We Should Give Our Desire for Normalcy and Incrementalism More Attention

I think the idea of political stability is generally underrated and under-explored in the context of current American political discussions. We are in the midst of deep demographic changes in our country, we seem to be at a real inflection point in jobs and automation, and inaction on several major policies have driven support for massive upheavals in some aspects of American public policy. Boring incrementalism seems to be very out of favor within both Republican and Democratic sides of the political divide, and the likelihood of clicking a news article with a headline applauding an incremental approach to a policy solution or a marginal change in anything is laughable.

 

But incrementalism is probably what most Americans would actually prefer. Many of us would just like a stable equilibrium, rather than a wholesale confusing and controversial change. The candidacy and relatively strong polling from Joe Biden seems to support the idea that a lot of people, despite news coverage of big events and potential systematic changes, really just want normalcy. The idea that stability itself could be a good thing and a desired political outcome feels undervalued to me.

 

This idea of incrementalism and normalcy isn’t 100% related to the quote that got my mind working in this direction this morning, but I think I can tie things together. In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes that the idea that increasing economic growth and equity will reduce social tensions is wrong. He writes,

 

“The 1950s and 1960s are considered a golden age for middle-class income growth in the United States. The same is true for black income growth, as the decades leading up to the 1960’s saw the greatest gains in African American income in the history of the republic. Yet many of the 1960s riots were motivated by race, and many African Americans were prominent participants. In short, income gains are no guarantee of peace.”

 

In the 1950s and 60s, inequality sparked outrage and action by those who were excluded and those who felt a visceral sense of injustice. Rising wages gave people the belief that they could strive for more and reach a better future. People didn’t simply enjoy a rising tide, but used a surge in income to demand that the tide rise equitably for all.

 

Today, in contrast, we have flattening wages and a sense of complacency around most things for most people. I think the majority of American’s would say they are not happy with the status quo, but most are simultaneously too complacent to take action. Some small-ish groups are extremely upset and outraged over the current political and economic dynamics of our country, but their voice is likely overplayed relative to their size and influence. While some energy is swelling for massive changes, as can be seen by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an equal mass is pushing for boring incrementalism and stability.

 

Cowen continues, “In the 1960s, Americans expected more, they didn’t quite get what they had set their eyes on, and so they became more restless.”  In a sense, we have just accepted that we won’t get what we have our eyes set on. Five years ago it was common to hear people lament, “we were promised flying cars, and what we got was 140 characters,” in reference to Twitter being our best innovation as of late when we all wanted flying cars. In 2020, we seem to have just given up, and we are waiting for our electric cars, which won’t really have any cataclysmic shifts in our auto industry. Perhaps it is stagnant wages, perhaps it is something else, but I think that Cowen is correct in stating that we have lost our restless spirit. I think the desire for normalcy and incrementalism should be more explored and receive more focus than it does in our current media environment.

Enjoy What is Inside You

A couple years back I bought a bright green GPS sports watch. I do a lot of running and I like having a nice watch for my workouts, but the watch was a bit more flashy than what I really needed to purchase, and if I am honest with myself, I really don’t need a GPS watch at all if I want to be healthy and enjoy exercising.

 

What the watch reminds me now, is how often we look at things outside of ourselves to define who we are and to make us happy. We look to others to validate who we are and purchases like my watch help us tell others what we want them to see in us. Rather than being content with an activity on our own, we want people to be aware of us doing the activity and we want all kinds of rewards for what we do and who we are.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by ‘from your own store’? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.”

 

Senecas advice is for us to work toward being happy in our own skin, with our own decisions, without needing something external to make us who we are and without needing someone external to approve of who we are. When we cherish designer sunglasses, brag about the functions of our new GPS watch, or take our neighbors on a ride along in our new car, we are using something outside of us to amplify a part of us that we want others to see. Simultaneously we are not satisfied by just ourselves and need something else to display our value. We are not satisfied with our actions and decisions in isolation, and need someone outside of ourselves to applaud us.

 

If we can be more confident in who we are without needing the validation of others, we can have a more steady and stable life. We can enjoy the times we spend with others and enjoy the things we have, but we won’t feel as though we need to define ourselves by things external to us. Those things can become compliments and we can enjoy a few simple things without a constant need for more and better stuff.

Formal Power Structures

In the United States, and every democracy, political parties play an important role in organizing and structuring the political process. In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways that parties have shaped American politics and examines recent trends that have taken power away from parties. Rauch is concerned because political parties establish formal power structures, and when they are removed, the functions they performed do not disappear, but instead shift to other actors, who are often uncontrolled and anonymous.

 

Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson who wrote a book in 1962 titled The Amateur Democrat which looked at the Democratic Party in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. All three cities had their own form of machine politics which Wilson examines in depth at a local level. Even at that time, Wilson noticed the tension between political parties, traditional candidates, activists, and amateur political candidates. Rauch quotes Wilson’s findings writing, “despite being nominally on the same side (all Democrats)…a keen antipathy inevitably develops between the new and the conventional politicians.” Activists are more radical and are focused on getting a win on their particular issue right now, where as professional politicians focus on a long-term game, understanding that decisions need to be made today, tomorrow, one year from now, ten years from now, and a hundred years from now. The process for making decisions over such a time span is important, and it is parties, not enthused activists, that create a structure to allow such decisions to be made over the long run.

 

Wilson describes other essential functions of parties and Rauch describes them in his book, “They recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government. … If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great.”

 

We do not always like our political parties, often because their decisions are not tough enough on the things we don’t like and don’t go as far as we want on the things we do like. Our parties may seem to be too willing to compromise or may appear to be too influenced by other interests than our own, but parties are importantly balancing power and influence in a structured system. If you take parties away or limit their control and influence, you end up in a system where money is finding alternative ways to influence the public and where hidden actors or zealous activists and political junkies shape the direction of politics.

 

While parties are not always positive forces, they tend to be more stable forces. Their slowness to adapt to important issues and their long-term posturing that does not reflect the wishes of citizens today is frustrating and feels undemocratic, but they are a chaos buffer, stabilizing the system, normalizing behavior, and creating political structures that posture politicians and opposing political forces for the long-run. We should recognize that taking power from the party will not necessarily give us the positive outcomes we want. Reducing the influence of parties simply shifts the who and how of political influence, and opening the system to ever more participation by political amateurs and activists can turn governance into chaos.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.