fresh voices from the front lines of change







Terrance Heath kicked off our conversation by invoking Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that change comes about as a “revolution of expectations.” Since how people greet and adapt to transformative change is a subject I’m rather passionate about, I’d like to riff on this a bit.

De Tocqueville was absolutely right in his observation that people will accept a brutal status quo as long as things stay pretty much as they’ve always been; but will revolt when their rising expectations are dashed. In the 160 years since he made that observation, other people have expanded on it considerably. For example, a little over a year ago, I wrote a piece called When Change is Not Enough: Seven Steps to Revolution, which laid out sociologist James Davies’ view of the seven essential criteria that have always been present before all modern-era revolutions. Davies’ criteria, published in 1962, included:

1. A refinement of de Tocqueville’s observation about people’s expectations. In particular, Davies said, revolutions happen when a long trend of rising expectations and living standards drops off suddenly. When people who’d always expected to do better are abruptly doing worse, their mood turns ugly, and you can expect somebody’s head will roll.

2. Broken trust between the upper and lower classes. When the upper classes no longer see their fate as being tied to that of those below them, forfeit their greater responsibility for the common good, and start preying on the underclasses instead, the best you’re going to get is a populist uprising. And the worst is a full-on class war prominently featuring guillotines in the town square.

3. A professional and intellectual class that breaks ranks with the upper classes (with whom they usually have a strong alliance), and sides with the lower classes instead. These disaffected bourgeoisie provide the leadership and management skills that can catalyze a small local uprising into a serious national rebellion.

4. Incompetent government that either fails to recognize the people’s declining fortunes, or recognizes them but doesn’t come up with plausible solutions, or comes up with good solutions but proves to be inept in implementing reform.

5. A new era requiring major structural (economic, technological, political, environmental, and/or cultural) changes that are being ignored or even actively resisted by the ruling classes because they won’t let the status quo change. As JFK put it: “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

6. Fiscal irresponsibility, which is usually what causes the triggering decline in expectations. Almost always, these reversals are brought about by inept or corrupt governments that mismanage the national economy to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and collapse.

7. Capricious use of force, both domestically and abroad. Unfettered police misbehavior at home and deployment of forces to stupid wars far yonder both undermine public confidence in the government’s basic commitment to the rule of law, and eventually drives citizens to withdraw their consent to be governed and rebel.

I elaborated on these seven points at some length in that article, pointing out the specific ways the Bush Administration had pushed America past the red line on every single one of these criteria. On the up side, Candidate Obama seemed to understand these factors intuitively, and addressed them often on the campaign trail.

But what worries me — and many progressives — is that President Obama, now on the job, seems to have developed a tin ear for the same issues he seemed so in tune with a year ago. While still he’s a virtuoso at articulating our national panic (#1), his solutions are so far doing absolutely nothing to bring the upper classes (#2) back into sync with the rest of us. (We’ll see if the AIG bonus debacle taught him anything about this.) His incremental approach is also stalling progress on #4, #5, and #6 — none of which will be resolved until he finds the intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger on the zombie banks, and Congressional leaders get serious about getting his tax reforms passed. Also: while there’s been significant progress on #7, that’s not going to be resolved until Obama fully and completely repudiates the entire Bush torture legacy; and Congress begins to honestly reckon with the war crimes committed by the previous administration.

In short: The Bush administration left behind a political, economic, and social pressure cooker that was building up a dangerous head of steam toward violent, revolutionary change. Obama’s lifted the bobbler and let a bit of that pressure escape; but the seal is still tight, and the heat under the pot is rising faster than ever. If he doesn’t find a way to resolve these issues and/or channel the outrage soon, Davies’ model suggests that our last best chance for peaceful evolution will soon enough be behind us, leaving us to work this transformation out on by far more barbaric means.

This is why, while I understand the urgency many of my colleages here at CAF feel about the need to keep up pressure on the administration, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s now or never — either we push through our transformative agenda in the small window of the next few years, or we miss the opportunity, the corporatists will win, and the world will somehow go back to how it was.

The important fact about this new era we find ourselves in is this: We can’t ever go back to how it was. The world we’ve known since World War II is gone, and it’s not ever coming back. Americans are in varying stages of accepting this reality — but the sooner they do, the better off we’ll be. There are vast structural changes (which, in themselves, are fodder for another post) that are profoundly re-shaping our entire reality, and which are not going away no matter how insistently our elites try to obfuscate or deny them. One way or another, now or later, we are going to be forced to address those shifts, and devise a new economy, new technologies, and new social priorities that will enable us to adapt to them.

The only real choice we have right now is whether we’re going do this change the easy way — thoughtfully, exercising our collective foresight to make clear-headed decisions that will ease us through a peaceful and relatively smooth transition; or whether we’ll choose to go down hard by continuing to postpone dealing with it, building up the pressure until there’s an inevitable explosion that utterly flattens us economically, environmentally, politically, and socially. That’s the deal now. Face up to it while it’s relatively cheap and easy; or face up to it later, when our options and resources will both be much fewer.

That’s why, if we miss this political moment, we can trust that there will be another one. And another one, and another one. (When Terrence says we’re only at the beginning of the process, he’s probably understating the case. This is going to be a very long haul.) The problem, though, is that with every opportunity that passes, the odds that we’ll be able to navigate this with minimal losses grow smaller. For one thing: the weaker the economy gets, the harder it will be dig ourselves out again. (See: Japan.) For another: the longer Obama fails to do what he said he’d do — and what we all elected him to do — the greater the risk that he’ll lose our commitment and trust, and the less coherent our responses will be. Since our trust in him is all the political capital he has — and the last best hope we have — he can’t afford to stall, and we can’t afford to let him.

We need to do this now. Not because we’re not going to get another chance; but because turning back is no longer a viable choice. In my next post, I’d like to take a closer look at that growing pile of deep structural reasons why that’s so.

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