An encouraging book about democracy
In the year 2020, we lived with a pandemic and a hotly contested presidential race. Strong feelings made their appearance, frustration and anger among them.
Early that year, Greg Berman wrote an op-ed for The Hill titled “In Defense of Incrementalism.” Response on Twitter was swift and fairly large, almost entirely negative, and some of the negative was downright angry.
But dozens of Berman’s friends agreed with him, sometimes “wholeheartedly.” And many admitted they were afraid to agree publically. This mixed reaction persuaded Berman and his fellow incrementalist Aubrey Fox that a book-length defense was in order, and now we have a gem of a book, “Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age” (Oxford University Press, 2023, 227 pages).
The subject is, succinctly, how do you best make change in a democracy? From their years of experience in a non-profit tasked with reform of the justice system, Berman and Fox were convinced of two realities about such change. First, “how hard it is to accomplish anything;” second, “small changes can add up to something significant over time.”
This is nothing new, we are told. Alexander Hamilton addressed the problems of change at the very beginning, in the first of his papers arguing for the adoption of the newly written and experimental Constitution. He stated his strong belief that compromise, based on humility, was the only way that government by the people could work. He railed against the angry extremism of his day, convinced it could only undermine the rational and respectful process necessary for self-government.
Are we living today through unprecedented troubles? That is a frequently heard opinion. Probably not, say the authors, but we are indeed living in a time when both the noise of anger and the volume of information are at a peak. They quote journalist Matthew Yglesias, who calls this a problem of “crisis-mongering,” and says the idea of unprecedented crisis is “unsubstantiated” and not in our best interest. “I think we’re living through a time of toxic self-involved drama that threatens to make things worse through twitchy overreaction.”
On the subject of incrementalism, Berman and Fox know of what they speak. They worked together for 15 years on criminal justice reform in New York City, part of a wide response to that city’s 1970s and 1980s crime problem. Those of us who were adults then remember well the horrible reputation of the city for safety. “Fear City” it was called. Many considered decline inevitable. “And then,” recount the authors, "miraculously, crime began to go down, year after year after year,” and New York by the 2010s became a “tourist destination and a magnet for business investment.”
What accounted for the change? Not one thing, not one hero, but “dozens, if not hundreds, of changes made by police, courts, civic groups, non-profit organizations and other key stakeholders.”
The story of safety in New York doesn’t end there, because the story of democracy never ends, say the authors. Crime began to rise again in 2019. “The gains of incrementalism are fragile.” Among the missteps, a rapid overhaul of the bail bond system failed to enlist the input of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges. Legislators ignored a core principle for change; care must be given to implementation. The successful role of careful implementation is illustrated by a full chapter on “Social Security’s Heroic Incrementalists.”
Social Security took years to come into being and the end result was never a given. The two men who led the creation of the system, Edwin E. Witte and Arthur J. Altmeyer, “were not theoreticians; they believed that practical, real-world experience was more important than abstract reasoning.” They knew that a system funded in part by worker contributions was politically more stable in the long run than one funded by government revenues. Radicals pressed for the latter. Payouts would be larger at the beginning. That was only one of the threats faced in the 15 years it took for Social Security to become what it is today. The goal was to start slow and grow as it became politically possible to do so. All the while, the administrative tasks, including assigning numbers and collecting pay slips from employers, were huge. Data warehouses were set up around the country to handle the “blizzard” of paperwork in the age before computers. Social Security, according to the authors, has lifted millions out of poverty, and much credit to its success is given to the fact that Witte and Altmeyer stayed in for the long haul, and were adept at the unexciting details of administration. The authors call them “modest and even-tempered” men.
Radicals can be impatient. They insist that big change is both necessary and desired, but the case is made here that big change almost always comes with both unintended consequences and a big backlash. Think Prohibition. In addition, surveys have told us that the general public is not in favor of big changes. The authors condense the work of social scientist Phillip Converse with these words, “… unlike elites, the vast majority of the American public has no clear ideology and little desire to develop one.” Public opinion, which is often hasty and reactive thought, susceptible to demagoguery, is contrasted with public judgment, described as what the public thinks after a deliberative process. Such judgment is often wise. Think of the enlargement of civil rights, an incremental process.
What about gridlock? A surprising and well-respected study by political scientist Frances E. Lee shows that a lot of legislative work is being done, with bipartisan support, as long as these are not “front-page issues.”
Some of the evidence presented here surprises, some merely reminds us of what to appreciate. Philosopher Gerald Gaus is quoted to say that democracy is anything but a “dispiriting imperfect compromise …. It allows an incredible array of diverse views to disagree, cooperate and learn from each other.” He calls it “perhaps one of the greatest moral achievements in human history.”