Sustainable Systemic Political Change

For me, the drama is beginning to leak out of the primary balloons. “Informed people” are beginning to speculate about Hillary’s possible running mates. I will want to check back in as the Republican convention decides whether there should be one party there or two. I remember the Dixiecrat secession from the Democratic convention in 1948 so I’ll have some criteria to use in appreciating such an event if it occurs.

So let’s step back just a little and try to think about what the election outcome will mean. Michael Lind’s piece in the New York Times (see previous essay) described Hillary’s center-left inclinations as Bill Clintonism updated for the teens of the new century. I think that’s about right. No Republican candidate I have heard is proposing anything that will result in anything but four years of sumo-style political wrestling. I think those are the practical possibilities.

So let’s look at the impractical possibilities instead. What if we began with an interest in systemic change—a change of the whole system, not just little pieces of it? And what if we considered only changes that could be sustained over many generations. This would not be a spasm of reform; this would be a new way of governing ourselves. I want to pass some ideas along, but I need to start with a story first. You will see why.

Dolbeare and Edelman imagine systemic change [1]

When I began teaching at Westminster College in the fall of 1974, a newly minted Ph. D., I taught an American government course using Ken Dolbeare and Murray Edelman’s new text, American Politics: Policies, Power, and Change, 2nd Edition. There were lots of reasons to like the text, but one that really won me over was Chapter 19, “Political Change.” I had never seen a text that did not imagsustainable 1ine that things would continue pretty much along the lines described in the earlier chapters. This one didn’t do that. That is what makes it so good for 2016.

In Chapter 19 they considered why political systems change and offered several “scenarios.” These were ways of imagining how the system might change beginning from where we all thought we were in the mid-70s. I’m going to tell you about three of them. The first imagines that we just keep doing what we are doing. The second imagines a substantial shift to the right, in the direction of fascism. The third imagines a substantial shift to the left, in the direction of socialism.

In the first scenario, the status quo option:

“basic conditions create no major new dislocations and leave established elites entrenched and with full capacity to orchestrate popular support for their decisions.”

The end state in this scenario is called: Erratic marginal change, culminating in a corporate-dominated system.

In the second scenario, we arrive at: Marginal reactionary change, culminating in fascism. In their account, it doesn’t seem like such a big step:

“…because of the wide spread inability to perceive any alternative to surveillance and repression such policies once undertaken become fixed, and can only intensify. In this manner—by the steady erosion of fixed standards of due process and fair procedures, coupled with rigid insistence on the status quo—a police state evolves. The American version of fascism, well grounded in popular support, is complete.

The “good scenario”

The third scenario, the one we are going to spend our time on, moves us to the left, but this isn’t a Hillary Clinton left. It isn’t a Bernie Sanders left either. There is an election in this scenario and it is a crucially important election, but when you see what events will be needed to prepare for that election, you will see how far we are from achieving it. Dolbeare and Edelman call it: Marginal reformist change culminating in welfare capitalism.

Here’s what that looks like. [2]

There are six major steps. These are all necessary if we are going to generate sustainable systemic political change of any kind I would hope to see. [3] At a certain point, in this scenario, “a tipping point would occur. “

“The most likely would seem to be a sweeping victory for the more progressive political party in an election posing clear-cut alternatives between the new and the old values.”

That crucial event falls between point five and point six in the seris below.

Since Dolbeare and Edelman wrote that in the 70s, we have made a lot of progress toward “an election posing clear-cut alternatives.” Both parties have become the bearers of coherent ideologies and cohesive groups of voters have mobilized to support those ideologies. The likelihood is that “the more progressive political party” will win in the fall, particularly if there are serious splits in the Republican party.

So for all of us lefties, admirers of democratic socialism, this looks like good news. It isn’t. Let’s look now at what happened in America—what, according to this scenario, needs to happen— before the “tipping point” in this scenario.

First, the continuing economic disorganization pushes disenfranchised workers to understand their plight in class terms, not in social group or gender or racial conflicts.

sustainable 2Second, young people with a new vision of the kind of country we could be are the source of new values, values which are both more humanistic (not just anti-corporate) and more egalitarian.

Third, these young people move up into the political mainstream, affecting even the current elite class with these new values.

Fourth, organizations demanding real change would proliferate, driven by the new values and they would vent their impatience with the “same old stuff” by repeated public demonstrations, some even turning violent. The unions would re-awaken and demand greater control over the conditions of work, not just higher wages and benefits.

Fifth, elites, aware of the threat to their control, would try to slow the process down by making marginal concessions. But instead, each concession is seen to grant a new legitimacy to the rationale underlying the demands. This results in increasingly wider agreement within the elites and also among the general public, that this new vision is not only attractive, but truly possible.

[This is when the election happens.]

Sixth, after the election, “major institutional changes” would spread through the Congress and the executive branch of the national government enabling large changes that are both systemic in scope and also sustainable.  So this scenario finally gets to the title I proposed; it is systemic and sustainable.

How close are we?

So let’s look at the current political debates, both articulated and implied. Since we are contemplating a systemic move to the left, let’s focus on what Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are saying. How do their platforms inform the events of this scenario.

sustainability 3Point 1: We have done very well with “continuing economic disorganization.” That’s why there are so many angry voters and why authoritarian candidates are so popular. And despite the rhetorical reliance on “the 1%,” we have not done at all well in seeing our dilemma in class-based terms. Class is important in this scenario because the group, gender, and racial/ethic conflicts can all be manipulated as distractions. Class, by this analysis, can not be a distraction and I can’t think of a substitute.

Points 2 & 3: There are a lot of young people with humanity-affirming and equality-affirming values. As a rule, they lose those when they acquire jobs and mortgages, but maybe it will be different this time. This scenario, “the good scenario,” requires these young people as the value source and before you rush to dismiss them, this is the role played by the communist elites in the Marxist system and if you are considering systemic change, somebody has to play this role. Systemic change is not improv.

Point 4: Organizations demanding “change” have indeed proliferated, but they have been presenting demands that are more easily blunted or diverted. That’s the value of the emphasis on economic class. There are lots of protests on behalf of black people, especially black victims of crime, and protests based on one form or another of gender discrimination, but these don’t add up. You can always play the blacks against the gays against the feminists against the evangelicals. Those disputes divide dissent. When people understand conflict in terms of their social and economic location in society, it unites dissent.

I’m not seeing it. And that means that the violence that attaches itself to some demonstrations is pointless violence. It is violence that expresses the feelings of the victims, but it trivializes the common message rather than amplifying it.

sustainability 4

Point 5. The success of the elites in buying off dissent by strategic concessions has been a wonder to behold. It has not been used by the dissidents as a justification of further demands as the scenario requires. The case for change in exactly the same before the concessions as after. The justification of the demands is the same. But the appetite for the work that these changes require begins to tail off after a few “victories.”

Then there is the “tipping point” election, which is powerfully significant because it has been preceded by the previous five points. There has been a source of the demand for new values and a unification of the economically disenfranchised, and a proliferation of groups demanding change even violently at times, and a refusal to be bought off by partial successes. THEN there is the election. Without points one through five, the election won’t mean much. And that means that point six, the spread throughout government of the demands made in the election, also does not happen.

I really wish Hillary well. I am going to vote for her and contribute to her campaign and propagandize on her behalf with the tools at my disposal. But everything she is doing can be easily assimilated within the political system as it is presently constituted. Everything that is happening now can easily be a part of Erratic marginal change, culminating in a corporate-dominated system.

It is true that electing a nominee like Donald Trump really is a step toward Scenario 2: Marginal reactionary change resulting in fascism. But it is not true, alas, that electing Hillary—or Bernie— is a step toward Scenario 3: Marginal reformist change resulting in welfare capitalism. I wish it were.

[1] One student who heard me lecturing but who didn’t read his book—just guessing—wrote a final exam in which he referred to the author (singular) of our text as Dolberry Nadelman. I am sure Mr. Nadelman would have been proud.
[2] There is a lot wrong with this scenario, of course. It is hugely unlikely, for one thing, and it badly underestimates the resistance to it by both the elites and the conservative electorate. I keep coming back to it because the alternatives are so gruesomely bad and I’m watching Scenarios 1 and 2 on my TV.
[3] Of course, the fascist alternative is systemic as well and sustainable for…oh…a thousand years? Does that sound about right?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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