Don't Despair: You Can Be a "Trim Tab" & Help Save the World

Just like a tiny trim tab alters the direction of an airplane or ship, it’s small groups and even single individuals who are always at the core of societal change


Today’s Daily Discussion Thread: Rand Paul is Trying to Start an Anti-Mask Movement: Is His "Libertarian" Movement - "A Me Society Instead of a We Society" - Going to Succeed in Bringing Down America? What do you think? Have you had encounters with Libertarians or the billionaires and corporations that started and funded the movement?

You can help save democracy in America. Seriously. You.

You may think that being part of a small group of activists can’t possibly really produce large social changes, but in reality the opposite is true. Throughout history, it’s almost always been small groups who trigger larger social and political changes.

Because we live in what we call a democratic republic (Republicans prefer to call it a “constitutional republic”) many potential activists believe it’s necessary to get more than half of Americans on-board for any sort of real or substantial social, economic or political change.

They couldn’t be more wrong, and the belief about that very steep 50% hill to climb keeps a lot of people from becoming change agents. Instead, just like a tiny trim tab alters the direction of an airplane or ship, it’s small groups and even single individuals who are always at the core of societal change.

The “trim tab” notion of societal change is well known in hard-right circles trying to flip America into a white-power ethnostate with populist/oligarchic governance like Viktor Orban’s Hungary or pre-Mandela apartheid South Africa.

One militia group, the Three Percenters (III% is their logo), are so deeply into this that they named their group after their belief that only 3 percent of colonists fought in the American Revolution.  While they’re wrong about the number, they’re right that a small, dedicated group can (and often does) quite literally change the course of history.

One of my anti-slavery ancestors fought in the American Revolution, a story my mom told me from the time I was a child, (she did the genealogical research to get me and my brothers into the Sons of the American Revolution) which inspired much of my near-obsession with early American history.

As Jimmy Carter lays out in The Hornet’s Nest, his brilliant novel of that era, only about a third of Americans actively supported the colonies’ separation from Britain and another third considered themselves loyal subjects of the Crown.  But the fervor and energy, the burning vision of a better future held by the revolutionaries overwhelmed the lukewarm loyalists and the politically uninvolved third of Americans who just tried to continue their lives without involvement until or unless the battles came near them.

Our second president, John Adams, wrote about this phenomenon in a 1815 letter to Massachusetts Senator James Lloyd:

“I Should Say that one full third were averse to the Revolution; These retaining that overweaning fondness in which they had been educated for the English could not cordially like the French, indeed they most heartily detested them. … An opposite third, conceived … an hatred of the English and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third … were rather lukewarm both to England and France; and Sometimes Stragglers from them and Sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third according to Circumstances.” 

Adams was speaking then of the French Revolution that ended in 1799 while he was president, but generally the same was true of the American Revolution. Minorities of people regularly change history, long before majorities finally come around.

It wasn’t even the quarter of Americans who eventually decided to vote for Trump that brought about his win: it was a small group of dedicated activists (and a little help from Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

It wasn’t the third of Americans who supported the American Revolution or even the 10-15 percent who fought in it that brought about our nation: it was the small band of fewer than 500 people who wrote the Declaration, Common Sense and other pamphlets, and rode out in community after community to warn about the coming Redcoats.

Margaret Mead put it best:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I’m licensed to pilot for airplanes and boats, and both have “trim tabs” or their equivalent that cause tiny changes to the pressure forces on the vehicle to produce less-immediate but longer-term and irresistible changes in direction.  These are small surfaces on the tail rudder and and wings that only slightly change the flow of air or water around them.

If you’ve ever had a single tire on a car go soft or out of alignment you’ve seen the same process at work; the car will, when you take your hands off the wheel, begin to drift to one side of the road or the other.

Even the largest movements always started with a small group or small groups of people. From the American Revolution to the abolition of slavery to the vote for women to a whole range of modern movements: every one started out with small groups of people — trim tabs — who relentlessly pushed society in a new and better direction.

The fossil-fuel billionaires and their buddies have been acting on this reality this since the 1970s. It’s why rightwing billionaires (and the fossil fuel industry itself) fund what seem to be unthreatening small groups promoting fossil fuel, rightwing judges and democracy disinformation.  Every state in the union has a “policy” group that owes its creation to the Koch network, and the billionaire-funded Federalist Society has helped Mitch McConnell pack our courts with righwing anti-democracy ideologues.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about this: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. A 2002 bestseller, its lessons were taken to heart by the hard right and are now being rediscovered by a newly engaged progressive left. But so far the corporate- and hard-right is out ahead in engaging Americans and turning them into activists.

Exxon, for example, was recently outed for funding a California front group that ran around a mere $15 million in ads on Facebook, a few minutes’ worth of revenue for the fossil fuel giant, that reached Americans over a quarter-billion times. 

Climate denying and pro-fossil fuel lobbies like the American Petroleum Institute ran Facebook ads that reached Americans over a half-billion times within a week of President Biden announcing an infrastructure bill that would cut fossil fuel usage. 

They understand how trim tabs work. Small but persistent forces produce large and sometimes irresistible changes in direction.

Consider what percentage of Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016.  Most people would say “around half” given that he only lost the popular vote in that election by 3 million, but in actual fact of the 250 million American adults eligible to vote only 63 million voted for Trump. He “won” with about a quarter of eligible adult Americans’ vote.

Whether it’s making abortion legal and then illegal, the same in reverse for the death penalty, getting the EPA into law to clean up pollution, or seatbelt and other safety laws for cars, in every case it was small but persistent groups of people who changed US policy.

Small, dedicated rightwing groups brought us the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, are taking over school boards nationwide to stop teaching the racial history of America, and have influenced millions not to get vaccinated. For evil or good, the rule applies: small groups of dedicated activists change history.

From Civil Rights to anti-drunk-driving laws to legal prohibitions on certain types of pornography, every time things changed in this country it was because of one of Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”

The white supremacists, global warming deniers and neofascists have had their day for the past five years, even though all represent a minority of Americans. Today groups dedicated to a spectrum of issues including the environment, minority and women’s rights, Native American issues, immigrant and gender rights and others are working hard to move America out of the GOP’s male- and white-supremacy oligarchic dystopia and into a bright, multicultural and multiracial democratic future.

You can also be a trim tab within the Democratic Party with very little effort — a day a month, typically — and help transform that party from within the same way the Tea Party minority took over the GOP in 2009.  Just call your local Party office and ask what they’re doing and how you can participate.

And there are lots of groups out there you can join, from Indivisible to Our Revolution to Progressive Democrats of America and numerous racial justice, voting rights and climate change groups. There’s even a new “hub” for activism at Sites like Daily Kos are deeply rooted in activism: look around the internet to see what group or site best matches your perspective, concerns and inclinations.

And you’ll feel great knowing you’ve become part of the solution! Just joining a progressive group or the Democratic Party and taking a few small actions like contacting elected representatives or participating in activist events will make a huge difference in making a better America. 

Indeed, that’s the only way it’s ever happened.

Today’s Daily Discussion Thread: Rand Paul is Trying to Start an Anti-Mask Movement: Is His "Libertarian" Movement - "A Me Society Instead of a We Society" - Going to Succeed in Bringing Down America? What do you think? Have you had encounters with Libertarians or the billionaires and corporations that started and funded the movement?