“Sacred extremes” in policy development

One of my favorite blogs, which I’ve mentioned here often before, is Community Organizer 2.0, written by the enthusiastic and wise Debra Askanse. She had a post quite awhile ago that has stuck in my head; I jotted down a line of it and have been carrying it around on my “to think about” list all summer (What? Doesn’t everyone have one of those?). The blog post is about key principles for moving ideas forward, and the piece that resonated most with me is the idea of “sacred extremes”–those essential pieces that make a particular project stand apart, or that are absolutely crucial to its success, around which you must not–cannot–compromise.

And I’ve been thinking about that idea of sacred extremes, perhaps not surprisingly, in the context of policymaking, and policy advocacy.

Because, while much of the conventional wisdom around policymaking emphasizes the importance of compromise–and it is inevitable–our statute books are replete with examples of where too much compromised destroyed an idea, diluted a solution, or stunted potential. In the advocacy process, abandoning your sacred extremes can mean death to a coalition, or sour you on the whole policymaking arena, both prices that we really can’t afford to pay.

So what do I mean, exactly, by “sacred extremes” in policy? How do we know them when we see them? And how do we protect them?

The memory that echoes in my mind is when a powerful state legislator offered me the “compromise”, in 2004, of an instate tuition bill that would allow immigrant students without lawful status, but whose paperwork was already filed, the opportunity to attend Kansas post-secondary institutions. She knew that we could get that bill through the process pretty easily, in comparison to the complete standstill where we were stuck with the broader instate provision at the time, and it would have still helped a lot of kids.

But it would have left out all of the hard-working immigrant kids without a line to stand in–for whom there simply is no category of relief–and it would have put our colleges and universities in the business of verifying immigration status for these kids, a dubious expansion of their powers. Undocumented immigrant students, and their right to dream big dreams regardless of the status of their families’ paperwork, were the core of that legislative struggle.

They were a sacred extreme.

And so we walked away from that offer.

Because, ultimately, the only sure way to protect what is most precious in the policy process is to be willing to abandon everything else in order to get it. Even then, there’s a very good chance that losing everything is, indeed, what will happen.

But when we remember that incrementalism is often code for “give them a little something so that we don’t have to deal with them anymore,” and that policy windows of opportunity are often slammed shut by a tiny victory, it’s a pretty clear choice.

Without those sacred extremes, we can end up with something that isn’t, in fact, better than nothing.

2 responses to ““Sacred extremes” in policy development

  1. I, too, think this concept of “sacred extremes” is so interesting. While I completely support keeping sacred extremes – no great idea would move forward without it – sometimes in politics sacred extremes can be polarizing. I feel that politics is the one exception here where compromise always has to happen, but the frustrating thing is that it isn’t often a two-way street. While I couldn’t agree more that “incrementalism is often code for ‘give them a little something so that we don’t have to deal with them anymore,’ it’s a hard balance in politics between standing ground and knowing how to ultimately give in to an agreement where you don”t compromise your internal moral compass.

    Thanks for keeping this discussion going, Melinda, and taking it in a really interesting direction!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Debra. I don’t disagree, certainly, that compromise is inevitable, but I think that we need to get a lot better about drawing our lines in the sand–understanding what is truly sacred to us, and never sacrificing that in the name of achieving “progress” or reaching a conclusion. Of course, it’s also quite common to make the opposite mistake, and treat every aspect of what we want as though it were sacred, which inhibits the mutual exchange that is not only necessary for political compromise but also, if we’re honest with ourselves, probably conducive to the best policy production, too. I don’t know how to alter the context so that that kind of agreement is more likely, but what I was hoping to communicate is that we have to begin with knowing ourselves and having the courage to walk away from pseudo-agreements that will never provide much comfort.

      It’s always great to hear from you–I’ve been remiss, this fall, in keeping up with all of the spaces in which I want to be present, because of a grueling teaching and consulting schedule (and the new baby, who’s a joy!), but hopefully you’ll see more of me soon! Thank you again.

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