I strongly believe that social change in democracies occur when radicals put pressure for change outside the political system and reformers work for change within the system. The radicals are like the canary in the coal mine: they spot the problems in society before anyone else and they do the hard work of protesting, making the arguments, coming up with ideas and changing people’s attitudes. The reformer works within the system to forges relationship and coalitions with the powerbrokers, makes the compromises, and comes up with the legislation that enshrines changes into law.
Frequently the radicals and the reformers do not get along. The radical often thinks that reformers compromise too much and settle for too little. Reformers often complain that radicals are too idealistic and are unwilling to appreciate the pragmatism of winning incremental changes. In spite of their often contentious relationship, social change in this country is not possible without both radicals and reformers working in conjunction for the same goals.
A good example of this is the Abolition movement of the 19th century. From the 1820s to the 1860s, radical abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth did the hard work of protesting, writing articles, and speaking to hostile crowds to try to persuade the nation to abolish slavery. Eventually their work began to change attitudes about abolition. But it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were elected to power in both the executive and legislative branches that the abolition of slavery took place. Lincoln gradually began adopting many of the measures that were first staked out by the abolitionists: allowing African Americans to join the Union Armies; ending slavery in Washington D.C.; abolishing slavery through the 13th amendment; and allowing some African Americans the right to vote. Lincoln couldn’t have abolished slavery without the decades of work of the abolitionists to change attitudes. But the abolitionists needed Lincoln’s political savy to get legislation passed.
I think the conflicts between the Bernie supporters and the Hillary supporters echo a lot of the historic conflicts between radicals and reformers. A lot of the complaints that Bernie supporters have about Hillary being too cozy to Wall Street and being too entrenched in the system echo the complaints radicals have that reformers are too willing to compromise. In a similar way, I think the complaints that Hillary supporters have that Bernie is too unrealistic and isn’t loyal to the Democratic Party echoes the complaints that reformers have that radicals are too idealistic and can’t get anything done.
I was a Hillary supporter, but I liked Bernie too and appreciated his attempts to push the Democrats further to the Left. I think the big difference between Hillary and Bernie is that Hillary’s loyalties are ultimately to the Democratic Party while Bernie’s loyalties are to his democratic socialist principals. If you look at Hillary’s history, if the Democratic Party moves to the center, then Hillary moves to the center. If the Democrats move to the left, Hillary moves to the left. I see nothing wrong with that. I see Bernie’s importance in his attempts to push the political center and the Democratic Party more to the Left.
Right now there is a lot of internal debate within the Democratic Party between the Hillary faction and the Bernie faction about the direction the Democratic Party should go to. As long as the debate centers on ideas and whether the Democrats should go in a more moderate or a more progressive direction, I think the debate is healthy and should be encouraged. If the debate degenerates into name-calling, then I think the debate becomes destructive for the Democrats.
This is one of the reasons I liked last year’s debates in the Democratic primaries. Though the debates got heated at times, both Hillary and Bernie are well versed in policy and their debates largely focused on policy specifics and their differing government philosophies. It was a great contrast to the name calling that marred the Republican debates.
Here are 3 books that illustrate my theory about the importance of radicals and reformers: Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights by Steven Levingston; The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice by Patricia Bell-Scott; and Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader & a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery & Save the Union by Paul and Stephen Kendrick.
Here is a quote by radical political cartoonist Jules Feiffer:
I’ve always seen liberals as people who’ve taken radical ideas, whether from socialists or communists, finding ways of redefining them, relabeling them, reforming them, compromising them, and then improving the society with them. And the liberal’s job generally has been to process and homogenize the more radical notions out there for some time and make them acceptable to the mass society. And to that extent, liberals have played an important part. That liberals innovate anything is questionable. But that they innovate anything worth innovating is doubtful. The innovation comes from more radical sources generally.