vision 2020

Without a Plausible ‘Theory of Change,’ Progressive Ideas Are Just Fantasies

Wanting “change” isn’t enough. You have to figure out how to accomplish it against entrenched institutional barriers. Photo: Gary Knapp/Getty Images

Political writers have understandably tried to make sense of the large 2020 Democratic field of presidential candidates by sorting them out ideologically (“left” or “center”) or by indicators of policy audacity (“bold” progressives versus “cautious” or “incremantalist” moderates). And part of the reason for the general belief that the party is “moving to the left” is the clustering of presidential candidates around policy positions (e.g., single-payer health care or a Green New Deal) that were considered “radical” not that long ago.

But as Ezra Klein observes after interviewing Pete Buttigieg, the most important differences may have less to do with what the candidates want to do and more with how they plan to do it — their theory of change:

The central lesson of Obama’s presidency, Buttigieg argues, is that “any decisions that are based on an assumption of good faith by Republicans in the Senate will be defeated.” The hope that you can pass laws through bipartisan compromise is dead. And that means governance is consistently, reliably failing to solve people’s problems, which is in turn radicalizing them against government itself.

Which is, of course, precisely the way obstructionist Republicans led by Mitch McConnell planned it.

Buttigieg’s response — one that you also hear from 2020 hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Jay Inslee — is to restructure government so popular majorities translate more cleanly into governing majorities. He’s discussed eliminating the Electoral College, scrapping the filibuster, and remaking the Supreme Court so each party nominates the same number of justices and vacancies become less “apocalyptic.”

There is not, however, any easy equivalence between the audacity of policy proposals and the willingness of candidates to consider the “process” changes that could make achieving these policies possible, as shown by Bernie Sanders, the “radical” who wants to preserve the filibuster and the current system for selecting Supreme Court justices. And indeed, you could imagine that a newly elected president who’s on fire to enact Medicare for All might not be initially inclined to spend political capital on boring process issues. As Klein says: “It’s easier to run for reelection bragging about a tax cut than about weakening the Electoral College.”

But still, these differences matter, perhaps more than policy differences, since progressive ideas are nothing more than fantasies if you don’t have the means to achieve them. It’s easy for Sanders to say he will mobilize enough support for his policies to overwhelm congressional Republicans and force them to go along. But Obama had a similar theory (one that at the time I labeled “grassroots bipartisanship”), and it turned out simply to be wrong once the presidential election ended and things got real.

Klein points to a very useful 2007 essay by Mark Schmitt urging Democrats with very similar policy goals to focus on ways and means of achieving them:

[Schmitt] argued that the contest between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards was “not a primary about ideological differences, or electability, but rather one about a difference in candidates’ implicit assumptions about the current circumstance and how the levers of power can be used to get the country back on track.” It was, he said, the “theory of change primary.”

You can look back and say (as I just did) that Obama’s “theory of change” turned out to be significantly wrong. But in the circumstances of 2009, it’s unlikely that either Hillary Clinton’s claim of hard work being the answer, or John Edwards’s appeal to pure confrontation, would have done much better. So now, given the enduring reality of Republican obstruction, and their reliance on institutional barriers to democracy and change, having a clear-eyed understanding of the prerequisites to policy achievements is an absolute must for the 46th president. And this should not be a topic confined to elites; Schmitt’s proposed “theory of change primary” can and should be held in the early televised debates and on the campaign trail.

To put it another way, Donald Trump should be the last U.S. president to take office with no clue about how to implement his campaign promises. Perhaps he never intended to in any event. But anyone seeking to eject him from office in order to pursue a real vision of a better America ought to promise something more than rhetorical enchantment.

Without a ‘Theory of Change,’ Ideas Are Just Fantasies