What was once radical becomes incremental

Caleb Walsh illustration

When each new generation comes of age, there is a common recognition (at least among a certain activist class): Our world is woefully unjust. We are failing too many people, polluting too much, and bold action is required.

Simultaneously, another group of activists are preparing to wrap up their generation's struggle. They often recognize the work that lies ahead, but they also want to celebrate the progress that's been made. Not all of their dreams have been realized and yet real changes have happened to improve lives — including those of the new generation whose attention is focused on what has fallen short, rather than what has been achieved.

To the degree that both of these generations share the field for a time, their most active and successful leaders often (although not always) clash about the next steps towards continued progress. Often the earlier generation urges incremental progress. Experience, they say, shows that dramatic proposals are rarely realized and when they are, they don't always work out as intended.

On the other hand, new generations urge transformative change. We have tried incremental steps, they point out, and yet for too many, too little has changed. Perhaps things are better, but if we keep moving at this pace, it will simply take too long — too many more generations — to realize a just world.

Obviously, these generational stereotypes are generalizations. It's true that older political actors include both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. There will always be a range of ideological perspectives and beliefs about the correct pace of change in every generation. But I think looking at the respective demographics of Biden's and Sanders' constituencies provides general evidence of how this divide functions.

And yet, most generational leaders who seek to drive change start from the same relatively radical place in relation to those who came before. So why does the alleged radicalism of the 1960s fizzle into bland moderation? Why do young activists critique the feminism, civil rights efforts and progressivism of those who came before?

Is it simply that slowly turning the gears of progress wears people out till they lose sight of the ideals with which they started? Maybe that's sometimes true, but generally I think something else is at work and recognizing it can help us more effectively push for a better world.

When ideas eventually become realized in policy (particularly in cases where they are effectively implemented), they are almost always arguably incremental — no matter how much those who oppose them may object.

However, these ideas rarely start as incremental proposals, but rather the propositions of bold dreamers.

Take marriage equality, for example. A broadly supported policy, which not that long ago was radical, increasingly is taken almost for granted by an emerging generation of activists. The progress is still new enough that many can see the change, but the equally radical shift forward of legalizing interracial marriage (which only happened nationally in 1967) has been completely internalized as so obviously right that few would dare object to it in polite company.

This is a normal progression of many radical visions. A public option in health care was a left-wing position only a few years ago; now it is a mainstream Democratic approach to the next incremental step.

The process of progress is taking the bold and normalizing it — making what was once a huge leap, merely one small step. The impact on lives is real, but also incomplete. There is always more to do. Improving the human condition will always be forever work, as we continually recognize the next bold challenge ahead of us and then figure out how to make it manageable.

The truth is no generation alone can perfect the world. We will always rely on those who come before us — and equally on those who come after. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBTQ rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.

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About The Author

John T. Reuter

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.