Monday, September 7, 2009

Why we are winning even though it feels like we are losing

I came across the passage below in a blog on third-party politics in the US. It helps to explain why we should keep beating our heads against this concrete wall we call electoral reform.


It isn't that I believe that major political changes in an ideologically positive direction aren't possible.

Seemingly against the narrow politics of self-interest, the franchise was consistently expanded in nations across the world, to broader groups of people. In the end, the abolitionists and the suffragettes won, not just in the United States, but worldwide. The Progressive movement, for better and worse, had an immense political impact in what was then viewed as a liberal direction, a century ago (culminating in the ultimate political experiment, Prohibition) .

The Civil Rights movement was so effective that most leading segregationist politicians and religious denominations who outlived it ended up endorsing an end to de jure racial segregation and the legalization of interracial marriage. Almost every non-European country has gone from being a European colony to achieving sovereignty and independence, the largest share in the 1960s. In the 1960s, abortion was illegal or highly regulated in the vast majority of the world. Now, it is legal in most of the developed world with only modest regulation. Government safety nets for those in need were once non-existent and are now the world norm. The death penalty has been abolished is most of the world and a minority of U.S. states; in many of the countries and U.S. states where the death penalty is still on the books as an available punishment (e.g. Kenya which just commuted the sentence of more than 2,000 death row prisoners, or the U.S. military), it is carried out
rarely or not at all in practice, even in aggravated murder cases.

Women have vastly more career options than they did half a century ago, and domestic violence is now taken much more seriously by the legal system. Gay rights have dramatically expanded in the last generation.

In the United States, today's progressive Democrats are the intellectual heirs to the advocates of these earlier, stable, yet progressive political sea changes. Conservatives, meanwhile, have consistently opposed these changes.

When these issues emerged, they were highly partisan, even though many are the subject of a broad bipartisan consensus now. There aren't a lot of Republicans out there publicly arguing that the vote should go back to being restricted to white, male property owners (although the less overtly racist and sexist argument that the vote should be restricted to those with sufficient civic education is popular among conservatives today and isn't dismissed out of hand by liberals).

Even in the midst of a national debate about health care, where an impotent "public option" has become a poster child for people fear mongering about "socialism" sweeping America, very few legitimate political figures with any actual power are arguing that the taxpayer funded American single payer health care system for the elderly (a classic example of a "socialist" welfare state program), or its welfare state fellow traveler, Social Security, should be dismantled. Socialism is a lot less frightening when encountered at a personal level (something also true of immigrants, homosexuality, and transgender individuals) .

How did these big changes come about?

Yes, there was activism within political parties. In fact, third parties were also created around most of these issues. But, ultimately, the real progress came though movement politics. Ideological and political leaders changed people's views in society as a whole. This happened over time, not all at once. It was done with combinations of electoral politics, legislative politics, public interest litigation, private civic action and public awareness campaigns. The mix has differed with different issues.

Movement politics has its own logic. Philosophers come up with ideas. Pioneers in the movement spend a lot of time engaged in futilely banging their heads against the wall, making sound but not light in formal legal and political institutions, and crying in the wilderness. Effective leaders take up the cause and allow it to gain legitimacy with a progressive "vanguard of the revolution," often an educated elite, and gain traction in formal legal and political institutions.

Two steps forward are often followed by one step back. The abolition of slavery and the political gains of reconstruction after the Civil War, were followed by almost a century of lynchings and the segregationist system. Women entered the workforce, outside a narrow handful of professions, a couple of generations after they gained legal and political equality rights. A great reduction in the use of the death penalty in the United States has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in criminal incarceration and life imprisonment sentences. In most of the world, political independence from colonial powers was swiftly followed by autocratic dictators or autocratically controlled political parties that remained in control for many decades. But, after these social and political movements stall and peter out, the cycle repeats itself and there is more progress. And, gains made in a first round of reforms are rarely completely reversed.

Successes in one movement teach the leaders of the next generation's movements organized around different issues how to bring about change. The gay rights movement, for example, has mostly consciously and intentionally followed the model of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent figure in the movement, who is now a national and international icon, in turn, consciously modeled his approach on that taken by Ghandi in his efforts to seek independence from colonial rule for India and on the tactics of the union movement. He was probably informed by the model of the movement for women's sufferage and the abolitionist movement in the United States as well; his embrace of the term "progressive" that had advocated both causes, is one of the important reasons that liberal Democrats today embrace that terminology.

As these movements illustrate, the real leaders in movement politics often hold no formal position of authority in the political system. Martin Luther King, Jr. never held elected office outside of civic organizations that he helped to found. The Ghandi that Martin Luther King, Jr. emulated was never a prime minister or president. The leading sufferagists were self-appointed.

The flame that keeps these movements going, in both their dormant and seemingly futile stages, and as they gather steam and become unstoppable global waves of policy change, is the power of ideas. Powerful ideas are pilot lights ready to ignite immense political and policy change when enough fuel for political action is present.

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