A democratic Republic such as ours is a large and complex system. So the very first thing you should give up is the idea that you will quickly and easily make a huge impact. I know it is disappointing, but the system isn’t quickly or easily changed, and that is ultimately good thing. That said, there are three paths along which you can, over time, make a difference: activism, operative, and elected office. Let’s take these in order.
The path of activism keeps you outside the system. It is probably the best choice for hard-core idealists and those who refuse to compromise on their principles. The path of activism involves coming up with ideas that matter, articulating them, rallying the public, and then pressuring the actors in the system to implement the ideals that you are standing for. It has the most freedom, and the least necessity for compromise. But while all significant changes in society have been pushed by activists, activists are not the deciders.
The second path is that of the operative. This is a career path in politics, but one that does not involve serving in elected office. For every elected official there is a staff of several—or even dozens—of largely invisible people who support and guide that particular politician. Whether it is a small town mayor, a state assemblyman, a US representative, or the President of the United States, all have staffs of professionals who help them be effective in their offices. The staff handles logistics, communications, constituent services, and other basic operations, as well as forging policy and helping to find an effective path forward. It is often said that politics is the art of the possible, and a lot of the people who do nuts and bolts work of figuring out what is possible are staffers to the politicians. This is an entire career, either at the state or at the federal level, and it is possible to move up in positions of authority and influence into the highest reaches. With luck and experience you may find yourself eventually shaping policies that affect the lives of millions. The political operatives are the ones how actually understand the most about the work of governing, how things get done, and how to move an agenda forwards. It is also a path of relative freedom. You can focus on the areas that are important to you, and choose the politicians you work for.
The final path to influence is electoral politics. This means being the candidate, running for office, becoming elected, and then serving in various capacities. These are the people who advance from State Senator to Governor, or State Senator to US Representative, and even to President. Before Trump, every single President had served in some elected capacity—or for an extended period in the military—before being elected President. This is in many ways the least free space in the system. You are constantly under the spotlight, with everything you say being recorded to possibly be used against you later. You are under pressure from all sides, and can seldom say what you really think on any topic. You constantly live in the tension between what you think you should do, and what you need to compromise on so that you have a chance of ever being elected again. But even if you don’t make it to the top of the pyramid (and very few do) our government, by design, decentralizes influence. So it is possible to make a difference from many different places in elected office. While the least free, the elected officials are the ones who vote on and sign the laws that put the policies in place.
Those are the three ways to make a difference in politics. You may have noticed that all the require a lifetime of commitment and effort, as well as a gradual progression to positions of increasing responsibility. And that is how the world works.