Editorial: All Change Is Not Progress

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday January 08, 2008

Despite my announced official position on the race for the Democratic nomination for president—that I’m happy to let those who care passionately decide who it will be—I occasionally sneak a peek at the campaign propaganda. Watching the thrust and counter-thrust in the battle of slogans, and how the press reports on it, you can get a pretty good picture of what Americans care about, or at least what the people in power or aspiring to power hope they care about. 

The word of the week, maybe even the word of the month, is “change.” Right after the Iowa caucusers (many more of them Dems than Repugs) had trudged home through the snow, the quick-turnaround soothsayers announced that Obama and Huckabee had come out ahead because they promised change. After I heard all the normally sharp-tongued partisans on Left, Right and Center, my favorite radio program, drooling over Obama’s victory speech regardless of their individual politics (the show tries to provide One of Each to comment on the week’s news) I felt compelled to look it up on YouTube. (I should probably be disqualified from commenting since I seldom watch broadcast television.) There it was, on enormous signs purposefully thrust into the Obama picture. On the podium: “Change we can believe in.” Held by supporters in the background: “Stand for change.”  

Okay, we get it. Tired of Bush? Want a change? Here’s the guy who brings the most change the fastest. But wait for the spin. On Monday Hillary Clinton talked to Renee Montagne on NPR, and assailed Obama for changing his mind on a couple of issues: Change is bad, she implied.  

Still, “it’s time for a change” is the most durable and long-lasting of political slogans. I used it myself to great advantage when I managed a few campaigns in my youth, and it worked every time. It’s second only to a denunciation of potholes for grabbing the attention of even the most reluctant of voters, since the status quo, almost by definition, is never what it could and should be.  

Voters are easily persuaded that a new broom sweeps clean. Berkeley’s current mayor Tom Bates ate out on promises of change when he successfully opposed incumbent Shirley Dean, even though it’s been development business as usual since he won. Ron Dellums owed much of his Oakland mayoral victory to not being Jerry Brown. In Richmond outsider Gayle McLaughlin was elected mayor precisely because she hadn’t been part of the previous administration.  

Now an unlikely coalition of local activists is coming together in Berkeley around the proposition that we need an immediate change from Bates himself, in the form of a recall election, even though he’ll be up for a vote again before long. Some of them were Shirley Dean supporters when Bates defeated her in his first run for the mayor’s job, but others were strongly anti-Dean. And there’s a substantial number of otherwise sensible people here who think that it would be better to impeach President Bush now than to tough it out until November. Change is still selling well in the urban East Bay. 

But is change for change’s sake always a good buy? It’s related to that other slippery word, progress, which carries with it the implication that all change is for the better. Both Democrats and Republicans at various points in their history have latched on to the title of “progressives,” based on the very American hope that every day in every way we’re getting better and better. “Progressive” has been especially beloved of those who hope that they’re above the two-party system, everyone from the Bull Moose Republicans at the turn of the twentieth century to the mid-century supporters of Henry Wallace on the left of the Democrats.  

“Conservative,” progressive’s oppo-site number, hasn’t fared nearly as well. Conservative Democrats have withered on the vine and eventually faded away, while supposedly conservative Republicans have actually tended to espouse radical change in the last half-century. But there’s something to be said for conservation, if what we’re conserving is what’s best about America: for example the Bill of Rights and related traditional civil liberties. The Patriot Act was a big change, for sure, but not for the better. A few traditional conservatives have spoke out against it, but not many. 

On the local level, five of the nine Berkeley city council members have probably claimed the title of “progressive” at some point in their career, while the remainder have eschewed the conservative label in favor of the more moderate “moderate.” But when push comes to shove, only two of the five “progressives” reliably vote against powerful monied interests, the posture which best fits the modern definition of being progressive. Two more of the so-called progressive five (one the mayor, the other his loyal follower) have voted consistently to further empower the powerful, whether it’s developers who want carte blanche to build wherever and whatever they please or merchants who want to make the streets safe for shopping by banishing the poor. The current council’s two legislative claims to fame, passed by a Mod-Prog coalition, have been the revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance to make it easier to tear down buildings which stand in the way of builders and the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, proof that 1984 marked not the end but the beginning of the Orwellian era in local government (even though the PCEI didn’t outlaw sex on the sidewalk). 

Perhaps it’s time to examine the idea that all change is good. With a president like George Bush, it’s easy to imagine that anything would be better than what we’ve got now, and that might even be true. But the next president will have to stand for something besides not being Bush, and the voters deserve to know what that might be.  

Hillary Clinton’s main claim to fame these days is her experience, but experience doing what? Standing by her man, when her man and his Democratic Leadership Council allies made quite a few changes in the federal government which were anathema to true progressives of the post-1948 variety? And then there’s that vote to invade Iraq, but perhaps she’s changed her mind about that one. 

Obama’s principal asset is that he wasn’t around when a lot of the bad stuff came down, but voters need to know what he’ll do when he does face such decisions. Clinton cites his vote for the latest version of the Patriot Act which contained only modest improvements on the original horror, which she voted for herself, of course. Edwards freely admits having changed his mind about Iraq, no ifs, ands or buts, but what about Iran? Or Afghanistan? Or Darfur, or Kosovo? 

Is it progressive to continue to try to be the policeman of the world by dint of military might? Is it possible? Can we maintain our civil liberties if we do? These are questions for which the voters should demand answers between now and August.  

On the local level a year later, voters might want to ask candidates and potential candidates if they’ll continue to back the inexorable march of huge luxury condos down our main avenues. Stances on repealing the new pro-developer landmarks ordinance when it’s up for a vote in November might give a clue.  

In large matters and small, the underlying questions of what it means to be progressive and whether change is always progress have become central. We’ve grown up with the vision of a universe in which possibilities are infinite, but we’re belatedly realizing that it’s now (and perhaps always was) a finite world we live in, and choices must be made. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good.