(Related: Politics Is Suspicious)

Open up Facebook, scroll down, and you’ll see arguments about politics. “The US government is so incompetent, it can’t even handle X. Why can’t they do Y?”

For most, this is just a way to kill time. But the world is large, and there are also many who are really serious about Y. How could we make Y actually happen?

There is a standard theory of how political change works. Call it the Coca-Cola model. Every day, Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars advertising Coke. Their goal is to make sure every man, woman and child on Earth hears about Coke all the time. They buy billboards, go on television, make flashing Coke-shaped light displays, do everything they can to get people’s attention.

The Coca-Cola model says politics works just like that. Everyone gets on TV, shouts about their ideas, and whoever shouts the best/loudest wins. It’s a wonderfully seductive model. It’s also grossly misleading.

The Coca-Cola model works for Coke because:

– they are a giant corporation with a billion-dollar marketing budget; and
– Coke is already sold in every store from Seattle to Kigali.

In other words, they want people to do something very simple (push the Coke button on the vending machine), and they have the resources to push it on a huge scale. 99.99999% of political groups have neither. Their initial capital is small. And good luck implementing, say, single-payer healthcare through a series of actions no more complex than buying a Coke. Let alone anything more radical.

The real way to create serious political change is by assembling an effective organization of competent people who are dedicated to the problem. Unlike arguing on blogs that no one reads, or being a talking head on TV, this is hard. You have to get people interested. You need them to make a real commitment, not just sign a petition. You need to raise money. You need to resolve disputes. You need to make tough decisions without pissing everyone off.

The effective part is key. Effectiveness isn’t just writing blog comments; anyone can do that. It’s building bridges. Selling real estate. Passing bills. Raising capital. Winning wars. Flying to the Moon. Effectiveness is having the skills to do hard things, not just talk about them.

Unlike Coca-Cola, your goal is not to make your group as large as possible. Size has overhead costs – every person you add creates new complexity. n people need n^2 communication channels. And people aren’t all equivalent; they vary hugely by overall ability, level of seriousness, and how well their skills match the problem. The right person in the right job can easily do more than a hundred wrong people in wrong jobs.

History shows this well. To pick everyone’s favorite example, take the rise of the Nazis in Germany. The Nazis certainly had great propaganda. But before the propaganda – before anyone knew who Hitler was – they had an effective organization, which could do things like assembling three thousand men to risk prison and death staging an armed revolt against the government. How many modern-day pundits could pull that off? The mass popularity was an effect, not a cause.

Or, take Lenin. The Bolsheviks overthrew Kerensky’s provisional government in about twelve hours. And that twelve hours took twenty years of careful preparation, building alliances, writing books, planning, watching. And then the Communists had to fight an actual war on a massive scale, against the Whites, Greens, and numerous foreign armies. Suppose you have half a million soldiers under your command. Who’s going to feed them? Where will ammunition come from? How will they get to the battlefield? Which generals will lead each division? What if they betray you? The Communists had to actually figure all this stuff out, which is why they won.

Or, take the American Revolution. The whole thing was run by only a few hundred guys, but those few guys were competent and could manage to work together. The Constitution didn’t emerge fully-formed from the aether; it was the product of a long tradition of political philosophy among much of the colonial elite. The French Revolution ditto, although the ‘working together’ part didn’t last and things fell apart quickly. The abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, unions in the late 19th century, it goes on and on.