Learning from history (if that’s possible)

In my last post, I suggested that history teaches some lessons to folks trying to assess Sanders’s and Clinton’s outlooks on change.

It got me thinking: What can and can’t you learn from history?

Nobody buys Santayana’s famous quote anymore. Some, like the radical historian Robert Fisk, say we could learn from history but never, ever do. Others, like the late Boaz Neumann, think you can’t learn a damn thing and shouldn’t even try: “Every phenomenon… has its own language and grammar, which is irrelevant to any other phenomenon. History is an intellectual pleasure. It is dangerous to learn from it.” No patterns, no possibility of patterns, just one thing after another.

(But then, we live in an age where literature and philosophy professors say similar things, and wonder why their enrollments are plummeting!)

The not-really-Twain quote “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” seems a bit closer. Then, of course, there’s The Onion, resonant as usual. 🙂

History certainly can’t teach “what’s going to happen next,” or “exactly what to do about it.” Seriously doubt the person who thinks every new historical situation is the next Munich, or Vietnam, or even — maybe I’m guilty of this — the next Reichstag Fire. Such people often seem to possess one fact, like a dog with a chew toy.

Just maybe, however, history at least gives us some context for contemplating the long term (or at least recognizing that it exists). For assessing whether decision-makers are being sufficiently thoughtful. For more completely considering the range of possible outcomes.

Above all, for being modest about one’s own understanding. For that, we need all the tools we can get!

So here are a few things history seems to teach me, as a mere amateur and grad student:

  • Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much it looks like it will.
  • Sometimes, when things start to change, or to collapse, it happens stunningly fast.
  • It’s possible for smart people to blunder into disaster.
  • Similarly, some leaders (not just in politics) look smarter than they are.
  • But occasionally the reverse is also true. Don’t always assume they’re as stupid as they look. They might be responding to incentives or motivations you don’t know about, or just playing their cards close to the vest.
  • Disasters caused by blundering, sleepwalking, or foolishness are more common than those caused by successful conspiracies, which require rare levels of skill and competence.
  • Events have a way of getting out of control.
  • The ability to keep complex events under control sometimes degrades over time — working perhaps once or twice, but not the third time.
  • People always act on imperfect information and imperfect understanding. (Sometimes, “imperfect” is being generous!)
  • Leaders are somewhat more likely to make effective decisions when they know more about their adversaries’ motivations, and the dynamics of the environments they hope to impact. Having a clue is no guarantee of success, but it can help.
  • Failure to act can have consequences, too.
  • Humans behave badly, tolerate worse behavior, and become more tribal when they’re afraid.
  • Often, people who frighten them are deliberately attempting to achieve these ends.
  • Worsening hatred is one of the “events” that can easily spiral out of control.
  • Over the long term, cynicism makes productive societies harder to sustain.
  • It’s horrible to live in times and places with failed institutions. And it’s much easier to tear institutions down than to build them.
  • Bad times can last a very long time. (Centuries. Many of them.)
  • What you know for sure will eventually be forgotten, contradicted, or superseded. This is likely to be true even in science and medicine.
  • The aforementioned does not suggest that notions you pull out of your posterior are as valid as peer-reviewed research.
  • The salience of today’s passions will fade. Conflicts that seem “perpetual” eventually will end. Even ethnic and religious conflicts.
  • Don’t assume unfamiliar people and groups are either exactly like you, or diametrically opposite. (Having said that, most people in most places and times are just trying to keep their heads down and get through the day.)
  • Utopias don’t work. It’s unrealistic to build systems requiring human beings to change dramatically.
  • But it’s also unrealistic to assume people will never change at all. They have, and will.
  • Some aspects of human behavior seem more malleable than others.
  • We still do not understand the interactions of culture, family, sexuality, society, and genetics; nor the impact of changes in these. But we know enough not to oversimplify them. Therefore, resist reductive arguments about these issues, especially arguments describing certain potential changes as either catastrophic or likely to have absolutely no wider impact at all.
  • Markets and money are incredibly transformative human institutions.
  • Humans have not yet proved they can sustain societies for the long term without something like religion.
  • Humans remain embedded in natural systems that often powerfully intrude on their plans.
  • Occasionally, one side in a dispute is 100% or nearly 100% right. It does happen. But that’s not the way to bet.
  • Human courage and nobility are real phenomena. We humans can be awful, but also magnificent. Most of us sit somewhere near the center of some kind of Bell or Power Law curve of human behavior.
  • Things are almost never simple. Beware those who tell you otherwise. Especially if they actually seem to believe it.




Sanders, Clinton, theories of change, and you

First of all, congratulations on graduating from The College of William and Mary! A wonderful achievement. I’m incredibly proud of you. And I want to reflect about it with you on this blog. Because there’s lots more to life than elections. Even with that gigantic sociopathic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-child Donald Trump currently striding through all our nightmares…


It sounds like you and your unnamed friend are wrestling with what nowadays sometimes gets called “theories of change.”*

Does change happen incrementally, within the “system” (as we old hippies used to call it) — through compromise, coalition, and small steps forward? Or is such “change” hardly worth the name? Is the system so fundamentally corrupted by money and power that it must be revolutionized — and quickly, before it’s too late?**

I remember almost identical debates between young people volunteering for George McGovern, Ed Muskie, or other 1972 Democratic primary candidates (or for local congressional candidates like Allard Lowenstein) vs. those who considered electoral politics nothing but a fraud. So this is nothing new. (It’s a lot older than 1972, too. There are echoes of it in the 1930s debates among New Deal Democrats and all the nearly-forgotten sects to their left; the temporary Communist strategy to participate in so-called “popular fronts”… in fact, Debs himself left the IWW in 1906 over issues like these.)

Since the debate is long-standing, we can apply the tools of history to see if it offers any plausible lessons. Let’s set a standard: Which changes involving the political system have helped the most people live better lives? Which were designed to help a lot of people, succeeded in doing so, and became part of the permanent fabric of American society?

Here’s my first cut at a list:

  • 1934: The National Housing Act of 1934 (FHA)
  • 1935: Social Security
  • 1935: Wagner Act (establishing NLRB and right to unionize)
  • 1944: The GI Bill
  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
  • 1956: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, (Interstate highway system)
  • 1958: National Defense Education Act (student loans; scientific/graduate education)
  • 1964: The Civil Rights Act
  • 1965: Medicare
  • 2003: Medicare Part D (drug coverage)
  • 2003: Lawrence v. Texas / 2013 US v. Windsor
  • 2010: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — probably

I’m sure there are others. (Which am I forgetting?)

Some of these were deeply flawed by racism (notoriously, FHA); and others aren’t self-evidently progressive (interstate highways). Nor are they all the brainchildren of Democrats or liberals (Eisenhower’s NDEA, Bush 43’s Medicare Part D drug benefit). But, to me, they all meet my progressive standard: They improved a lot of lives. And they put the lie to the claim that government can’t do that.

Obviously my list isn’t definitive. A conservative might add Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts; I think their net impact, given his 1982 and 1983 tax increases, is deeply ambiguous even if you accept dubious conservative premises. Some liberals might add LBJ’s other War on Poverty programs, though only some survive (e.g., food stamps, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps). There’s the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958, authorizing the agency (ARPA) that essentially created the Internet. I’ve excluded this because it wasn’t crafted with intention or expectation of large-scale non-defense benefits. Other possibilities, depending on your worldview: Roe v. Wade (abortion rights); Griswold v. Connecticut (privacy penumbras & emanations — but for all the mockery, how many conservatives or liberals deny a right to privacy anymore?)

But, for the sake of my argument, let’s use my 12.

Each has its own book-length political history. But, at the top level, what do we see? A mix of “inside” and “outside” strategies.

In the examples aimed at achieving justice for mistreated groups, these movements usually start outside, with the grassroots, and find most of their energy there. Even here, however, a significant “inside” component develops.

Without a massive gay rights movement, Lawrence v. Texas and US v. Windsor would never have happened — but for this “outside” movement to triumph when it did, intelligent “inside” strategy was also required (Human Rights Campaign, Olson & Boies, etc., following the template created by the NAACP in advance of Brown v. Board.)

At the other extreme, some major societal transformations were enacted almost entirely by an insider elite: Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System (accelerating the growth of post-war white American suburban society) and the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act come to mind. These had external constituencies, but largely resulted from negotiation among government stakeholders seeking to solve a problem. I can’t think of comparable examples since the 1950s. (Which itself seems instructive.)

Usually, though, it’s both: inside and outside. Example: the unexpected links between FDR and the anti-New Deal American Legion that helped make the G.I. Bill happen in 1944, notwithstanding opposition from elite colleges, segregationists, and even some other veterans’ groups. (A fascinating story!)

My list includes major social changes involving downward redistribution of wealth (Social Security, Medicare, the Wagner Act). These were promoted and enacted by wealthy individuals (FDR, LBJ) who received huge amounts of dark money from even wealthier individuals.

You wouldn’t think this could happen, by Sanders’s telling. It doesn’t make sense. But history tells us it does happen. Usually, however, when the system is under immense pressure (e.g., from a powerful civil rights or union movement, or economic collapse).

The scarcity of such political pressure helps explain why there’s been no such redistribution for 50 years. (Except for Obamacare — yet another reason it’s so hated.)

So if, like Sanders (and me) you want big changes to reverse accelerating inequality, you have to wrestle with questions like:

  • Why is there no huge outside pressure for specific large-scale redistributive actions? Why wasn’t there even in 2009-2010, after the economic collapse and bailouts?
  • What are the strengths (and, IMO, deep weaknesses) of the voting coalition Sanders has built? What does that coalition’s (apparent) limits teach us?
  • How did Occupy move the issue of the 1% into public debate, and why didn’t it accomplish much more?
  • What might be the next steps for harnessing and building on the energy represented by Occupy and now Sanders? (I hope Sanders is thinking seriously about this, always assumed he was, and keep waiting for some actual evidence he is.)
  • How might “outside” movements work with “inside” people to shape agendas and transform them into actual change?
  • Can any of this happen when the suspicion of elites, organizational structures, and government is as deep as it is today? 

There’s one more way my list is skewed. It doesn’t include changes that never happened. Of course — they didn’t happen! But that begs the question: why not?

Sometimes the “outside” movements for them never come together. Or they are so massively alienating to mainstream constituencies that they backfire spectacularly (see Cloward/Piven‘s lunatic notion of flooding the welfare system with so many applicants that it would collapse, leading to a guaranteed national income).

Sometimes momentum for change dissipates, like an ocean wave fading onto shore. I felt this viscerally in 1978, watching liberals and unions pulling out all the stops to pass aggressive full-employment legislation. They had to settle for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which committed to… basically nothing. (It’s still the law. Did you even know that?)

But there’s another reason why big changes occasionally fail to happen: rejection of incrementalism. The classic example: Ted Kennedy’s lifelong regrets that he’d refused to support Richard Nixon’s national health care plan. Later in his life, one sensed Kennedy’s pain in reflecting on how many people died for lack of Nixon’s flawed insurance.

Then Obama came along, with his compromises and coalitions designed to build just enough corporate support and hold off just enough opposition. (In an environment where there was no mass uprising for single-payer, and a nationwide Tea Party rebellion against doing anything at all.)

So, now, half the Americans who didn’t have insurance have it now.

And it’s half as good, and half as widely accepted, as it should be. And way better than nothing.

And some waitresses and home health aides and laborers will live to see their grandchildren. (Thanks, Obama!)

My takeaway?

If you want important change, there’s a place for people outside the system, making a powerful moral case for changes that nobody else imagines yet… people who know that organizing for the impossible may take decades, even lifetimes.

There’s a place for the Bernie Sanders-es of the world, who bring those moral arguments to the floor of Congress. Even if they never pass any significant legislation.

There’s a place for grubby incrementalists who work in the trenches to write legislation (and press releases)… get the best deal they can… get across the finish line with something that actually improves people’s lives… something that can be improved later.

And there’s a place for you, if you want one.

There will always be tensions between outsiders and insiders and those in between. (Think LBJ and Martin Luther King.) But if they don’t work through those tensions, nothing happens — and we can’t afford that any longer.


*I never realized: “Theory of change” is a specific approach used by non-profits to organize thinking about how to get where they want to go. Worth knowing more about!

**Another viewpoint, profoundly stupid and ahistorical, is: “let it all burn.” That’s the play-toy anarchist, Guy Fawkes mask, Joker “why so serious,” politics-as-Marvel-blockbuster view of the world. Have actions premised on this worldview ever led to anything but catastrophe? How do people with this adolescent white male comic book mindset imagine they’ll escape the fallout? In a VR helmet?

On Trump, Irrational Hate, and the Philosophical Difference Between Sanders and Clinton

Hillary Clinton at a campaign event for Jeanne Shaheen. COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

I’ve been quiet on what’s been happening politically. Not on a personal level, as you know from talking to me and from the volunteer campaign work I’ve been doing. But I haven’t been engaging much with it online and in writing. I’m witnessing such an intense dissociation from facts and values that I believed were common and among people I thought shared my views. I see millions of people deciding that Donald Trump, a man who:

Equally disturbing, I see Sanders supporters, who ostensibly believe in ideas like justice, fairness, and equality, and issues like immigration, climate change, and poverty, saying how much they despise Clinton, that her nomination would be illegitimate because superdelegates would help, and that they’re considering not voting for Clinton because of how much they dislike her. They’re impervious to the facts that Clinton has 3 million more votes than Sanders and that the nomination system they’ve railed against (correctly, in my opinion), advantages Sanders. (About half the contests he’s won have been caucuses that make it difficult for anyone with a life to vote and result in dismal turnout.)

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. We’ve both been familiar with him years before most of his supporters even knew who he was. He’s been ahead of most Democrats in defending LGBT rights, calling out the vastly unequal distribution of wealth, and advocating for a government that does more to give working people a leg up. But he is and always has been a socialist. This country has never been particularly warm toward socialism in any form. The most successful American socialist candidate was Eugene Debs, and he got the highest total number of votes (913,664 votes) while sitting in a jail cell. Over 100 years later, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans would not vote for a socialist. Clearly, Sanders has attracted a ton of support, especially among the youngest generation of voters, who are friendlier toward socialism than capitalism.

But now, in late May, it seems like Sanders’ support is fueled more by an irrational hatred of Clinton than a desire to create change. I see people on Facebook conflating Clinton and Trump as if they have remotely the same personality traits, beliefs, and goals. I was never a big fan of Hillary, but I always respected her experience, her excellent understanding of policy, and her commitment to women’s equality. None of the scandals she’s involved been involved with (Whitewater, Vince Foster, Benghazi, the emails, etc.) have proved her to be the snake so many people believe she is. She’s way too secretive and cautious, and that makes her look dishonest, but I think that was borne out of decades of vicious attacks on her and her family. If I had garbage continually lobbed at me for 25 years, I’d probably develop similar traits.

But there’s an important philosophical distinction between Sanders and Clinton that I’ve been conflicted about, and is often the subject of arguments between me and a certain friend.

While Sanders has a bipartisan record, he is more of an activist than a policymaker. As Congresswoman Slaughter said to me during my internship, in the 16 years they were in the House together, he passed three pieces of legislation, and two were naming post offices. I read an article in Politico today that delved deeper into Sanders legislative record. It found that Sanders had relatively little influence on major liberal policy achievements. He did make small, meaningful contributions, like increasing transparency of the Federal Reserve in Dodd-Frank and successfully advocating for funding for community health centers in Obamacare. But he was never a major player in crafting significant laws, and his influence on policy has paled in comparison to other senators, like Elizabeth Warren, who’s made protecting Dodd-Frank a hill to die on.

Hillary Clinton has always taken a more policy centered approach, and while she hasn’t always been successful, it has produced results. Looking up what Clinton has actually done, I was surprised to find a laundry list of legislative and diplomatic achievements. As First Lady in 1997, she was instrumental in passing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which had bipartisan support, and has improved health care access for millions of children in poverty. As a senator she helped write and pass the Pediatric Research Equity Act, which requires pharmaceutical companies to study the effects of their drugs on children, which has made crucial drug information available for hundreds of drugs. She fought to get billions in aid for 9/11 first responders to get needed medical treatment. She sponsored and fought for the original Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which became law shortly after she left the Senate. As Secretary of State, she rallied the world to put tough sanctions on Iran that forced them to the table, while pressuring countries like to China to cut their emissions, which have led to the US-China Climate Agreement and the Paris Agreement.

We can argue that her policies have come up short, that her instincts are too hawkish, and that she’s too cozy with Wall Street, but there is no question that the woman gets shit done, and that much of it has been really good.

That said, the political system needs to be shaken up. It is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the status quo. Sanders is right: we need a political revolution. Of course, that requires more people voting in presidential and midterm elections than have ever done so, and voting Democratic. Our present two-party system is deeply unsatisfying, but until we change our voting system, which won’t happen anytime soon, the Democratic Party is the only electoral vehicle capable of affecting liberal policy change.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m too pessimistic, lacking in imagination, and too willing to compromise. I certainly give up too quickly in my day to day life. That hasn’t stopped me from getting involved and fighting though, if for a candidate that is far to my right. Let my contribution to the revolution be to motivate others to stand up and fight.