Wednesday, December 10, 2014

President Obama's theory of change

Did anyone else notice that over the last 3 days President Obama has done interviews with Jeff Johnson at BET, Stephen Colbert and Fusion's Jorge Ramos? Perhaps that should tell us something about how he sees the relevance of the Obama coalition - just as pundits from across the political spectrum are writing it off.

Via these three interviews, we've seen several sides of the President. With Colbert he was funny. With Ramos he was feisty. But it was with Johnson that he was most profound.

At about 14:35 in the interview, President Obama lays out his vision of how change happens.
This isn't going to be solved overnight. This is something that is deeply rooted in our society. Its deeply rooted in our history. But the two things that are going to allow us to solve it: number one is the understanding that we have made progress, and so its important to recognize that as painful as these incidents are, we can't equate what's happening now to what was happening fifty years ago. If you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they'll tell you that things are better...not good in some cases...but better. The reason its important for us to understand progress has been made is, that then gives us hope that we can make more progress.

The second that we have to be persistent. Typically progress is in steps - its in increments. When you're dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you have to have vigilance. But you have to recognize that its going to take some time and you just have to be steady. You don't give up when we don't get all the way there...We're not going to make it perfect, but we can make it better. And better is good.
That statement summarizes pretty well where Barack Obama is at odds with a lot of activists (and also where he is at odds with what Naomi Klein called "disaster capitalism").  I am reminded of something Dr. Keith Humphreys wrote about the reaction he got from reform activists when he highlighted the good news about a decline in prison admission rates.
But a small group of people are upset that I have engaged in what might be called “airing clean laundry”. Their argument is that by letting the public know that incarceration rates are going down, I am effectively declaring that mass incarceration is over (even though I have repeatedly said just the opposite) and implicitly encouraging everyone to move on to some other social problem.

The consequentialist argument against sharing good news regarding a longstanding social problem is that it invariably undermines further reform by reducing the public’s sense of urgency. I am not convinced that this hypothesis is correct.
What a lot of this comes down to is a question about whether hope or anger are better motivators for change. But of course, that frames the whole thing as an either/or. Marshall Ganz, the country's foremost expert on community organizing, explains the both/and of how the two work together.
The initial challenge for an organizer—or anybody who’s going to provide leadership for change—is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention. Often that breakthrough happens by urgency of need. Sometimes it happens because of anger—and by anger I don’t mean rage, I mean outrage. It’s the contradiction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Our experience of that tension can break through the inertia and apathy of things as they always are.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.
In other words, hope is the ingredient that turns our anger away from fear and towards the possibility of change. That's exactly why Bryan Stevenson said that hope is the antidote to "a political vision that is fueled by fear and sustained by anger."


  1. In other words, hope is the ingredient that turns our anger away from fear and towards the possibility of change. That's exactly why Bryan Stevenson said that hope is the antidote to "a political vision that is fueled by fear and sustained by anger."



    It is the Audacity Of Hope!!

  2. Naomi Klein pretty much coopted a much cooler appraisal from over a century ago. Political Economist John Rogers Commons said the same - crisis creates structures and programs that rarely go away. Any analyst worth his or her salt understands this: the tectonic shift of especially government to meet a demand in a fearsome time tends to be permanent afterward. This can be good OR bad. The New Deal programs endured past the crisis of the Depression. The Bush post-9/11 programs were intended to do the same. But we are challenging the latter through this administration and public opinion. The choices are not eternal if we don't choose them to be. Hope does give us the option of making things better and stopping the places where such programs encroach on our freedoms. Klein's arguments to the contrary, nothing has to be enduring. We get to decide if we also decide to engage to stop exploitation.