When the bold becomes the status quo

Now THAT'S an entrenched social policy

In all of my thinking about what a theory of change looks like in advocacy, how we know when we’ve really won, how we measure the impact of our policy agendas, this fundamental truth has never really emerged as starkly as it did during my reading last summer of The Woman Behind the New Deal:

We win when our opponents have totally co-opted our initiatives, and nearly everyone claims them as their own ideas.

Here’s how Frances Perkins put it towards the end of her career, after the Republican Party platform, which included support for protection and expansion of Social Security, among other formerly ‘radical’ items, was approved:

“It seemed to me that our program was now bipartisan. Nobody would ever abandon the regulation of hours and wages, the prohibition of child labor, and all that kind of thing. That was done. I had accomplished what I came to do.” (p. 310)

Talk about being able to retire in peace. Having so shifted the frame on these once-controversial measures, she and her allies truly did institutionalize these core protections and now-vaunted programs as part of the way we do things in this country, even defining characteristics of our economy and our social structure. And nothing enshrines the social changes we’ve won like having our former opponents be the ones championing them.

And, so, this month, as I begin to look towards a new year (yes, I know, it’s still a ways away, but I’ve got cookies to bake and a whole lot of merry-making for three little Santa-believers!), this is my new benchmark, and the goal towards which I believe we must work:

Our advocacy work is successful to the extent to which we so completely change the way that people think about the social problems on which we’re working, that they can’t imagine not responding the way we have articulated that we should.

In other words, we win when they think it was their idea, or at least want to pretend it was.

In part, this was some of the Obama Administration’s game plan on health care reform–include pieces that will become so popular with the American public that future generations of policymakers will clamor to place themselves on the prevailing side. It certainly remains to be seen whether that can be done, but it happened with Social Security, and it happened with those labor laws, and it happened with women’s suffrage, and interracial marriage…there are, throughout the history of social movements and the legislative changes they’ve spawned, lots of examples of how something that once seemed outlandish later becomes commonplace.

And it’s towards that vision that we must strive–seeking not just changes in laws, but, ultimately, changes in ideas, because the latter are far more powerful than the former.

And that goal can animate even our most pie-in-the-sky, revolutionary ideas. As an activist in Soul of a Citizen reminds us, “many changes (have) been someone else’s radical struggle for social justice. Whether the minimum wage, child labor laws, public schools, even jails instead of chopping people’s heads off” (p. 115). If that can’t convince us that it’s worth sticking in for the long haul…

Here’s to 2011–the year social justice goes mainstream.

I can’t wait to see those party platforms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s