Theory of Change

Who are we to credit for progressive gains: the outsiders who apply pressure, or the establishment that gives way?

Housing activists rally for the neighborhood integrity of Seattle’s Chinatown/International District in the 1970s.

In politics, how you think change happens says a lot about the lengths you’re willing to go to achieve it.

But for some cynics and armchair cultural critics, change doesn’t happen at all. To them, the best we can do is search the maze of popular culture for signs to guide us through our malaise. In this worldview, sophisticated spectatorship — not political participation — is the key to personal salvation, collective redemption be damned.

To others — establishment insiders, elected officials ensconsed in comfortable positions — change is a top-down process; the prerogative of politicians and party operatives handing down our rights in landmark legislation. Celebrants of the establishment often point to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993 or the Affordable Care Act of 2010 as proof that the moral arc of the American political process, however much suffering we endure in the meantime, ultimately bends towards justice.

Barack Obama signing the ACA into law in March 2010. (J. Scott Applewite // Associated Press)

But there is a third way. A path our discourse tends not to honor much, because it’s an “ineffecient” investment of time and labor, like servicework, caretaking, or parenting. It’s the path of the grassroots; of the organizers; of the funneled energy of communities speaking over the skepticism of their peers, and ignoring the tidy timelines of professional politicians.

This theory of change holds, as abolitionist and one-time slave Frederick Douglass wrote in 1857, that “power concedes nothing without a demand — it never has, and it never will.”

The approach adapted by Douglass is a remedy to the depressed expectations of the spectators. It’s a catalyst to the methodical pace of the professionals. The way of the political outsider comes with no guarantees. Indeed, it can be a recipe for heartbreak. When we allow ourselves to believe that we can improve the world we inherited but find that society is not so ready for radical change, many of us retreat back into skepticism. Some may even stay in politics, continuing to climb the professional ladder of public service while quietly believing that transformation is no longer possible.

But the path of the grassroots has been responsible for so many of the gains that the career political players take credit for, and for the symbols of hope that skeptics don’t think can be refashioned in our lifetimes.

700+ Nikkita Oliver supporters attend a People’s Party campaign launch at Washington Hall in April 2017 (Doug Trump // The Urbanist)

Recently, I came across a blog post by Seattle-area political commentator Michael Maddux. The way he writes about the political establishment, it would seem that lobbyists and lawyers contain a panacea to all the problems facing us. If Karl Marx’s 1848 The Communist Manifesto highlighted the inherently adversarial relationship between organized workers and the capitalist power structure that exploits them, Maddux has written a ‘Careerist Manifesto’ that portrays the same power structure as endlessly accepting of the political ambitions of the people frustrated by it. Maddux’s analysis fits squarely in the second theory of change identified above; the one where political insiders are deserving of more trust and admiration than scrutiny and suspicion. After all, look at all they’ve done for us:

“The Establishment” brought us marriage equality. $15 was brought to us by workers, with the political capital and support of “the Establishment”. Sick and Safe Leave was brought to us by “establishment” Democrats elected to the Seattle City Council and Mayor’s office […] My point: The Establishment is the place to be. We get shit done.

Maddux misses the work of those who usually have politics done to them by people in power. For those forced to engage in a decades-long debate for their basic human rights, Maddux’s conciliation is to “highly encourage people to force your way into the Establishment if folks try to keep you out.” One may shudder to think of what the practical ramifications of this line of reasoning may have been in Fredrick Douglass’ day, when the plantation was an institution and the interests of slaveholders dominated the American political establishment. But the times we are living in now are no less dire.

If the achievements Maddux attributes to the establishment were brought to us, we’re legitimated in asking why they were not brought to us sooner. None of the issues Maddux highlights — marriage inequality, depressed wages, economic insecurity— emerged in the same year, or even decade that they were resolved by the establishment he celebrates. Insofar as there is a gap in time between the identified problem and the adapted solution — a gap that can be measured in lives disrupted or even lost — then we have to admit that the establishment does not barrel towards justice on its own, but does so in reaction to applied political pressure from outside.

Furthermore, since Maddux’s establishment is wholly credited with progressive wins, then it is also exclusively responsible for the losses. With the help of the Chamber of Commerce and a bevy of corporate donations, the Democratic establishment to which Maddux proudly belongs is in possession of a near-monopoly on political capital in Seattle. And yet, far from the strongholds of G.O.P. power, why has this establishment allowed certain injustices to fester for as long as they have? How was it that Maddux’s establishment was moved to search for solutions after sitting for so long on the problem? Who or what inspired the status quo to shift?

The Transit Riders’ Union, Seattle DSA, and other proponents of a city-wide income tax crowd the Seattle city council chamber in July 2017 (Kate Walters // KUOW)

Seattle’s housing market has become more and more unaffordable — its police force increasingly hostile — precisely as the city council and mayorship have grown more and more self-professedly “progressive.” Seattle has not had an avowedly conservative mayor or city council member for decades. This means that the city’s present crises of housing affordability and police accountability gestated in the belly of the establishment before poisoning the rest of the body politic.

In light of this economically exclusionary and racially hostile social arrangement, we are left to conclude that the establishment has been an active participant, not just a bystander, in Seattle’s inhospitality towards Millennials, the working poor, and people of color. The work of truly progressive establishmentarians notwithstanding, what seems to be missing from the status quo is an influx of currency from outside of the establishment itself.

The recent fight for a city-wide progressive income tax demonstrates the way that establishment mandates tend to follow, and usually appropriate, grassroots energy. It was members of the Transit Riders’ Union, Socialist Alternative, the Seattle chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and more who worked toward building a financial bedrock of progressive taxation in Seattle to help the city survive the impending austerity measures of the Trump regime. As the work of this ad hoc coalition reached critical mass, establishment Democrat (and former Seattle mayor) Ed Murray claimed credit, despite being noncommittal about the idea at the beginning of the year. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger roasted Murray’s opportunism in an April 21st, 2017 headline, declaring “Ed Murray Supports a City Income Tax and He’d Really Like You To Think It Was His Idea (It Wasn’t).”

Unbothered, the grassroots continue to grow in strength and ambition. Many of the groups involved in the passage of the income tax coalesced into a defacto coalition around mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver; others are still heavily involved in campaign activity for Seattle city council candidate Jon Grant. As they push the bounds of the conventional political imagination, they do so while building on the efforts of those who are rendered invisible in the top-down theory of change.

Lucky for us, the fruits of organizers who labor outside of the establishment need neither attention nor praise from the establishment to grow. Nonetheless, a theory of change that does not account for the work of people consigned to society’s margins is like a tree with no roots.

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