick Armey retired as House Majority Leader in 2002; in 2003 he was co-chair of Americans for a Sound Economy,  which grew into FreedomWorks, one of the well-funded groups that supports the Tea Party.

Two points:

1.  Working outside government to promote social change is a different job than negotiating those changes as a legislator.

2.  Some people can do both.  Someone who demonstrated the courage and capabilities needed to organize large events and mobilize many people may well have the requisite skills and drive to succeed in politics.

Someone who has been unsuccessful working outside mainstream politics isn’t likely to have an easier time running for office.

And, oh, Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973).  She was an activist: feminist, suffragist, pacifist.  She helped found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Americana Civil Liberties Union.

She was also the first woman elected to Congress, as a Republican from Montana in 1916.   In her first year in office, she cast one of the few votes against entering World War I, and unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1918.   She returned to the House in 1940, casting the only vote against entering World War II.  She was turned out of office, but not out of politics or activism.

She campaigned against war and for social justice for the rest of her life, protesting against the Vietnam war during the 1960s.  It’s a great story, one detailed in a PBS production, Peace is a Woman’s Job.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Can Activists Become Politicians? (Hint: Jeannette Rankin)

  1. Bentley says:

    I work at Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, so I was excited to see such an interesting article that actually mentions her. Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that she was an activist and politician, but after reading this post, it’s clear that the transition from one to the other, and requirements therein, are quite difficult to manage. It seems that, in Jeannette’s case, her activism helped her in her political career. She needed to promote what she was working for – equality, peace, women’s right to vote (as you mentioned) – and her ability to raise eyebrows and push people to think allowed her to garner support. People wanted passion for the issues and Jeannette definitely had that. Her energies weren’t expended trying to ensure reelection, but fighting for the causes she was elected to fight for. Thank you for making me appreciate her rarity as a politician even more!

  2. I’m very glad to know that you’re out there. It’s great to think that there are women pursuing higher ed. carrying Jeannette Rankin’s name–and legacy.

    “By awarding scholarships to low-income women 35 and older, JRF provides opportunities for women nationwide to secure careers and break the cycle of poverty.”

  3. MoralHeroes says:

    Great article! I will be passing this on to my friends for sure.

    Since you mentioned her, I thought you’d like to know that Jeannette Rankin is featured as Hero of the week over at you should check it out and share it with your friends!

  4. Pingback: Representative Lucy McBath starts as an activist | Politics Outdoors

  5. Pingback: Mourning heroes | Politics Outdoors

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