The Democratic View: Incrementalists v. radicals

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Yes, it’s too early to make decisions about 2020 presidential candidates. I can’t quite tell you how many there are or recite their names yet, much less expound on their various platforms. My NCAA bracket makes more sense to me right now than does the parade of contestants vying for the presidency, and trust me, my bracket is ridiculous.


If there’s one pattern I’m able to see right now, though, it’s the contrast between those candidates who support incremental change and those calling for radical change. I’m a language person, so words like radical don’t scare me. I’m talking about change “at the root”—fundamental, structural reform. Although some current Democratic candidates are mostly incrementalists or mostly radicals, others are incremental on some issues and radical on others.
Here’s a place where incremental change makes sense: Language. You really do want language to change slowly, over decades and centuries. You don’t want someone coming along and saying, “It’s stupid to have several suffixes that mean similar things, so we’re getting rid of –ist,–ite, –or, and –arian, and from now on, we’ll just use –er.” Things would get messy. People would complain.
Here are some places where incremental change has worked poorly: Education reform, campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform. Here are some areas where I can’t imagine incrementalism working, ever: Wage inequity, the opioid crisis, climate change.


Here’s an example of incrementalism around climate change: Converting to natural gas. This is what Medium writer Andrew Winston calls “acceptance but inaction.” Leaving aside that it’s a boon for the oil and gas companies, allowing them to drag their feet on looking at renewables until “the time is right,” it is also a way to pretend to solve a problem while in fact standing in the way of the solution. Maybe we don’t, as incrementalists say, have enough renewable energy yet to transition today. Maybe we haven’t solved the problem of battery storage or created quieter wind turbines. And maybe we haven’t achieved those goals because we have been complacent in our inaction, telling ourselves that we are moving in the right direction as we actually stand with our fingers in our ears, inert.


Here’s an idea that is not radical, although it has been called radical by people who oppose it: Taxing the rich. We did it pretty well under Eisenhower, who was not known as a purveyor of radical principles. Correcting a damaging trend is not radical; as some economists have noted, this correction may even be considered conservative. Ditto for raising the minimum wage, especially when, by raising it, we’re merely adjusting for inflation over decades.


I’m leaning, here in April of 2019, toward those candidates who champion big, foundational changes. This makes some of my Democratic friends nervous because they don’t believe that anyone but an incrementalist can beat Trump. I can’t help thinking, though, that Trump is the most radical president we’ve had in my lifetime.


We keep being told that the electorate was “sending a message” in 2016. If the message was something beyond sexism and racism, what was it? Trump was the candidate of radical change—the one who promised to tear up treaties, deregulate everything, and drain the swamp. He appealed to people for whom the status quo was not working. The message was, “We want something different.” Why shouldn’t that message work for Democrats, too?


I have real qualms, however, about touting radical change without a plan.

Here’s an example of that: Brexit.


Many of the radical changes we’ve effected in the United States have come via Supreme Court decisions. Brown v. Board of Education overturned “separate but equal” and set a critical legal precedent, but it came without a plan for integrating schools. We tried busing; people hated it. Other court cases tried and failed to mandate implementations. The integration of schools “with all deliberate speed” slowed to a crawl, and today, the resegregation of American schools is proceeding apace, with public policy in many cities serving to reinforce the racial divide in public schools.


So, yes, please, to big ideas, but yes, also, to clever plans with clear priorities and logical steps and farsighted goals. Is that too much to ask of a candidate? I’ll be looking for both as the 2020 race picks up.


Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at tcdemocrats.org. The Republican View runs in the last edition of each month in Tompkins Weekly.

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