Outside the Asylum
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.