Incrementalism as an Effective Instrument of Social and Political Change

A recent Rasmussen poll says that 75% of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction (The RCP Average of four polls puts the number at 67%). Observing the past may lead us to expect that as the current budget and debt crisis lessens in public visibility, by the adoption of some kind of debt ceiling modification and/or cuts in deficit spending, these numbers will decline – at least until the next big crisis brings itself to the fore or unless inaction on this current crisis immediately precipitates an even greater one. Still even if such radically high numbers decline they will only do so modestly in the foreseeable future and it is reasonable to expect that the desire for a new direction will remain high. Because the populace is so divided about what solutions are best and because the alternatives are at such polar extremes, there will likely continue to be a high level of dissatisfaction in the populace as a whole and a mood in the country for change in the direction and operation of our governmental systems. We should not expect that to subside into insignificance any time soon.

Some see the current crisis as the appropriate time to stand uncompromisingly upon their ultimate principles and hold their ground in hopes that the opposition will somehow cave and a new age of fiscal responsibility can be ushered in.

Others are simply trying to get a foot in the door of transitional opportunity. Still others are so fearful of failure and so accustomed to half measures and band-aide solutions that they, like their street dweller junkie counterparts, just want to raise the debt ceiling, just one more hit, so they can get some relief and all can be right with the world, at least for a little while.

The question must be asked by any of us who care about our nation’s future, what degree of change is appropriate in our current situation? Are small accommodations sufficient and even advisable? Is major systemic transformation demanded by the severity of the crises? Will holding out for a systemic overhaul overload the delicate order and make matters worse? It is time for us to undertake a responsible evaluation of the principle of Incrementalism, and its alternatives, as a process of change in the realm of public policy and politics.

Incrementalism is the process of making small, even sometimes seemingly insignificant, adjustments to the status quo so as to maintain political equilibrium and/or bring a moderate transformative influence to bear on the existing social and political order. This is the normative process by which change occurs. In the longer view this normal condition is punctuated by times of, more or less, cataclysmic systemic overhaul.

Change is brought on by dissatisfaction and the response to the problem is calibrated to correspond to the degree of pressure occasioning the felt need for change, thus the norm of incrementalism with the occasional cataclysm.

Incrementalism is a political reality rooted in human nature. Governing authorities tend to opt for the path of least resistance whenever obstacles arise. Just a little change in the time of need will generally sufficiently relieve the discomfort driving the change and quiet any impending storms, allowing things to return into normalcy. The benefit of this is that it allows for a degree of stability for the social, political, and governmental institutions that facilitate our social order. Stability is normally a good thing because it provides for a degree of predictability and predictability allows us as individuals, families, businesses, and communities to make and implement plans which tend toward continued stability and, where desired, opportunity for productivity.

However, non-directional incrementalism can be deadly. The tendency of mankind and society is to be self-interested and to carelessly permit degradation of the culture to advance unhindered as long as “I” am not troubled by it is advancement. Incrementalism can foster the lobster in the pot syndrome.

Life, indeed the history of mankind, can be seen as a process of a long and tedious confluence of multitudes of incremental transitions punctuated by occasional, more or less, cataclysmic transformations. What makes these changes, the small and the great, either productive or destructive is comprised both of the ideology that drives them and the ability of the surrounding culture to absorb the change.

Changes that last, changes that are sustainable, are maintained either by the imposition of external forces, in its worst form – despotism, or by internal forces – social consensus. In cultures that value personal liberty the preferable condition is consensus. I believe it can be argued that the only truly sustainable change must be through consensus. History reveals that external imposition cannot sustain itself indefinitely. As I once heard someone say, “All governments are popular.” Ultimately they all exist, or continue to exist, by the consent of the governed.

If it is correct to say that incrementalism is the normal process of things and that systemic overhaul is the exceptional event, how should we understand and value both dynamics and learn how to make use of their most beneficial potentialities and limit their destructive tendencies? …

(More to follow on the value of understanding the legitimate uses and the illegitimate abuses of incrementalism as a political methodology…)

To read the entire series on Incrementalism click on titles below: