Gambling Big On Policy Incrementalism

And losing. This is an underappreciated point about our political moment (boldface mine):

On front after front, the Trump Administration is teaching us the same lesson: in just a few moments, the right can completely nullify decades and decades of patient, pragmatic, hard-won incremental progress….

This theory of “forward motion” may be a truism among American liberals, but it’s directly at odds with a point liberals will themselves admit in moments of insecurity: you can lose every inch of progress in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a sufficiently ambitious right or some unusually bad luck. More often progress can die the death of a thousand cuts, as one can see in the steady, deliberate erosion of the welfare state in the US; but occasionally you get a Donald Trump, and then the reversal becomes impossible to miss.

The theory of incrementalism, as far as I can tell, is that we should prefer the guarantee of slow-but-steady progress, which is achieved through modest ambitions, to the risks of immediate victory. What Trump is showing us, however, is that even if you win a short-term incremental victory, you can still end up with nothing in the end. You can engage in years of modest pragmatic compromise climate change diplomacy and find yourself right back where you started a decade later; you can pass “achievable” business-friendly health care legislation on the assumption that this will engineer some kind of universal coverage down the road, and then have it gutted as soon as the opposition takes power. If what we care about is progress, an incremental victory can easily leave you in the exact same place as you’d be if you’d taken a big political gamble and failed.

Moreover, there is far less popular support for incremental–and almost always complex–programs than there is for large, sweeping, and usually easy to understand programs. That matters if you’re trying to keep power and protect your gains.

Of course, this all assumes that the incrementalists are being honest when they describe their motivations as tactical, not as an attempt to defang real policy change. We have doubts regarding that assumption.

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