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.