A father packs what he can in a bag and heads west, hanging everything on the thin thread of hope that he might find a way to provide for his family.
A senator, declining to run for reelection, dramatically accuses the president from his own party of undermining political norms.
A region with a distinct language and culture votes to secede from the country of which it has been a part for centuries.
What do these stories have in common? According to political scientist Jennet Kirkpatrick, they’re all forms of “exit,” a category of political action she believes is undervalued and understudied. In her brief but penetrating new book, The Virtues of Exit: On Resistance and Quitting Politics, Kirkpatrick argues that the act of simply getting up and leaving has gotten a bad rap. Too often dismissed as acquiescence, she says, quitting can be a powerful tool for change. Summoning examples from ancient Athens, 19th-century America, and contemporary Tibet, Kirkpatrick puts forward a convincing case that, far from purist or privileged, exiting can in fact be “a collective, public-minded act that furthers solidarity, acknowledges suffering, and embraces equality.”
I recently spoke with Kirkpatrick about how her argument applies to the refugee crisis, Brexit, and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and how the book grew out of her own experiences as an activist. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Richard Kreitner: At the beginning of the book, you briefly allude to a personal experience of leaving activism that led you to write it. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Jennet Kirkpatrick: I was involved with a labor union and had worked closely with the activists in it. When I got a job offer, a promotion, that meant leaving the union. I felt guilty about abandoning my fellow activists and the cause.
As a way of dealing with my own ambivalence, I started to explore the issue of walking away, or “exit.” I wondered if there were instances in which leaving a political party, fleeing a country, or resigning from political office had been the right thing to do. Conventional wisdom typically argues for working for change from within. We’re told never to give up, that winners never quit and quitters never win. But I began to doubt that was always true.
My book examines the political benefits that can flow from quitting or refusing to be a part of something. Writing the book made me think differently about some of the exits we hear about today: conservatives who want to leave the Republican Party, liberals who have been thinking about moving to Canada, secessionist movements of all kinds. Whether or not we agree with their particular agenda, it’s important to see them as motivated by a genuine desire for political change.
RK: Many people argue that disengagement from politics is the very last thing we need, that “now more than ever” we have to stay plugged in to a process, even if we think connection to it kind of saps our souls. Exiting politics is often thought of as apolitical or selfish.
JK: I understand that view. Democratic politics depends on civic participation. If no one votes or serves on juries, how is a democracy supposed to run? That said, I think exit has sometimes been unfairly maligned. Walking away isn’t always cowardly. It can also be a courageous and defiant political act. It depends a lot on how it’s done.
There are several ways people can walk away. They can try to make a lot of noise and draw attention to an injustice. In 1939, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution because they wouldn’t let the African-American singer Marian Anderson perform in their hall. Roosevelt wrote a public letter accusing the DAR of being racist, and she got a lot of support because of her resignation. It was “noisy exit,” as I call it, because it brought attention to her cause and raised awareness of an injustice.
Exit can be really good for democracies. Noisy exits can put something on the agenda or bring attention to a wrong. One of my senators here in Arizona, Jeff Flake, recently engaged in a noisy exit when he announced his departure from the Senate. Exit can also be useful for minorities in a democracy who are deprived of representation through official channels.
RK: In a deeply connected world, is exit even possible anymore, or is it just a fantasy?
JK: Social media binds us in unprecedented ways. Yet as the world has drawn closer together, the desire to exit may actually have become stronger. Knowing more about the harms done by political organizations, we may ask ourselves whether we really want to remain part of those groups. The connectivity fostered by social media can create a sense of moral complicity that makes exit more attractive.
Take the Tibetan monks and other individuals who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. Lacking freedom of expression, they have created a spectacle of their final exit, a “sacrificial exit,” as I call it, that’s captured in cell-phone footage. Part of the reason these self-immolations have been successful at gaining international attention is because of social media. People halfway around the world see the videos and start to wonder about the ways they unwittingly support China’s oppressive policies. They may consider boycotting Chinese goods or technology companies that, bowing to the pressure of the Chinese government, have altered privacy protocols and made anonymous communication more difficult.
Here’s another example: Being a political exile today is fundamentally different because of social media. Activists who leave a country can now stay connected to its politics and influence things from abroad. It’s now possible to understand what’s going on back home and to effectively oppose those in power from a physically safe location. Technology enables a more powerful and effective exit than was possible in the past. In earlier times, political exiles had to get their news from months-old newspapers or letters. Today, the flow of information is stunningly fast, so the potential for exiting a country and yet staying connected to its politics is much greater.
RK: The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to leave any country, including their own. What does this “right to exit” mean in the international context, and how does that play into the current debate over immigration and borders?
JK: Although the Declaration isn’t legally binding, its provisions on exit have been influential. Several scholars have argued that the capacity to emigrate is a basic human right. Others call for open borders, saying that people should be free to move with little to no restraint. The underlying theme is that nations shouldn’t act like prisons by restraining free movement.
One example is found in the European Union. EU citizens are largely free to move between EU nations much the way American citizens can move between states. As we’ve seen with Brexit, however, the freedom to emigrate has created some problems. This is a fascinating situation. The perception that one kind of exit has gone too far—the individual freedom to move between countries—has provoked another kind of exit, the collective withdrawal of a nation-state from an international political community. The whole debate is centered around the tensions and contradictions between different forms of exit.
RK: Is there something quintessentially American about the equation of freedom with mobility, the impulse toward exit?
JK: America is a place where exit has always been an important part of the polity. The country was founded on exit. Puritans exited England to flee religious persecution. The American Revolution was an exit on an epic scale. Fugitive slaves fled to the North. Numerous waves of immigrants came to this country fleeing intolerable conditions in the places they grew up. Westward expansion and Horace Greeley’s [apocryphal] admonition to “Go west, young man” are deeply American. Freedom of movement and association are cornerstones of American liberty. This shows that exit can be productive for democratic politics. It’s not always selfish, cowardly, or weak; it can be something quite different.
These days, many of us are struggling with questions about exit. Our world is evolving quickly and political institutions may not keep up. Paradoxically, abandoning institutions that are failing may turn out to be an effective way to change them.