Incrementalism: Change You Can’t Believe In

Joe Biden won the election, and already neoliberals are attempting to pin the blame for an unexpectedly close election on the Left. Biden has called numerous times for the return of bipartisanship, seems to think that he and Mitch McConnell will get along just fine, and has generally signaled that his administration will be a return to the good old days of the Obama years. We cannot afford a repeat of the last ten years, when the Democrats sacrificed the working class on the altar of Compromise, and Republicans and corporate Democrats laughed their way to the bank. The Left must explain to well-meaning rank-and-file liberals that incrementalism would be a catastrophic error and fight the Democratic establishment tooth and nail to prevent the errors of the Obama years from recurring in what may otherwise amount to a continuation of Obama’s feckless second term.

A Recipe for Stasis

Defenses of incrementalism rest on two premises: (1) the polarizations existing in American society according to conventional wisdom (the divisions between liberals and conservatives, represented institutionally by the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively) correspond to genuine conflicts of interest, and (2) taking those polarizations as given, a centrist approach which accepts existing political structures is the most realistic way to get things done.

If that were true, we’d expect to see high approval ratings for the two major political parties, nearly universal major party affiliation among the electorate, stark policy disagreement between Democratic- and Republican-identifying voters, and a highly productive legislative record for centrist Democratic administrations. That’s not the case:

* Both parties are underwater in terms of public approval: Congressional Democrats have 35% approval; Congressional Republicans have 40% approval. In an October 2018 Gallup poll, 57% of Americans supported a third party. Support for a third party has been near 60% for the last eight years. Currently, 30% of Americans identify as Democrats, and 30% identify as Republicans, leaving a plurality of Americans (40%) unaffiliated. The enormous number of non-voters–even if we account for voter ID laws, closures of polling places, misplaced absentee ballots, and the other barriers to voting–is another indicator that the current system doesn’t represent people’s interests. In the most-hyped presidential election ever in 2016, only 56% of voters turned out, and only around 40% of voters bother showing up for midterm elections.

* “Progressive” policies like paid maternity leave and government-funded childcare have 56% and 73% support from Republican voters. Tuition-free public college and hiking the minimum wage have around 30% support within the GOP.

* And the Clinton and Obama administrations failed on nearly all fronts: inequality skyrocketed, mass incarceration and immigrant deportations continued apace, the social safety net shrank, and the military budget ballooned.

The rich have a stranglehold on our political system and thwart major reforms. As Chris Maisano writes, summarizing research of political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens:

Page and Gilens reach a remarkable and widely reported finding: ordinary Americans have essentially zero independent influence over politics and policymaking at the national level. Working- and middle-class people get the policies they want when these preferences coincide with the preferences of the rich — if the rich don’t want it, it’s not very likely to get through Congress. Page and Gilens call this regime a ‘democracy by coincidence,’ a description that doesn’t offer much consolation to those of us who equate democracy with popular rule.

Sausage-making in a ‘democracy by coincidence’ doesn’t work if you want progressive change. Republicans won’t work in good faith with Democrats, and corporate Democrats won’t vote for progressive policies. In this sense, Biden was correct when he let slip to his rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his administration: accepting the system as it currently stands is a recipe for stasis.

Crossover Appeal

Liberals view politics as an expression of cultural preferences. They accused Bernie Sanders of being uncompromising in his ideological purity but shy away from engaging with politically incorrect, largely lower-class “baskets of deplorables.” By contrast, Bernie made consistent efforts to reach out to audiences unaccustomed to being courted by left-of-center candidates, recognizing that there is some overlap between consistent right-wing libertarianism and libertarian socialism. On September 14, 2015, he spoke at the Christian right-wing Liberty University’s convocation. He appeared on three Fox News town halls, on March 7, 2016, April 15, 2019, and March 9, 2020—in a level of engagement unprecedented in Democratic candidates. On August 8, 2019, Bernie appeared on the non-PC libertarian podcast host Joe Rogan’s show.

When Bernie received Rogan’s endorsement in January 2020, giving him an opportunity to expand his coalition, liberals chastised Bernie for not distancing himself from Rogan because Rogan had made some unsavory remarks in the past. They preferred the ideological purity of political correctness to Bernie’s attempt to win the broadest possible audience for a progressive message. Unsurprisingly, illustrating the way liberals’ love of PC culture backfires, Rogan announced in April that he’d rather vote for Trump than Biden. Centrists like Biden do not have the ability to redraw the dividing lines of our politics. Only a candidate with genuine crossover appeal can move the American electorate and political discourse onto terrain favorable to progressive reform.

How Change Happens

As Bernie never tired of repeating, only a broad-based, bottom-up grassroots mobilization can achieve the policy changes he and rest of the Left advocate. The history of social change in the United States bears this out. Sympathetic politicians were important, but the New Deal was primarily enacted because of labor militancy. As Nelson Lichtenstein details in his magisterial book State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, “neighborhood-based unionism” flourished in the 1930s: boycotts, rent strikes, mobilizations of the unemployed, and political mobilization birthed an “organizing culture that permeated every activity and structure of the working-class community.”

The Congress of Industrial Organizations engaged in an all-out offensive for unionization: “Elections, legislative battles, strikes, organizing campaigns, and labor negotiations were seamlessly interwoven.” Every variety of strike was used–sit-down, rent, general, tenant farmer, boycott, and sympathy–and occupations of mines, utilities, farms, and homes were commonplace. Between 1936 and 1939, there were 583 sit-down strikes that lasted at least a day. Labor unions were integral to social justice movements and the American Left in this period. They were most successful when they commanded political power–large numbers of committed members who voted, demonstrated, and donated money–and had high levels of coordination, internal democracy, and support in Washington. Balancing rank-and-file participation with national coordination and a programmatic political agenda enabled labor to win.

The civil rights movement likewise combined grassroots mobilization with mobilization in Washington. The SNCC and CORE used ingenious strategies to disrupt business as usual and attract attention to the injustices they were fighting: Freedom Rides publicized the clash between official Supreme Court rulings and on-the-ground realities. The Southern backlash to the Freedom Rides (and the SNCC’s “fill the jails” response) enlisted public sympathy and rallied people to the movement. LBJ may have been sympathetic in the abstract to civil rights, but protests and grassroots activism forced him and the Democratic Party to act.

The historical record indicates that social movements win results by pursuing an “inside” and “outside” approach simultaneously, balancing grassroots organizing and insider politicking. Lichtenstein stresses the importance of a sympathetic president in winning power, while sociologist Sidney Tarrow underscores the need for a coalition between elite reformers and outside challengers.

The “Fierce Urgency of Now”

American politics is in a state of entropy. Our systems are decaying. As all scientists know, for a system to be reorganized and entropy to decrease, it needs new energy. Work—in this case, the reorganization of our politics and economics—requires energy. A mass grassroots working-class movement is the injection of energy our crumbling society so desperately needs. A trickle-down approach to reforms à la Obama will not add energy to the American political system. A return to the status quo ante Trump will see continued hemorrhaging of energy from the system.

MLK spoke of the “fierce urgency of Now.” Incrementalism is insane in a world with so many crises coming to a head: global warming, horrific inequality, the human-made refugee crisis. Joe Biden and the ancien régime he represents don’t perceive the urgency of our historical moment. They prefer a return to a normalcy: Biden assured his donors that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” But as Walter Benjamin wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” ‘Business as usual’ is an emergency for most people.

The Left must push for Biden to use executive orders to forcefully pursue policies that will benefit the working class. Progressives in the House should draft legislation for popular policies like Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, debt cancellation, rent cancellation during the coronavirus crisis, a freeze on evictions, an additional COVID stimulus bill, campaign finance reform, card check legislation making it easier to unionize, budgets that cut military spending, and a $15 federal minimum wage, and repeatedly bring such legislation before the Senate, forcing what will likely be a Republican-controlled Senate to reveal its true, anti-populist colors. And leftists must make clear to centrists within the Democratic Party that we are willing to primary any candidate who doesn’t stand with us.

On the streets, the Left must continue to mobilize and fight for criminal justice reform and relief for the poor and working class during the COVID crisis. Community organizers must continue to make overtures to members of the working class who are potentially receptive to class-centered policies that steer clear of cultural war baggage, pointing out how racism and xenophobia are strategies used by the ruling class to divide and conquer the working class.

Donald Trump is a troglodyte, but he does understand two basic tactical principles. One: when negotiating, don’t compromise at the outset; demand 150% of what you want and then compromise from a position of strength. Two: if the game is unfavorable to you, change the rules of the game. Liberals seem incapable of learning these fundamental principles; the Left can’t afford the luxury of such ignorance. On the primary debate stage, Biden had a highly symbolic tic of saying “My time is up.” Although he did prevail (barely) in the presidential election, time is up for Biden’s outdated, misguided approach to politics.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.