Progress Without Heroes
Monday Notes
Progress Without Heroes
What if hard-won social victories are more inevitable than they appear?
Published on: Jul 25, 2022  |  

For the past few weeks here at Wisdom of Crowds, we have been wrestling with the question of social change. Especially in the shadow of the January 6 hearings and the Dobbs ruling, among all the recent hand-wringing about how democracy is in serious decay in the United States, I can’t shake the feeling that we are making all sorts of category errors in how we talk about the current moment. It’s not that I feel like everything is alright. It’s not. The details that have emerged about Trump’s behavior in the run-up to the storming of the Capitol underline for me a longstanding intuition about the inherent fragility of our order. But the hand-wringing itself feels misdirected, focusing on forces undermining a certain sense we have of our “progress” as a nation, and the relationship “progress” has with “democracy”. I think the dynamic is a lot less cut and dry. Let me try to explain.

In our podcast episode on abortion and Dobbs, the New York Times' Jane Coaston pointed out that since the 1967 Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia), interracial marriage went from 3 percent of the total at the time of the ruling to some 19 percent today. The extent to which what was taboo half a century ago appears downright medieval to us today seems like a testament to what a well-timed “progressive” diktat can achieve. Going back to the status quo ante feels offensive to us; we feel like we have achieved something meaningful and are proud of it.

Gay marriage, however, took a different path. It was none other than the progressive darling Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which not only defined marriage on the federal level as between man and a woman, but also allowed states to not recognize same-sex marriages recognized by other (more progressive) jurisdictions. By 2012, when Vice President Joe Biden (supposedly inadvertently) nudged his boss to change tack on same-sex marriage, society was in a very different place. By 2015, Obergefell’s overturning of DOMA was ratifying what was emerging as a broad social consensus.

It was a very different path to a similar destination, one that perhaps entailed more hardships for the affected couples in the intervening years. Or perhaps not. Just because it was legal to marry, interracial couples met severe social censure for decades. Nevertheless, we are proud of our progressive achievement today, no less so than with Loving. And even if Obergefell is somehow limited by future rulings that roll back federal protections, it’s unlikely that we will go fully back to the way things were decades ago.

In Loving and Obergefell, we have seen the judiciary both lead public opinion as well as play catch-up. Neither path was easy, but both trajectories broadly ended up in the same place. If the outcome is the same, it’s perhaps worth thinking about whether the “push” or the “pull” is the better way forward.

Why does this matter? On the most recent episode of the podcast—in the subscriber-only section—I remarked that the diversity on display in the Tories’ leadership contest was the result of the decision of one man—David Cameron. He looked around himself and decided to make his party less white and less male. It was a wholly top-down effort. In Cameron’s own telling, it met with resistance in the ranks, but was overcome because political parties in parliamentary democracies are less democratic and more hierarchical. I contrasted the diverse slate of candidates in the UK, which we popularly see as “progressive,” with the results we have in a less hierarchical, more bottom-up party system we have in the United States. I suggested that there might be something to the “democratic” that is more “reactionary” than “progressive”.

But I was not exactly right about the United States. Last year, Pew noted that Congress itself was as diverse as it has ever been. Its report observed that while the representative body was more white than the country as a whole, the House broadly reflected the racial and ethnic make-up of the United States. If you think about it, this is to be expected (if we assume that race is an important element of authentic representation). Due to the fact that House constituencies are much smaller, and thanks to gerrymandering (which, let’s not forget, is practiced by all sides in a democracy), districts have been drawn so as to allow national minorities to be local majorities, and thus elect members of their community to national office.

In the Senate, whites are over-represented nationally because in the districts they represent—states—are still majority white. The only way this could change is either if whites become the minority in some states, or if race ceases to be a factor through which we judge authentic representation. So even here, there is cause for optimism. Given that almost nowhere in the Union do Blacks make up more than a third of the electorate (almost 39 percent in Mississippi, about a third in Louisiana, and much less elsewhere), the emergence of Black Senators in any state is a testament to voters choosing representatives on criteria other than race.

Women, of course, present a special case. By population, they are roughly half of the country, yet make up roughly only a quarter of the Senate. This is not merely the result of a bigoted electorate unwilling to give women a chance, but also the result of women not choosing to run. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women made up only 23.9 percent of Senate candidates in 2020, which suggests that the bottleneck is not necessarily with voters. To be more “fully” represented by women, women as a whole will have to step up in bigger numbers.

What does this all amount to? A friend of mine recently asked me if I thought everything was systemic. I said I think that’s sort of right. Take systemic racism. I tend to think that while systemic racism exists, “progress” on questions of race is no less systemic. This is not how we like to talk about things in the United States. We imagine entrenched injustice that is righted by the struggles of enlightened individuals who bring the system along, kicking and screaming. I believe in a less heroic vision of history, and admittedly one that downplays the achievements, and struggles, of individuals. But I don’t think it’s wrong. Indeed, I think it’s an important corrective on our popular understanding of the world.

In reviewing a history of nationalism a few years back, I came across a remark by the great Czech historian František Palacký, who quipped that if the roof had collapsed in the room housing him and his co-conspirators in the 19th century, it would have been the end of the Czech nation. The reality, of course, is that while the Czech nationalist movement may have been small at its inception, activists in Kyiv, in Zagreb, and in Budapest were working along the same lines as Palacký—a testament to bigger social forces at play. In the American context, we all too often imagine that without someone like Martin Luther King, we would have segregation today. I’m not so sure. Like with Loving and Obergefell, I suspect we would be more or less in the same place we are today, albeit arriving here by a different route. The individual is important and can be decisive at any one time, but is also a manifestation of larger trends.

Which brings us to the question of democracy, and its relationship to “progress”. On race, despite the lack of a mechanism to impose a top-down diversity solution like in the UK, the United States Congress is becoming more and more representative of its population over time. The democratic nature of the United States, and all the implicit promises it holds, demands that it does so. Just as with Loving and Obergefell, there is certainly a lag at play, and the “democratic will” is less “progressive” than most activists would like. But change is happening.

And just like with Loving and Obergefell, it’s worth thinking about the mechanisms. For all the (grudging) plaudits that the Tory race has gotten from progressives for its diversity, it’s notable that the candidates are not at all representative of modern Britain, which remains 87 percent white. Is that a bad thing? Insofar as pushing forward minority candidates both gives existing minorities a feeling like they have a meaningful stake in running the country and forces the racial majority to discount the relevance of race in making their decision, it is an unalloyed win for legitimizing the system. But insofar as it exacerbates festering grievance, feeling like an imposition of virtue and an engineered limiting of choice, it could end up generating an ugly blowback.

This brings me back to my initial disquiet, brought on by all of the hand-wringing about Trump and democratic decay. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to equate “democracy” with “progress”. It’s important to remember that change is neither easy, nor is it always perceived by the electorate as an unalloyed good. We tend to look back and see change as inevitable, and as a result we fantasize about how we could have hastened it. But in doing so, we tend to minimize the dangers inherent in democracy itself. Push people too hard and too fast, and they will revolt. In a democracy, they are free to do so. And, alas, we have to respect that, perhaps holding out hope that “systemic progress” will win the day in the end.