Less than a year after being released from prison, whistleblower Chelsea Manning, known mostly for releasing a series of military logs and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, has filed to run for U.S. Senate in Maryland as a Democrat. She almost certainly won’t defeat her primary opponent, incumbent Senator Ben Cardin. That doesn’t matter.
If Chelsea Manning were to miraculously win both the Democratic primary and general election, it’s even less likely that she would be able to accomplish any of her main policy goals. Few if any other senators would sign on to immediately abolishing Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), let alone doing the same to prisons and the military. That also doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Chelsea Manning will have greater access to the public ear on those and other issues. While she hasn’t exactly been voiceless since leaving prison with over 320,000 followers on Twitter, her campaign gives her a platform from which her words can be reported by the press as those of a candidate for Senate.
This strategy is not original to Manning.
For example, despite being in Congress for a total of 23 years, less than half of a percent of the bills sponsored by former congressman Ron Paul ever became law. His 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were similarly ill-fated by any traditional analysis.
It was Paul’s answers during the debates that stuck in the public mind and created a serious cultural shift. A 2007 exchange with Rudy Giuliani alerted viewers to the concept of “blowback,” the idea that terrorist activities against Americans are best understood as reactions to past U.S. military interventions and covert operations. From the halls of Congress, Paul was able to expand on this idea by asking Americans to consider how they might react to a Chinese occupation of Texas—an anti-war parable that then became a major campaign ad during his 2012 run.
That is why, despite the fact that Paul lost miserably in both of his presidential runs, and despite Manning’s almost certain loss in her senatorial race, their campaigns are infinitely more important than those of their opponents. The McCains and Cardins occupy positions of power and go through the motions of the existing political machinery. The Pauls and Mannings, however, can fundamentally transform the political culture over time. That change is more significant, because it is the political culture that defines the limits within which those with power can act in the first place.