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In Defense of Incrementalism


Nobody likes when change happens slowly. But given a choice between no change, a little change, and an epic disaster, is that really a choice at all?

I’ve had this particular topic in my queue for a while, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. For want of something to talk about that isn’t the Orlando shooting, which I do plan to write about again at some point, I came across an insightful piece written in response to a Freddie deBoer post. Scott Lemieux of the Lawyers, Guns, Money blog writes:

Hillary Clinton is running [the most aggressively pro-reproductive-justice campaign]( of any major party candidate in history, and it’s not close. She doesn’t merely favor the restoration of _Roe v. Wade_; she favors ending the Hyde Amendment, and has made the explicit case that barriers to abortion access disproportionately affect poor women. Is this celebrated? Nope; deBoer remains concerned about her “squishiness” on abortion because of disagreement on a single issue. He is, however, not _so_ concerned with reproductive rights that he thinks it’s at all important that Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and/or Anthony Kennedy be replaced with justices who support the restoration of _Roe_ rather than its overruling. Why, it’s almost as if his real concern is not the reproductive rights of American women but finding any possible pretext to declare himself too good for the Democratic Party. (Note the Catch-22 deBoer is setting up for the Democratic Party here, his preemptive refusal to ever take “yes” for an answer. Even as the Democratic Party is shifting to the left, it’s still never worth supporting, because if you have to move to the left it doesn’t count.) But worse than that is that the conception of politics here is absolutely ridiculous.[ _Of course_ Hillary Clinton is in part “motivated by political concerns.” ](’s what politics _is_. Trying to get people in positions of power to move in your direction is why ordinary people engage in politics. Drawing sharp distinctions between “principle” and “politics” when dealing with leaders of large brokerage parties is making a category error. Hillary Clinton will nominate judges who will restore _Roe v. Wade_, and she will veto any bad abortion regulations a Republican Congress would put on her desk. What mixture of principle and prudence motivates her is completely irrelevant. Three presidents can be plausibly said to have greater records of progressive accomplishment than Barack Obama: LBJ, FDR, and Lincoln. Were these men, as deBoer suggests they must be, consistent left-wing ideologues, men who were committed to consistent left principles who did not concern themselves with practical politics and never had to be “pushed” from the left? Er, no. Good God, no. They were practical men. They were not ideologically consistent. They had progressive records in large part because of the organized pressures from the left placed on them. Lyndon Johnson had a voting record in the Senate that makes Hillary Clinton look like a Wobbly. Did civil rights and labor groups follow deBoer’s advice, refuse to work with him and support him, and seek to throw the election to Goldwater in the hopes that a REAL ally could eventually control the White House? No, they did not, because they understand politics as deBoer does not. And the result was arguably the most progressive domestic policy presidency ever. The Emancipation Proclamation [was a compromise motivated in large measure by political expediency.]( So what? Who wants political leaders who disdain politics, who aren’t responsive to their constituents?

What I’m going for here is not a defense of Hillary Clinton, per se, but a concurrence with Lemieux’s overall point: that political change is achieved gradually, not through ideological purity and rigor, but coalition-building. It doesn’t matter if a politician personally agrees with you–it does matter if s/he’s worried about losing his job for disagreeing with you.

As Lemieux notes, same-sex marriage offers what is probably the best-case scenario for this kind of change: a long slog over a period of years, racking up victories along the way until the last domino is knocked down. There is still tremendous resistance to gay people enjoying the same rights as everyone else, but a clear turning point has been reached. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and can’t be put back in.

It’s also fair to say that there’s still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Women still fight for equal rights and equal pay. Black people still fight to have their rights respected by a systematically racist justice system, to say nothing of a white society that blames “black culture” for the twin legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Despite baby steps toward acknowledging the reality of undocumented immigrants in the US, they are still criminalized, deported, and treated as subhuman. Republicans view them as an existential threat, with Donald Trump merely echoing and amplifying what has been the party line for years. All of these groups and more need better than they are getting now–they need justice, and real change.

How much of that change they would get under a Clinton Presidency depends almost entirely on the composition of Congress come next January. This is what makes the downticket races so important. It matters less who is in the Oval Office, and more who is in Congress. For better or worse, Democrats represent the only party even remotely amenable to progressive social justice platforms. Some of them may have to be dragged kicking and screaming through the process, but they can be moved in a way Republicans cannot.

Often, incrementalism is taken as an exhortation to wait for change, but it doesn’t have to be. Change at any pace is better than none at all, and the way political change is achieved in this country is by applying pressure to politicians and moving public opinion. It may not happen quickly, but this is precisely how it does happen.

The scenario in which a Donald Trump win is envisioned as a path to revolution is frankly horrifying. For one thing, Trump is likely to inflict incredible damage to this country’s institutions, people, and global standing. It is not an exaggeration to say he might commit mass murder. He shows no capacity for careful deliberation or complex analysis of difficult situations–he speaks mainly in slogans and schoolyard-level taunts. It is much more likely that four to eight years of Donald Trump would erase decades of progress. I don’t know what the worst case looks like, and would prefer never to find out. Those who believe a revolution would result don’t seem to consider what shape that revolution might take, and what the outcome would likely be. A taste of real power may be just what Trump’s supporters need to carry out the final destruction of the federal government, replacing it with the kind of authoritarian regime Trump would love to have. At this point, I consider it a far-fetched scenario, but it depends on factors that are difficult to foresee.

I’m not going to tell anyone that they should vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s the best we can do on the left side of the aisle. With Trump’s collapsing poll numbers, plenty of progressives will likely be able to vote their consciences and break for Jill Stein or just avoid casting a Presidential vote altogether. Ideological purity can be a nice luxury in that way, sometimes. But what it doesn’t do is help enact a real agenda of change. You can’t wish the agents of change you want into existence–you either work to put them in power, or make your case to the ones already in place. Choosing to do neither, or throwing up your hands when you don’t immediately get the results you want, only ensures that you won’t get that change at all–or that you’ll get something even worse.

Photo by sheilaellen