In previous post, I talked about the Left’s ideal agenda, and why it keeps being a distant ideal. One of the problems has been that they keep thinking in terms of “revolution,” overturning the existing political order and being able to implement their programs all at once. It’s why they’re excited about Bernie Sander’s call for a political revolution, and you’ll hear things like “the people will march on Washington,” as a means of achieving it. There was similar excitement over the Occupy Movement, and if you go back, you can find any number of “revolutionary movements” that were supposed to bring about radical changes in this country. The problem? They didn’t work. While there’s a great deal of pointing at various progressive achievements of the past, and calling them revolutionary, a close look at them shows that they weren’t quite that revolutionary.
My background is in biology, and in particular, environmental biology. As a result, I tend to think in terms of systems, and one of the core facets is evolution. Back in my undergraduate days, we were taught “classical” evolution and ecology. Those fields have seen real change over the time since then, as more information and capabilities came to light. The idea of a “balanced ecosystem” that often gets trotted out by many environmental activists even today, was supplanted by the realization that any “balance” was a dynamic one, and it was often subject to radical shifts due to geologic, climate, or catastrophic changes. This led to a new idea in evolution, “punctuated equilibria,” first promulgated by Steven Jay Gould. What he had noticed in his own studies in paleontology was that didn’t seem to be a lot of evolutionary changes happening for long periods, until something happened which caused major changes in the speed of evolution, with a host of new species appearing over a fairly short time . So what does this have to do with politics?
Many of the things that are often pointed to as “revolutionary,” turn out not to be on closer examination. You could call this “political ecology.” If you look at the great progressive achievements of the past, it turns out that there were a lot of societal changes prior to them. In particular large social, demographic, and economic changes. The latter part of the 19’th century saw the country shift from a predominantly agrarian nation to an industrialized nation, and by 1900, more people were living in urban environments than rural ones. At the same time, there was a large influx of immigrants, often not welcomed, several depressions, and the excesses of the “Gilded Age.” There were corruption scandals, price-fixing scandals, and as more people purchased food instead of producing their own, food safety scandals.
All of these societal changes meant that there was a societal impetus to solve those issues. That’s why we have the anti-trust acts, the first food and drug safety acts, and even the first worker safety acts being enacted in the latter 19’th and early 20’th centuries. The 16’th Amendment, allowing for a federal income tax was not passed principally to do something about income inequality, but to enable the government to pay for much larger responsibilities demanded by society.
Yet other shifts happened because of the Great Depression. It’s necessary to remember that FDR did not start his presidency at the beginning of the Depression, he started it when it was well underway. Population shifts were happening as people left “Dust Bowl” areas to seek work elsewhere, there was devastating unemployment levels, and the banking system was falling apart. That resulted in a societal impetus to do something, leading to Social Security, labor protections, minimum wage laws, and banking regulations. World War II saw a mass movement of women into the workforce, blacks and other minorities were serving in the military, and quite well. Those started changing the societal perceptions. In the same time frame, people were getting tired of “brown air,” and waterways that were too dangerous to even take a brief dip in. Eventually, those led to other laws, the Civil Rights Acts (yes, more than one), the Voting Rights Acts, Clean Air Acts, and further action on women’s rights.
So, those were political “revolutions,” right? Not really. First, there was the societal changes, and while they were rather swift, it still took several years or even decades for those shifts to lead to an impetus for political change. Even then, the early laws resulting from that impetus turned out to be rather weak, flawed, and limited in scope. Over time, additions and subtractions were made to them as needed – or demanded. Social Security for example, originally left out large groups of workers, and the benefits weren’t all that much. It changed over the next 50 years to become the system we think of today.
We are in a stage of societal changes, but it’s also necessary to remember that societal changes can lead to a regressive agenda, often at the same time as the progressive agenda. As popular as Bernie is with the Left, there is Donald Trump on the Right. In the past, those great progressive achievements have occurred at the same time as laws and actions we could call “regressive” today. The end of the 19’th century also saw restrictive immigration laws, and the Jim Crow acts. The 20’s and 30’s saw the rise of the new KKK, and a strong nativist movement. The 50’s and the 60’s saw the “state’s rights” movement, along with another rise of the KKK and other supremacist organizations. More recently, we’ve seen “religious freedom” acts to institutionalize discrimination against LGBT’s, voter ID acts to combat “fraud,” cuts in the social safety net, and attacks on a wide range of progressive issues.
Instead of gradual change, or “classical evolution” over time, what happens is “punctuated equilibrium” in political evolution. Things remain fairly steady, i.e; “establishment,” until societal changes and cultural shifts create a situation where previous laws and government philosophies are no longer adequate, leading to fairly rapid changes. At that point a new equilibrium starts, with a slow development of those programs and actions, either adding to it, pruning what hasn’t worked, or or in some cases trying different approaches when one hasn’t stood up in courts. If there’s a takeaway lesson, it’s that the progressive actions have been the survivors, the ones that succeeded over the long run. That doesn’t mean that regressive actions can’t occur – they will – or that they might not survive. That’s the nature of evolution. The challenge ahead is to get progressive programs into place, and keep evolving them from there. You don’t need a revolution to do it, it’s just evolution.