Isn’t this the one thing you know from Edmund Burke, an Irishman and political thinker? You didn’t even know he was Irish. All you knew about Burke was that he said the above quotation. Except he didn’t.
What he said that closely resembles this comes from his 1770 book, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.
No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
Now this is curious. Burke is arguing in favor of unity, of banding together to oppose “ambitious citizens” who have already united their efforts. We could call them The Establishment or a number of other things. Burke’s point appears to be that virtuous people should not believe their individual virtues, their personal choices, to be effective against those who are working together to oppose us.
Here’s more of what Burke wrote in Present Discontents:
It is not enough in a situation of trust in the commonwealth, that a man means well to his country; it is not enough that in his single person he never did an evil act, but always voted according to his conscience, and even harangued against every design which he apprehended to be prejudicial to the interests of his country. This innoxious and ineffectual character, that seems formed upon a plan of apology and dissipation, falls miserably short of the mark of publick duty. That duty demands and requires that what is right should not only be made known, but made prevalent; that what is evil should not only be detected, but defeated. When the publick man omits to put himself in a situation of doing his duty with effect, it is an omission that frustrates the purposes of his trust almost as much as if he had formally betrayed it. It is surely no very rational account of a man’s life, that he has always acted right; but has taken special care to act in such a manner that his endeavours could not possibly be productive of any consequence.
Burke does not believe in isolation, if the goal is to support or defend our fellow man. We must talk to each other and agree to band together to steer our country or city or neighborhood in the right direction. Do you think Burke would say protest votes in our form of government “could not possibly be productive”?