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?


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