There are some progressive policy changes that are fairly simple, easy to achieve with electoral success. All it took, for example, to get a minimum wage increase was to elect a Democratic Congress. All it took to start investigating executive branch malfeasance was to give Henry Waxman a gavel. Having the EPA and OSHA issue better regulations requires only a President who will appoint better people to run those agencies. Lots of other things are harder, requiring the combination of both electing a more progressive President and making our progressive movement stronger. To get a dramatically improved trade policy will take not only an Obama Presidency but a powerful movement demanding that Obama do the right thing on trade. But even so, that kind of change, as big and important as it is, is not terribly complicated to actually pull off- it just requires a President willing to do it.
There are, however, some issues that are big, complicated messes to try to make real change in. Really shrinking the power of our military-industrial complex so that there won't be a constant political pressure for more military adventurism fits in that category. So does fundamentally charging our carbon fuel based economy so that we can truly solve the climate crisis. And restructuring 1/6 of our economy, health care, is going to be incredibly tough as well.
I think we are likely going to have to wait to do much regarding the first of these, the military-industrial complex issues, because while Obama will at least start to move us out of Iraq, he probably won't look to make major change in general on national security policy. The other two issues, though, we have a shot at- Obama says he wants to make them a priority.
Given that, I want to go back to discussion that has graced the pages of OpenLeft from time to time, which is about theories of how you can create change, in this case specifically the kind of big change desperately needed regarding health care and climate change. I want to compare the big theories of change that one hears most often, and start a discussion on how the progressive community should focus its energies.
|Before going down the list of theories, I want to stop for a moment on the topic of whether big change is even possible, because if past experience is any guide, I will be seeing comments on this post within a few minutes of putting it up from people who believe big change is impossible. Obama is no true progressive, they will say; or Democrats in Congress suck; or Republican filibusters can never be beaten; or the drug industry lobbyists are too strong; or the media is too much in the pocket of the bad guys. What I believe is that all of these arguments and obstacles need to be taken into account, but to give up now before the battle is even engaged is pure chickenshit- a combination of cynicism and cowardice that makes no sense.
So if you aren't ready to give up the battle before we even begin, join me in this discussion. Here are the big theories of change:
1. The Obama theory, which is that a combination of inspiring the American people to take action and reaching across the aisle in a bipartisan way will get the job done.
2. The "elect enough Democrats" theory. This is the theory stated by Democratic leadership (and some others) whenever we fail on a major issue: if we just elect more Democrats we can overcome filibusters, overcome Blue Dogs, etc.
3. The "elect more AND better Democrats" theory. This is the theory popular with BlogPAC and other good progressives that the key to big change is to focus on electing more progressive Democrats.
4. The "build a broad powerful coalition" theory. This is the HCAN theory that building a big broad coalition of organizations around bottom line principles is the key to winning.
5. The "strange bedfellows" theory. This is the view, espoused by FamiliesUSA and some other groups on health care, along with Al Gore on climate change, that the key to passing big change is to assemble a strange bedfellows coalition of business and labor, consumers and providers, and relevant industry people, conservatives and moderates and liberals.
6. The more powerful progressive movement theory. This is the theory that says that we can only get big change by building a more powerful and more unified progressive movement.
7. The winning popular opinion theory. This theory ascribes to the idea that if we can just convince broad majorities of the country on our issue, they will demand change and politicians will respond.
Those are the main theories that I hear people espousing, although I would be very interested in hearing any more theories people have regarding getting big change legislation on health care, climate change, or other complicated issues passed. Some points I want to make about this list of change theories:
My own view is that virtually all the theories I've laid out are deeply flawed on their own. Obama can't inspire enough people on his own, we won't elect enough Democrats anytime soon even in a great cycle, we can't elect enough better Democrats fast enough, our coalitions and broader movement are not strong enough- none of this works by itself. We may be coming to a moment in time when our problems are big enough and a broad majority of Americans recognize it, that all of these theories in combination will create a moment of big change. That's what happened in the 1960s and 1930s, in the turn of the century Progressive era, in the fiery cauldron of the Civil War years. We may be coming to such a moment soon, and in the meantime we progressives should be having honest conversations with each other over what strategies we can be pursuing to best take advantage of it.