Breaking Down the Status Quo in Six Easy Steps

Sara Robinson

One of the things I’m really liking about the new regime is the way the stark, terrified silence of the Bush years is giving way to noisy, energetic public discussion of subjects that would have been considered hardcore political pornography just a year or two ago.

Mr. Obama himself may not want to talk about single-payer health care or employee free choice or special inquiries into CIA torture practices, but the American people are definitely going there, with or without him. We seem to have recovered our moral voice, and relocated our own interests. And the powers that be, along with their paid minions in Congress, are feeling very, very nervous about it. I admit it: I’m enjoying watching them squirm.

Watching the rhetorical give-and-take between activists, change agents, and just plain fed-up Americans on one side, and those defending a very profitable status quo on the other, I’ve noticed that there’s a repeating pattern to the way subjects that were once considered politically obscene move onto the public agenda, and how the defenders of the old regime respond to public demands for change. And it occurs to me that understanding the phases they go through — and how their behavior shifts at each stage — might allow us to respond more strategically and effectively to each stage, spending less political capital overall but getting far more for it in the end.

My first rough sketch of this process (I’m open to suggestions for refining it) involves six stages through which changes that our corporate masters never even wanted to discuss eventually become wholly-owned parts of their history. The steps I’m seeing go like this:

1. Backstopping the Overton Window. This disreputable idea is so far outside the bounds of acceptable discourse that sane, rational people will never, ever discuss it. The fact that you even dared to say it out loud in mixed company is incontrovertible proof that you’re a certifiable loony. Anybody who could even think such a deranged thing is probably a danger to self and others. Please leave quietly, before you lose control and make a scene and we have to call the cops. And don’t even imagine that you’ll ever be invited to nibble cocktail shrimp in this town again.

2. Getting it out on the table. In spite of the Overton Window taboos, a small but insistent cadre of unimpeachably credible people dares to publicly discuss the idea anyway. They back up this bold transgression with an early round of solid research, along with a handful of real-world examples to prove that the concept might actually be economically and politically sound. Lining up the facts and people to kick off these discussions is usually the work of think tanks. Being one of these people once too often can put some real dents in an otherwise sterling reputation—or enshrine you forever among the visionary political avant-garde, depending.

That’s because once the idea is out on the table and being discussed by reasonable people (which does not, of course, include the mainstream media), the defenders of the status quo react by making a wild, scrambling lunge to push it back off again. This always involves undermining the credibility of the proponents, their research, and their examples; and reminding everybody once again, in the most hysterical terms, that this idea is completely nuts and utterly impossible.

It’s preposterous, they sputter. It will destroy the economy. It will put an end to the American way of life. Hillary Clinton will pick your doctor. You’ll be forced to power your entire household off a windmill in your back yard. Al Qaeda operatives, along with the entire Mexican state of Oaxaca, will be bivouacked in your tool shed. Anybody who sides with these pathetic losers is probably a Communist, an intellectual, or siding with the terrorists. These are real and serious threats; and anybody who says otherwise is irrational and making shit up.

3. Clouding the issue with facts. You can tell that the initial attempts to discredit the idea have failed when the rhetoric gears down a notch, becoming less hysterical and more practical. The name-calling eases off, and opponents start coming back with studies and facts of their own. At this stage, the media have picked up on the issue and the politicians are starting to pay attention, so crazy talk stops and the debate is joined in earnest.

Numbers begin to be bandied about. This change will cost XX thousand jobs. It will reduce the tax base XX percent. It will affect industries A, B, and C. We’ll be forced to move our factories to China and our headquarters to the Cayman Islands. No, seriously; it’s a bad idea.

Even if the data the opponents offer is self-serving and slanted, the very fact that they’re putting it forward and engaging in real-world debate is a good sign. It means they’re taking the threat of change seriously enough to hire consultants and commission studies. Which also means they’re quietly beginning to seriously explore what this change will mean for them, and are laying the strategic groundwork to prepare for it. As that process unfolds, they usually start to see where their next opportunities lie, and discover some real competitive advantages to making the change (though they’ll never admit this publicly, out of fear of tipping their hand to their competitors, and giving up too much ground too soon.) The goal is no longer trying to prevent the change; it’s now about trying to control what shape the change will take, and what the time frame will be.

4. Real negotiations. You know the old regime has made their peace, formulated a plan, and is ready to move forward when their arguments come down to two essential points: 1) We can do it, but it’s going to cost a hell of a lot of money to retool for this; and 2) We can do it, but we’d be running afoul of a shelf full of government regulations that were designed to manage the outgoing order. This sounds like they’re still balking, but it’s actually a capitulation to the fact that change is coming — and the opening gambit in serious, formal negotiations over what concessions they can get in exchange for dropping their fight.

“We can’t do it because of regulations” means “We’ll do it if you change or lift the existing regulations to make this even more profitable for us than doing business the old way.” “It’s going to cost too much money” means “We’ll do this if you offer subsidies, grants and tax breaks to reduce our risk and make it worth our while.” At this final point of resistance, they’re just looking to auction off their cooperation to the government for the best price they can get.

5. A Brave New World begins! We are making this change! And we are so wonderful and forward-thinking to be out there cooperating with the government and the people and the planet in this way, and making life better for everyone! Splashy PR campaigns put the happiest possible face on changes they had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to make.

6. History, Rewritten. Looking back five years later? Well, of course, we were for this all along. In fact, we took the lead in initiating this bold, innovative shift in the way business gets done. We were the visionaries who had the foresight to stand up to those balky, closed-minded government regulators who opposed us every step of the way. We forced them into it, and the country is better off because we did.

Our profits are up. Our business is better than ever. Weren’t we incredibly smart to see this opportunity? Weren’t we noble and daring to step out over the opposition and do the right thing, and damn the risks? Isn’t America blessed to have a free enterprise system where brave entrepreneurial companies can instigate such audacious and progressive changes? And just think how much more we might accomplish if government would just stand aside and let us do what comes naturally!

♦ ♦ ♦

Four months into the new Congress and administration, I’m noticing that several of the discussions that were covered with the steamy, overheated froth of Stage 2 just weeks ago are starting to cool down into Stage 3. Hysteria is giving way to more solid, fact-based debate. The beneficiaries of the old status quo—weakened by the economy and increasingly confronted by the people and their government—are coming to terms with the need for deep structural change, and are starting to seriously consider their options and strategies. At the same time, the next wave of subjects that have been utterly unspeakable for 30 years are re-entering national conversation, moving from the shadows of Stage 1 to the sunshine of Stage 2. With any luck, this could go on for years. It’s messy and contentious—but it’s how change happens.

Unfortunately, the Democrats are proving so far to be disastrously feckless at Stage 4, which is the moment of greatest government leverage over the process. At that point, they’re negotiating against an opponent who’s accepted the need for change, and is simply asking them to set the terms under which the new order will unfold. The decisions made here often stand for decades, so it’s a moment that calls for boldness and tough bargaining. Unfortunately, until we get real campaign reform, the bitter truth is that this will continue to be the moment when massive amounts of taxpayer money get moved into private pockets, with no real change demanded in return.

But the most galling stage of all may be Stage 6, which was first pointed out by Rick Perlstein. In the end, conservative politicians and business leaders always to do their best to take credit for instigating changes that, in reality, they fought with everything they had. Those billions we spent on lobbyists and PR folks? Just a cost of doing business. And those absurd scare stories? I never said that, you can’t prove it, and besides, I was taken out of context.

Fortunately, in an age of Google and YouTube, it’s a lot harder to rewrite history that way. Still, as the changes start coming down, we need to be hyper-vigilant in watching for this kind of revisionism, because every time they succeed, they’re underwriting the conservative frame that unfettered business is the only meaningful driver of innovation, and that all government can ever do is obstruct progress. At the same time, they’re also depriving thousands of hard-working activists and citizens their rightful share of glory, which in turn deprives the rest of us of the inspiration of their example.

In an age when government is reasserting is role in defining and defending the public good — and citizen activists are the real visionaries in creating a survivable future—that’s not a win we can allow them to have.

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