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In defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism

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We are living through a moment of deep frustration with the status quo in the United States. In 2020, as in 2016, millions of Americans happily pulled the lever for a presidential candidate whose central promise was one of disruption. President Trump made this explicit in his sales pitch to Black voters: “What do you have to lose? It can’t get any worse.”

Although Trump has been defeated at the ballot box, the dissatisfaction that helped propel his rise is still with us. This is true in both red and blue America. Across a wide range of subjects — immigration, industrial policy, education and others — a commensurately wide range of thinkers and activists has come to the same conclusion: radical change is necessary. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) captured the spirit of our times when he declared, “Incremental change is not enough.” 

Both Trump and Sanders have a point. Our country consistently has fallen short of realizing its highest ideals. This includes failures across multiple fronts — racial injustice, economic inequality, sustainability, gerrymandering and many more besides.

So, the need to change the status quo is real. This does not mean, however, that there is broad public support for dramatic shifts in policy. According to data scientist David Shor, “The median voter is 50 years old and has a mortgage, and doesn’t have a ton of appetite for radical change.”  Political decision-makers deny this reality at their own peril.  

Instead of bold schemes and utopian dreams, what we need now to start changing the status quo is to exchange radical idealism for radical realism. This realism should be rooted in four key values: 

Honesty: Many advocates are professionally incentivized to overstate the problems they are trying to address. No matter what the most impassioned critics of American racial injustice may claim, we are not living in 1619 any more. Across numerous indices, the lives of Black Americans have improved dramatically. Despite Trump’s claims of “American carnage,” crime rates in the United States have gone down dramatically since the 1970s. Social media has only exacerbated the human tendency toward over-dramatization. Even as we critique America’s flaws, we must acknowledge its progress. We must beware the hype on both the left and the right.

Humility: Many op-eds can be boiled down to a simple argument: “We know what works and the only problem is that we lack the political will to implement these solutions.” But, with rare exceptions, this line of argumentation is misleading. The truth is that we do not know how to solve problems such as poverty, oppression and violence — if we did, we would have done it by now.  It is estimated that over 100 billion people have lived on our planet. A great many of them were not stupid or racist or indifferent to the suffering of others. Indeed, some were geniuses who sought to make the world a better place. They did not achieve complete victory for the simple reason that the world does not easily conform to our dreams and desires, however noble they may be. Too many things get in the way, including bad luck and our propensity for self-sabotage through error, avarice or other means. For all of these reasons, humility must guide our approach to solving social problems. 

Complexity: Reformers must be mindful of the law of unintended consequences. In the real world, any intervention is likely to create unanticipated effects, and these unintended effects are often negative. For example, Prohibition sought to reduce the manifold harms caused by alcohol abuse. But it led to an unexpected rise in organized crime and had to be repealed. Our communities are complicated ecosystems that involve a multitude of moving parts. We need to ground reform efforts in the complexity of human behavior and develop remedies that are as nuanced as the problems they seek to address.   

Respect: While there is much we cannot predict, it is safe to assume that in our current political climate, almost every action we take will generate a strong counter-reaction. For example, the passage of ObamaCare helped give rise to the Tea Party. We live in a divided nation that tends to view policy debates as a zero-sum game: You win, I lose. Given this reality, any radical change is almost guaranteed to engender significant backlash. The concerns of nearly 74 million Trump voters cannot just be waved away. The same is true for Sanders’ supporters. Unless we are bent on dissolution, we cannot just force change down the throats of millions of Americans who strenuously object to, say, defunding the police or building a wall along our southern border. We must respect the views of our ideological opponents and work to incorporate their perspectives into any meaningful reform agenda.  

All of this adds up to a decidedly unsexy conclusion: No matter what kind of change you favor, incrementalism is the only way forward. 

Joe Biden’s administration will face many difficult challenges. In charting a path forward, the president-elect and his team would do well to acknowledge the difficulty of achieving radical change and avoid overpromising. They should also avoid the kinds of extreme policy shifts that will lead to unpredictable consequences and alienate huge swaths of the country. Only by embracing incremental change, rooted in radical realism, can Biden begin the process of reunifying the country and restoring public trust in government. 

Greg Berman is a senior fellow at the Center for Court Innovation. His most recent book is “Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration” (The New Press). Follow him on Twitter @GregBerman50.

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden transition Donald Trump Joe Biden progressives

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