Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump and the failure of incrementalism

Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are advancing an epochal tax bill "that could reshape major areas of American life," the New York Times reports:
Some see in this tilt a reworking of basic principles that have prevailed in American life for generations... 
“This is a repudiation of the social contract that Franklin Roosevelt announced at the New Deal,” Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, said...
This may seem like unusually apocalyptic prose for a news report, but we've heard a lot of this in the past year. The American Healthcare Act, Esquire warned in May, would "fundamentally reshape the American healthcare system" if passed; in June, Time Magazine explained that "the Paris Agreement represents a...decade of international discussions on climate change" and that Trump's withdrawal would "toss aside years of grinding work from the global community."

On front after front, the Trump Administration is teaching us the same lesson: in just a few moments, the right can completely nullify decades and decades of patient, pragmatic, hard-won incremental progress. This point is not really all that controversial: the night before her 2016 loss, Hillary Clinton warned that Trump would "rip away the progress we’ve made and turn the clock back, sending us back in time"; similarly, President Obama warned that Trump "in the first couple of weeks sitting in the Oval Office [could] reverse every single thing that we've done."

But contrast that warning with Obama's own words just a few weeks later during his farewell speech:
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion...
This theory of "forward motion" may be a truism among American liberals, but it's directly at odds with a point liberals will themselves admit in moments of insecurity: you can lose every inch of progress in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a sufficiently ambitious right or some unusually bad luck. More often progress can die the death of a thousand cuts, as one can see in the steady, deliberate erosion of the welfare state in the US; but occasionally you get a Donald Trump, and then the reversal becomes impossible to miss.


The theory of incrementalism, as far as I can tell, is that we should prefer the guarantee of slow-but-steady progress, which is achieved through modest ambitions, to the risks of immediate victory. What Trump is showing us, however, is that even if you win a short-term incremental victory, you can still end up with nothing in the end. You can engage in years of modest pragmatic compromise climate change diplomacy and find yourself right back where you started a decade later; you can pass "achievable" business-friendly health care legislation on the assumption that this will engineer some kind of universal coverage down the road, and then have it gutted as soon as the opposition takes power. If what we care about is progress, an incremental victory can easily leave you in the exact same place as you'd be if you'd taken a big political gamble and failed.

The only way the progress rationale for incrementalism survives is if you accept liberalism's mystical theory that for some reason (Providence? American exceptionalism? Wishful thinking?) progress never gets completely reversed or eroded away. Perhaps there are other reasons to prefer incrementalism as a political strategy, but if we take the threat of Donald Trump seriously, we should abandon this "forward motion" ideology once and for all.