Can “Small Groups” change the world? (+Trump, Biden, & Food)

Can “Small Groups” change the world? (+Trump, Biden, & Food) February 10, 2024

You’ve seen the quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s attributed to Margaret Mead, the influential anthropologist who died in 1978, though, as it turns out, according to Quote Investigator, there is no firm evidence, no time or place which she is known to have said this, though, it turns out, that quote has been trademarked by Mead’s granddaughter, Sevanne Kassarjian, though it’s not clear from my quick search whether the trademark was granted based on evidence of a connection or simply because Kassarjian claimed it, though it turns out the organization The Institute for Intercultural Studies, founded by Mead, asserts that the second half is a coda and not an authentic part of the Mead quote, so this is not trademarked.

I am not a fan of this quote, and not just because it’s clunky rather than poetic.  In one sense, you might say that it is literally true, in that all manner of entities which “changed the world” started out small, that they were committed to their endeavor, and, well, “thoughtful” is sort of a throwaway adjective anyway.  Heck, the Nazis started out small, as did Lenin and his communists or Mao and his.

Of course the quote is not meant as an observation about history, but as a means of motivating activists who hope to change the world.  Implied in the quote — and the reason why so many love to cite it — is not just that some small groups gain supporters, influence, and power (or by the nature of their point in history “change the world” due to their unique circumstances), but that if your own small group of world changer-hopefuls is thoughtful enough and committed enough, you will succeed.

Which is, of course, foolish.

The reality of the world we live in is that most of us cannot realistically impact the “big events” of the world around us.

I am, in terms of my general voting patterns, a Republican.  I live in Illinois.  The Republican party in Illinois is so weak that, in my own district, no one stepped up to get on the ballot for the state House primary.  The Democratic party holds such a supermajority that any limits on how far left the state veers are merely a matter of intraparty disputes, as well as the need to balance the budget (or, alternately, the limitations on the ability to use budget gimmicks to spend beyond the budget).  In recent years, first under the pro-choice Republican governor and then under the current Democrat, we have had legislation providing for Medicaid-funded abortions, the removal of any restrictions on even late-term abortions, a mandate that insurance policies cover abortion as well as puberty blockers and hormone injections, and so on — and this despite the filing of a multitude of “witness slips” because the reality is that “witness slips” are meaningless.  As an individual, I have no means of impacting any of this.

With respect to congressional elections — yup, you guessed it, my district has been gerrymandered as a part of a patchwork of districts to maximize the number of Democrats elected.  You can see the map here — my representative’s district office is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, far removed from his suburban Chicago constituents who were allocated to his district in a “cracking” manipulation.  And the 2024 election will be a rematch of 2022, where he won with 70% of the vote.

But honestly, even if I lived in an area in which elections were competitive, I wouldn’t actually be able to make a real impact.  Sure, maybe some of my neighbors might, but I know what I can and what I can’t do, and one thing in the “can’t do” list is “persuade people to vote for a sensible candidate.”

So what about Trump, and what about Biden?

Honestly, having said the above, it would be consistent for me to say, “we who live in non-battleground states (or late-primary states) should just recognize that we have no control over anything and live our lives as best we can.”  But I go back and forth.  Nikki Haley trails Trump by 30 points, in the RCP average for South Carolina at the moment.  Would it be anything but a waste of my personal time to volunteer for Haley’s phone bank?  (Hmm. . . actually I suspect that South Carolinians would clue in fairly quickly that I’m an outsider; maybe it would be more feasible if I had considered this before the Iowa caucus.)  I don’t know.  But I hope that she stays in the race to the end, however improbable it might be that she could emerge as the nominee, because I would like to be able to vote for not-Trump in the Illinois primary.

As to Biden, well, at this point, pretty much no one, that I can tell, has the ability, in any scenario, to change the Democrats’ nominee.

Which means — honestly, I know that, when we get to the general election, many Republicans will say, “yes, Trump is bad, but he won’t actually do anything crazy and Biden will [fill in the blank]” and Democrats will say the same thing, but substitute for “bad” something like “old.” But — and don’t hold me to this — I would vote for a third-party candidate or an independent candidate, and hold out hope that, well, a miracle happens.

After all, Ross Perot, though he ended up with only 19% of the vote in the 1992 election, at various points he was polling greater than Bush or Clinton.  And in 2024, large numbers of Americans want a moderate — and younger — candidate.

And why did I throw into my post title “& Food”?

Because my general sense of resignation around politics, either national or local, is paired with an effort to try to find something I can actually do, and I am starting a “Meals Ministry” at church.

Well, “starting” might be a bit incorrect.  It all depends on how it plays out, as so far a little blurb has been in the weekly newsletter and in the bulletin, one time each, and I have two additional volunteers, so there just may not be enough of a critical mass, but the idea is to be a sort of “meal train” for people in the parish who don’t have the sort of social network, or aren’t in a group, that typically does a meal train, with the various parish staff or other “connected” people identifying recipients, and with the simplifying approach of doing only freezer meals, so that cooks can cook on their schedule.  My objective in starting this was that I have struggled to find volunteer activities that are a good fit for me but I figured that it is feasible to cook a meal on the weekends, or make a double-batch, especially now that we are getting closer to being empty-nesters with our youngest son being a junior and gone so often for after-school activities — though I’ve also realized that the coordination aspect will potentially be tricky, if there are significant numbers of volunteers, so I’m hoping that if that is the case, I also end up with a volunteer that’s better at coordinating than I am.

And, as a bit of background, my church, like many, has been struggling, due to the general fall-out from the abuse scandal, the general “rise of the nones,” the effects of covid, and, more locally, a neighboring parish with native-born priests (speaking unaccented English) and “contemporary” music which has been drawing a lot of families.  So I pitched this as “this would be a new ministry which would allow us to offer something ‘extra’ which could function without a lot of volunteers and would fill a hole by offering something for people for whom other sorts of volunteering isn’t a good fit.”  After I got the approval for this and worked out some of the other logistics, I fretted for a while about how it would work out — but right now the woman on the parish staff I am working with to get this started, seems to be on board with the idea of “let’s try it without any preconceived ideas and see what happens.”

And what does that have to do with the price of tea in China, or with Trump and Biden?  Mostly just that I am at a place right now of, “there’s very little you can do that has any effect on the world around you, so you do what you can and let the rest sort itself out.”

Am I too defeatist?  You tell me.


Image:; By Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States (vote for better tape) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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