Saul Alinsky once observed that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution. “Once we accept and learn to anticipate the inevitable counterrevolution,” he wrote, “we may then alter the historical pattern of revolution and counterrevolution from the traditional slow advance of two steps forward and one step backward.”
President George W. Bush’s conservative agenda ultimately led to Barack Obama’s sweeping victory and control of both houses of Congress. The changes President Obama enacted, in turn, helped lead to Donald Trump’s improbable rise to power. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Democrats have retaken the House and many governorships, although they have lost seats in the Senate.
As I explain in my upcoming book, Cascades, the period after an initial victory is often the most difficult in any movement for change (an insight I got from my friend Srdja Popović). So the question today, after an election in which both parties can claim wins, is whether either side will be able to break the cycle and build national consensus based on shared values.
The Physics of Change
In 2004, San Francisco Mayor (and now California Governor-Elect) Gavin Newsom, incensed by President Bush’s full-throated condemnation of marriage equality in his State of the Union address, decided to unilaterally begin performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples at City Hall. The move exhilarated supporters, but enraged many others.
The backlash was fierce. Conservative groups swung into action to defend the “sanctity of marriage.” In 2008, they 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 percent of the electorate.
That is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction, and the cycle can continue for decades.
Ironically, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to marriage equality. Proposition 8 was so harsh that it not only galvanized LGBTQIA 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 in a legal union. What once seemed moral, now seemed harsh and cruel.
That is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction, and the cycle can continue for decades. In the case of LGBTQIA rights, the logjam was broken not by increasing power of the Democratic electorate but by a conservative Republican. Ted Olson argued that legalizing marriage equality wasn’t strictly an LGBTQIA issue, but would be “a recognition of basic American principles.”
Rooting Change in Common Values
While Newsom was marrying gay couples in California, I was involved in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. In a prelude to later events elsewhere, the Russian-backed politician Viktor Yanukovych won an election under fraudulent circumstances. Millions took to the streets, and the results were overturned a few months later.
Yet the triumph soon turned to tragedy. The coalition brought to power by the Orange Revolution fell into infighting and little was achieved. At the same time, under the tutelage of American political consultant Paul Manafort, Yanukovych refashioned his image as a “man of the people” and won the presidency in a free and fair election in 2010.
Yanukovych turned out to be even worse than expected. His incompetence and corruption was so all-encompassing that Transparency International named him the world’s most corrupt politician. Three years into his rule, protesters stormed the streets once again in the Euromaidan protests. Many of the protestors themselves termed the uprising the “Revolution of Dignity.”
This time was different because the issue was not so much the personality of Yanukovych, but the values he represented. “It was not a revolution done by politicians,” Ukrainian parliament member Mustafa Nayyem told me. “It was a revolution done by activists, journalists, and middle-class professionals. In 2014, we were fighting for an idea. That’s why 2014 was different.”
Republicans seem to grasp this better than Democrats. George W. Bush framed his tax cuts not so much on economic policy grounds but because, “it’s your money, isn’t it?” Opposition to Obamacare was not rooted in serious health care policy, but justified by claims that it was “socialist.” In much the same way, sending troops to the Mexican border is not popular because it is wise policy but because people feel that “somebody is doing something” to make them feel safe.
Preparing for a Trigger
Every movement for transformational change is triggered by an event. In the case of Gavin Newsom’s wedding ceremonies, it was George W. Bush’s speech that precipitated the action. In the case of Ukraine, it was a falsified election in 2004 and Yanukovych pulling out of a trade agreement with the EU.
These events are usually unexpected and can rarely be controlled or instigated, but they can be prepared for. For example, Vitaliy Shabunin, who leads the Anti Corruption Action Centre in Ukraine, explained how his organization began work years before protests broke out. It was the years of investigating corruption, connecting with international institutions, and preparing legislation that enabled them to lead reforms after Yanukovych’s downfall.
We desperately need to arrive at some national consensus of who we are as a nation.
Again, Republicans seem to understand this better than Democrats. There is an expansive ecosystem of think tanks, media outlets, and activist groups promoting values that conservatives hold dear and preparing legislation based on them. There is nothing comparable on the progressive side.
In much the same way, it will be the groundwork done promoting values that will determine Democrats’ political future. Opposition to Donald Trump is not a common value, but respect for the rule of law is. If the actions Democrats take over the next few years are seen as clever tactics for political advantage, they will fail. On the other hand, if they are seen as restoring dignity and honor to the nation, the future will likely be bright.
The question that lies before us now is not what particular policies are put into place, but whether we will ever be able to overcome the seemingly endless cycle of the political tennis match. We desperately need to arrive at some national consensus of who we are as a nation, how we see our role in the world, and what kind of country we want to leave our children.
Serbia faced a similar crossroads in 2000, after the brutal dictator Slobodan Milošević had been ousted. Yet the activists who brought about his downfall understood that to move the country forward, they needed to get beyond old grievances. “It was not about bringing down Milošević,” Srdja Popović, who helped lead the movement that overthrew him, told me, “but bringing about democracy: free and fair elections, the European Union, and open economy in Serbia.”
So as soon as the new government in Serbia took power, hundreds of billboards went up around Belgrade that read, “We are watching you!” Incoming politicians were pushed to sign a “contract with the people” that bound them to actions they were to take after the election. “Stable democracy is about strong institutions, but also about people keeping those institutions accountable,” Popović said.
Politicians, even those we agree with, tend to disappoint us. Crafting policy involves compromise that addresses the concerns of those we may actively oppose. Yet specific policies, which can always be reversed, have never made our nation great. America is a nation built on values, inscribed in our founding documents, that still guide us today. Our future will be determined by the vigilance with which we hold our leaders accountable to them.