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The Failure of the American Center

The liberal activist Saul Alinsky observed that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution and, as if to prove his point, conservative Tea Party activists adopted his 1971 handbook, Rules for Radicals as a standard text. To extend the irony further still, Alinsky is rarely discussed in liberal movements today.

We’ve seen something similar unfold in recent weeks. An innocent woman, Heather Heyer, was killed at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, then a similar protest took place in Boston under the guise of “Free Speech. This time, the chants of the limited number of alt-right activists were drowned out by 40,000 counter-protesters.

This is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction. In my research of social movements throughout the world this pattern is remarkably consistent and the tennis match of ideologies can go on for years or even decades. What is also remarkably consistent is what it takes to end the cycle — the forging of a new agenda based on shared values.

One night back in 2005, a friend came over to my apartment in Kyiv for one of our semi-regular whisky drinking sessions. The topic of discussion on this particular night was the future of Ukraine. After the recent Orange Revolution had overturned a falsified election, we were feeling triumphant and optimistic about the possibilities of a new future for the country.

My friend, a prominent journalist, asked me what I thought would happen next. I told him that, based on my experience living in Poland, some sort of EU or NATO ascension process was essential to drive through much needed reforms. He disagreed and favored a more “Finnish model” in which Ukraine would go its own way, unencumbered by foreign entanglements.

As usual, my friend had the pulse of the nation. After the grueling months of struggle, nobody really had the stomach for messy politics. The new government proved to be unable to govern effectively and the revanchist forces were soon ascendant once again. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, the man we took to the streets to keep from power, won the presidency in a legitimate election.

The new regime proved to be even more corrupt and incompetent than most had feared and it didn’t take long for the counter-revolution to break down. In 2013, new protests, called Euromaidan, erupted and demanded European integration (or what many Ukrainians called, being a “normal country”, like its former Eastern Block neighbors to the west). Yanukovych was deposed and a new government took power.

This time, however, was different. Activists remained vigilant and demanded accountability from their new leaders. Their efforts, ironically, were aided by Yanukovych’s incompetence and Russian aggression. Heavily in debt and at war with Russia, the new government had no choice but to stick to the reform program that international institutions put in place. Ukraine has stabilized and is expected to return to economic growth this year.

A similar cycle punctuated the battle for LGBT rights. In 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, incensed by President Bush’s full throated condemnation of same-sex marriage in his State of the Union Address, decided to unilaterally begin performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples at City Hall, in what was termed the Winter of Love. 4,027 couples were married before their nuptials were annulled by the California Supreme Court a month later.

The backlash was fierce. Conservative groups swung into action to defend the “sanctity of marriage” and in 2008 were successful in placing Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution that prohibited gay marriage, on the ballot. It was passed with a narrow majority of 52% of the electorate.

Ironically, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to same-sex unions. Proposition 8 was so harsh that it not only galvanized LGBT activists, but also began to sway public opinion. It’s one thing to protect the “sanctity of marriage,” but something else to deny loving couples the right to share their lives together in a legal union. What once seemed moral, now seemed cruel.

Helping to lead the new counter-revolution (or counter-counter-revolution) was Ted Olson a conservative Republican lawyer who had previous served as President Bush’s Solicitor General. In a Newsweek op-ed, he argued that legalizing same-sex marriage wasn’t strictly a gay issue, but would be “a recognition of basic American principles.”

It was an argument that appealed to our sense of commonality instead of our differences and it resonated. The US Supreme Court finally ruled that gay marriage bans were unconstitutional, in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, in 2015.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the extreme right is enjoying a bit of a renaissance today. The emergence and popularity of the nation’s first black President was bound to inspire dissention. That his presidency coincided with the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, only made the feelings of resentment that much greater.

As Joan C. Williams explained in a widely read Harvard Business Review column, there is also a deep resentment of professionals by the white working class, who are tired of constantly hearing that they need to better understand what’s truly good for them. Obama, in many ways, personified the multicultural, coastal elite that many had come to resent.

When Donald Trump arrived on the scene, he was a fresh voice who didn’t mince words, which made him the polar opposite of the previous administration and establishment politicians more generally. When I talk to friends who voted for Trump, few seem to agree with him or even expect him to do a good job, but revel in his ability to “stick it to those guys.”

The events of the past few weeks have continued the tennis match back and forth. In Charlottesville, the alt-right showed they had the ability to exist outside of the Internet and occupy physical space. In Boston, they showed the inability to foresee that their action would empower the forces arrayed against them and failed miserably. Planned marches in the Bay Area were cancelled altogether.

Yet the alt-right will evolve and become smarter. Most likely they will appear in a somewhat less transparent guise than a “free speech” march and quite probably they will be empowered by some misstep made by the now-empowered Antifa movement.

We are bound to continue in this manner until we can agree on a positive agenda based on shared values. As long on those on the right feel that they need to “take their country back,” and those on the left feel that their own rights are being suppressed, the cycle is bound to continue. Nobody will ever win an ultimate victory. The vanquished will merely recede and plot their return.

Successful movements for change always find a way to get beyond their own agenda and appeal to common principles. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream at the March on Washington, he appealed to the founding documents of our nation. For Nelson Mandela and his movement it was the Freedom Charter, which guaranteed freedom for all, not just his long suffering people. Ukrainians rallied around the idea of becoming a “normal” country and LGBT activists stressed the value of committed unions.

They did this not out of sheer altruism, but from practical realism. They recognized that lasting change can only take place when it is seen as a collective victory. Unless the center can assert a common vision for the future, the fringes will continue to be able to drive their agenda at the expense of the rest of us.

Today, there are two central questions facing American society. The first is what values unify and define us as a people. The second is what set of policies have the greatest potential to maximize our capacity for security, prosperity and justice. We can only begin to make progress on the latter when we achieve consensus on the former.

What’s missing today is an assertion of core values held by the the majority of the country. Until that is clarified and resolved, we are doomed to be ruled by the fringes. As Mark Lilla points out in his new book, we live in a republic, not a camping ground and cannot move forward without a basic agreement on common principles.

Written by

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

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