Outside the Asylum

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Incremental Change

Our politics is structured by rhetorical set pieces, arguments that always place the same two sides in opposition to one another and never admit the possibility of a third or fourth option. No alternatives to the terms of these arguments are admitted to exist. The arguments do not recognize the existence of a world outside their terms.

Perhaps that is why these arguments never change. Not acknowledging a world outside one’s ideas tends to render those ideas imperturbable. Perfect insulation will do that for you. Historical events, the advance of technology, cultural change, political change, ecosystem collapse—nothing touches the set pieces that give our politics its shape. The same two sides always proceed along the same routes to the same conclusions—or lack thereof.

In point of fact, these political arguments actually have no conclusions. People tire, groups come and go, but the arguments are eternal. It doesn’t matter what you say in the flame war. It doesn’t matter what you say on Twitter. Come to the end of one round of argument and it automatically resets as if the discussion hadn’t happened. People’s participation in the discussion is just one more historical event to which the arguments are impervious, which almost begs the question of whether the arguments are actually arguments at all. But that is an abstract question for philosophers or cultural critics. Today I’m being more practical, because this phenomenon creeps me out. It creeps me out enough that this essay is unlikely to be the last on this subject.

It’s bad enough that these set pieces ignore history. But even an argument which ignores history should adhere to some consistent ethics within its own bounds. An argument which endlessly resets regardless of what the participants say has no intellectual merit and reneges on the ethical assumptions of the rationalists and scholars who invented debates in the first place. They didn’t invent the custom of the debate (political or otherwise) so that ideas would forever stay the same and arguments endlessly repeat. Debates were supposed to advance knowledge and winnow out error. Sometimes the process was slowed or derailed by various forms of corruption or failure. But the idea that arguments should replay endlessly, without changing, has never had ethical legs—at least not from a rationalist perspective. Only religions and authoritarian regimes have ever seriously proposed such an idea—and even they often pretend they are doing something other than proposing it.

Like the old show Hannity and Colmes, these endlessly repeating arguments have, of course, a winning and a losing side which never change.

Incrementalism occupies the permanently winning side of one of these eternal arguments. Standing among its immortal brethren “right” and “left,” “progressive” and “centrist,” “Democrat” and “Republican,” and “pragmatist” and “purist,” incrementalism eternally bullies, badgers, and defeats its opposite. Rarely named, that opposite quality might, if acknowledged, be called something like “radicalism” or “extremism.” Most of the time, however, it’s not acknowledged at all. The idea of incrementalism is so powerful that its opposite barely exists except as a vague idea of something stupid and wrong. Where does “incrementalism” get so much power?

As is often the case, power here is being strip-mined from the original meaning of the word and relocated to where it’s most politically useful, like uranium stolen out from under an Indian reservation and carried off to power a bomb. It’s quite obvious that most change develops by degrees rather than happening all at once. Yes, occasionally change comes like a light being switched on. Thunderbolts happen. But most of the time, change happens bit by bit, sometimes with odd reversions back to the old ways, or pockets of the old surviving amidst the new. That’s where the word “incrementalism” gets its power. It reflects a truth so obvious that people arguing against it look like fools.

Of course, most of the people arguing against political “incrementalists” understand that change usually happens little by little. They aren’t actually arguing against that idea at all. “Incrementalists” just pretend that they are, in order to make their opponents look like lunatics, extremists, or idiot children. It’s sort of a subtle one-stop gaslighting device. The purpose of the “incrementalism” vs “extremism” argument is to put an arbitrary limit on which types of change are attempted, and sometimes even on which desires for change are publicly articulated. The question is not whether or not change will be incremental. Any change attempted would probably be incremental, because most change is. The question is what we are allowed to ask for. Are we bad people to ask for Medicare for All? Are we stupid people to ask for an end to the wars? Should anybody listen to us when we ask to get off fossil fuels?

True incrementalism has nothing to do with what you ask for, and it has nothing to do with whether or not you should ask for it. Incrementalism is agnostic on those matters, because incrementalism is the process that usually happens after you have asked for something. If health care as a human right for all people is what you want, then reach for that goal. If a new energy economy is what you want, then try to bring it about. Incrementalism answers the question of how you are going to get there. It does not answer the question of what types of change you are allowed to conceive.

Of course, the proponents of “incrementalism” try to pretend that they are answering the question of how you are going to get there. They say, of course, we all want the same things. We all want everyone to have health care. It’s just that in the big, complex, adult world, these things aren’t always possible, at least not all at once! So support the Affordable Care Act. It’s a stepping stone to Medicare for All. Actually, if you want to support Medicare for All, and you’re an intelligent adult, supporting the ACA is the only way to do it, not advocating for single-payer, not even advocating for a public option. Only idiot children try to get what they want. Sensible adults know that you only get what you want by supporting what you don’t want.

Because the incrementalism argument, like most of the customary political arguments in this country, is politically impervious to history, few even consider checking to see if the Affordable Care Act is in any way leading to Medicare for All. Few check to see if burning methane is building a bridge to a carbon-neutral energy economy. Those who do are brushed off with contempt if they cast doubt on what pretends to be a debate about pragmatism but functions more like a religious catechism. And like most catechisms, the incrementalism argument plays favorites. Things are different for the saved than they are for the damned.

In the nineties, no one told people who wanted to deregulate Wall St that they needed to do it a little bit at a time. In 2001, no one told the proponents of the Patriot Act that they needed to moderate their desire to rearrange our legal system. No one said that it was unrealistic to quickly effect so radical a change. No one told the advocates of the Bush tax cuts that they needed to lower taxes on the wealthy a half percentage point at a time over ten years. No one called them less than pragmatic, no one suggested they were not the proverbial adults in the room, even when they purported to attempt to reduce the deficit and lower taxes on the wealthy at the same time. Speaking of the Bush Administration, nobody told them they needed to make more gradual moves in the Middle East. Nobody said that a war in Iraq was too extreme a policy ask. No one tells the war merchants that there is a limit to the amount of money they can request of the Ways and Means committee. No one says that Raytheon’s goals are just too irrational, too extreme, for the sensible adult world.

The “incrementalism” argument ultimately has nothing to do with the ways and means of approaching a goal. It is an excuse to limit our political imaginations. No. It is an attempt to make our political imaginations into something shameful. Don't go for what you want. You get what you want by not trying to get it.

Nice girls don’t go past first base.

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lotlizard's picture

When one’s best friend, confidant, even the father of one’s children, turns out to be a fake identity created by a spy for hire.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7742171/Spy-admits-befriending-...

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jan/19/wife-fourth-police-s...

“Everybody knows there are people in the movement who aren’t who they say they are. Being too paranoid would hinder everything. But you don’t expect the one person you trust most in the world not to exist. It wrecks lives. You don’t expect it, especially when you really are not important. I don’t think the Met [= Metropolitan Police Service of London] consider us at all … I find it shocking that so much public money is being spent on that to put members of the public under surveillance.”

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

It's particularly exciting once more to see the breakdown of the distinction between public and private. I love these "Mossad-related" "CIA-related" "MI-6-related" groups.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Lookout's picture

with two parties as different sides of the same corporate coin...flipped by deep state for the entertainment of the masses. Meanwhile the US empire is conducting coups, expanding empire with forever wars, moving more wealth to the top and increasing inequality, stifling dissension, destroying the environment for more fossil fuels which will cause our own extinction and on and on. All with the back drop of elections to make the people feel as if they have a voice. What incremental change? This is the same ole same ole...with only an occasional change of the actors.

I don't think I've ever been more disgusted with an election cycle. Perhaps it is just that I'm more aware after the 2016 corruption. I guess that is why I keep circling back to gardening and diet. Things I can control.

Well, I hope you all had a wonderful relaxing holiday shared with family and friends and you feel revitalized ready to jump back into the stream.

Thanks for the OT, CStMS.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Lookout

Thanks for dropping by!

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

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8 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

enhydra lutris's picture

it or on it's behalf don't really want the same goals as those "radicals" who want the whole ball of wax, they really want the status quo, and arguing for incrementalism is a way to get there without admitting that they are simply conservatives by definition, happy with what we have and willing to metaphorically fight for it.

Yes, compromise happens, but if you start asking for 1/2, you'll be lucky to get less than a quarter. Incrementalists know this and that is why incrementalist is always minimalist, don't ask for more that a few steps rearward and be willing to make big sacrifices to get there. Compromise only advances things if both both sides are contesting how far to advance, not whether or not to. They know this. The universe shows it, history shows it, but they needn't acknowledge it. Just as justice delayed or deferred is injustice, and not justice at all, sufficient postponement of something like equality simply locks in inequality for those suffering it and suffering from it in the here and now. Incrementalism has a role and a goal, and that is to achieve, in real life, Zeno's paradox. Will Achilles ever catch the tortoise? Certainly not if he is prevented from even trying to.

Incremental advances only happen, historically, when people take to the streets. When the peasants beg and beseech for a wee bit more bread, they are met with sneers and snark. It is when they begin to drag the guillotines through the streets that the elites start to make concessions, and ever the smallest that they can get by with. The record of those tiny, gradual concessions, is what the incrementalists proudly point to as evidence supporting the idea that progress only comes in tiny increments, ignoring what it was that caused them to come about. Yes, black people did make progress, ever so slowly, to a point where they are a better off than before. One needs to remind said incrementalists that "It took a war, assholes!" Several, in a sense, and they continue. Medgar Evers wasn't trying to get the right for a few to vote in selected minor elections once a decade or any such incremental shit. The Panthers and BLM weren't beseeching the cops to please kindly shoot one less of them per month, but to stop it all, immediately. Women too took to the streets to get the franchise. Labor took to the streets. Unions took to the streets and still do.

If you aren't willing to demand what you want and strike or blockade to get it, you won't, in the end, receive anything at all; after all, you get damn little even when you do.

Arrrgh! Sorry, just woke up. This is a very sore subject. Even the culture wars were not incremental, not a brush stroke here and there, but whole canvasses that stunned and startled; e.e. cummings was not Emily Dickenson without the capital letters, Howl wasn't Robert Frost with extra stanzas, people were beaten, gassed, and arrested over free speech, and on, and on, and on.

Have a good one.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

@enhydra lutris n/t

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enhydra lutris's picture

@TB mare
column that I forgot to thank her for.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

for progressives. many of us were not fooled. But I still get into discussions with some left of center who defend his "inability" to get a public option.

@enhydra lutris

obama poker.JPG

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enhydra lutris's picture

@entrepreneur

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@entrepreneur

Even down to Boehner's somewhat bemused state.

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

It used to drive me totally crazy, because even the good guys on the Hill used to do it:

Yes, compromise happens, but if you start asking for 1/2, you'll be lucky to get less than a quarter.

To take taxes as an example:

If you want to get back to the taxes we had on the top individual bracket when Reagan took office (70% for individuals, probably less than that effective), you need to ask for the taxes we had on the highest individual bracket during Eisenhower (90%, 70% effective). If you want to get back to the taxes we had on the highest individual bracket when Bill Clinton was in office (around 39%), you need to ask for the taxes we had on the highest individual bracket when Reagan was in office. If you ask for Bill Clinton tax rates on the top individual bracket, as a dear friend of mine on the Hill supported doing, you will end up with, at best, somewhere between 25 and 30%. If you ask for 52%, as Bernie Sanders is doing, you will end up with, at best, somewhere in the mid-40s. I will give Bernie kudos, however, for inventing a couple additional tax brackets, since it's frankly one of the most disgusting aspects of our tax system that everyone who makes 500,000 or more in income per year pays the same rate. I'm not saying those who make a half a million per year are hurting, and obviously they are elite. But since, apparently, there are those who make more than 10 million per year in this country, why should they pay the same rates as those who make an order of magnitude less than they do?

In any case, if you want Medicare for All, you can't go to them and ask for a public option. They won't give it to you and they will give you something worse (Romneycare). If you want a public option, ask for Medicare for All--and ask for it for real. Don't push a public option and call it M4A. Ask for M4A. Then you might have a chance of getting a public option.

If you want Medicare for All, ask for a national health service.

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13 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

I can't get through your comment because there are so many little gems in it.

Compromise only advances things if both both sides are contesting how far to advance, not whether or not to.

Bien dit!

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10 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

The record of those tiny, gradual concessions, is what the incrementalists proudly point to as evidence supporting the idea that progress only comes in tiny increments, ignoring what it was that caused them to come about.

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9 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

Even the culture wars were not incremental, not a brush stroke here and there, but whole canvasses that stunned and startled;

Well, I can attest to that.

We've got people who have socially re-engineered our whole society and they tell us that we need to take baby steps.

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9 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@enhydra lutris And now it appears the ptb want that less than a quarter back and they plan on taking it. Incrementalism is more like one step forward two steps back and in the long run we actually end up on the negative side.

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enhydra lutris's picture

the insights contained therein, so, thank you.

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@enhydra lutris

I always see ways the essays could be improved, so they always look like rough drafts to me. You all are very kind to my stumbling, well-intentioned verbal children.

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6 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

is what we are basically shamed into accepting.
It gets more and more difficult to argue that you do not see "something" as a positive.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@on the cusp @on the cusp

that "something" is NOT always a positive. "Something" at this point involves accepting things like planet death and living under a police state with no reliable concepts of rights or rule of law. Also children drinking poison, constant warfare, half the country in poverty, etc.

If it's getting easier to argue the point that "something" is always a positive, it's probably because too many people have essentially succumbed to the constant propaganda and have forgotten how to think.

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11 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal exactly what I was describing.
In fact, getting something shuts down any further movement. We are, as an example, told to accept, appreciate, and protect the ACA and stop being fools for wanting M4A. Move along, whiney people...

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@on the cusp

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Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem