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Anticipating the Politically Unanticipated

In 1936, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s activist New Deal days, sociologist Robert K. Merton, then 26 years old but later a world-renown social science figure (and my teacher), published a heavily theoretical essay entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” That unheeded warning highlights many of the political difficulties encountered by today’s Democratic Party, liberals, and progressives as they seek to improve the American economy and society. Legislative and implementation changes alter how we live, how we conduct our lives and how we think about those outcomes. Even politically innocent political bystanders are people with reactions, views, even convictions, that have impact. Therefore, broader attention to perceptions of unintended consequences is key to the effectiveness of political action.  (Not all the unanticipated are undesirables.)

Some significant achievements of the Democratic Party of recent years produced reactions that are politically and often economically disturbing—and predictable—but largely ignored or underestimated in the pursuit of the liberal agenda. Economic and social changes shape how we live, how we conduct our lives, and how we think about those actions. This broadened perspective is key to anticipating and dealing with responses to legislative or administrative changes aimed at producing economic and political transformations.

Policies that the Democratic Party sought and wrought have encountered the loss of support of many of “the white working class,” once a crucial component of the party’s political effectiveness, as well of other once-dedicated Democratic voters. Many such unintended effects are foreseeable and ignored: do once-supporters see themselves as hurt economically or socially by the action or its ramifications? Do some feel ideologically undermined by the policy—their core beliefs ignored or trammeled? Who will be affected by pursued liberal goals—not only changes that directly affect them but those critical of extending the reach of (usually federal) “government.” Why this view? Not a few regard “Government” as forcing people to think and live differently, not minor shifts.

Many reactions, objections, issues, effects are predictable. Deep economic and social changes, planned or not, are disruptive, reshaping how we live, how we conduct our lives and how we think about those decisions for everyone has “principles.”  This outlook is key to political outcomes. Consequences of policies can be viewed from an economic outlook (“what will it cost me to meet the policy requirements”) and/or a value, principled or ideological perspective (e.g., that government is best which governs least—one that does not interfere with “our” way of life.) Which reactions, objections, issues are predictable and most likely to be stressed by which voters? Who is hurt, economically or ideologically; which values or practices are trod on, disquieting more than a few voters?

What then, so late in the political game, to do? Policies aimed at pursuing an intended outcome seldom anticipate and deal with the reactions of those affected by the change (which may be material or ideological.) Change, planned or unplanned, is disruptive, especially of usual ways of living. Some or much of unintended but foreseeable results could have been avoided or lessened. Actions have ramifications beyond those intended by their advocates. That warning is not an argument against political activism but a call for recognizing and confronting their unintended negative effects.

Policies aimed at pursuing an intended outcome seldom anticipate and deal with the reactions of those affected or disturbed by the change (which may be ideological and/or material.) Democratic Party concerns such as environmentalism and racial-ethnic inequalities have contributed to reducing the ranks of its traditional voters.

Many regard environmentalism as the killer of jobs, not only in coal mining.  Environmental policies that led to the closure of coal mines and unemployment of many miners could have/should have been accompanied by policies to promote local employment, free training for other jobs that were available, funding for moving to new job areas. Unfortunately, no visible effort occurred to deal with the broad economic and personal consequences of the environmental decision. The result: strong support for conservative anti-government policies among many of “the white working class.”

Nor did it require super-sensitive political foresight to expect difficult reactions to laws and regulations to undermine racial-ethnic discriminations. Anti-racist legislation and actions are regarded by some as promoting laziness among people of color and penalizing whites for being “white.” Some or much of these unintended but foreseeable results could have been avoided or lessened. Actions have ramifications beyond those intended by their advocates.

Overcoming racial-ethnic segregation in employment, housing and schools has often resulted in strong negative reactions by white residents (and by many other whites who were not affected by the legislative and implementation pressures). That reaction should not have been an “unanticipated consequence” for racial division has been strong in this nation. One way of avoiding or at least mitigating that reaction would have been to improve the localities that are being pushed to include excluded people of color; racial-ethnic integration efforts would encounter less opposition if they are accompanied by efforts to enhance the neighborhoods that are racially changing. New or improved parks and recreational areas, improved schools, more frequent garbage collection are some of the efforts that might ease the resistance to a more varied racial-ethnic neighborhood and school. Bringing together people of different backgrounds in positive activities can make a difference. Strong resistance to racial integration can be avoided or reduced. Can the popularity of Black professional athletes in baseball, basketball, tennis and male and female actors and comedians in films and television be deployed to soften resistance to racial desegregation? At least, that possibility should receive some attention in liberal circles that pursue overcoming barriers to racial integration.

Anticipating consequences is not an argument against trying to improve situations. Rather, it is to recognize and effectively implement the changes that are sought without incurring great resistances. Many unanticipated reactions are foreseeable but ignored consequences. The undesired impacts of positive policy changes should not be unattended.  Actions have effects—not only those that are intended.

 S. M. (Mike) Miller, an economic-political sociologist and activist, has been a senior fellow of the Commonwealth Institute; former chair of Boston University’s Sociology Department; cofounder and board member of United for a Fair Economy; recipient of the 2009 American Sociological Association’s Award for the Practice of Sociology; a former member of the staff of the Ford Foundation and board member of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.