The Drano Theory of History - Extending the "Big Change Moment"

by Robert Creamer Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on 25.03.2010
The Drano Theory of History - Extending the "Big Change Moment"
Last year, my friend Mike Lux published a book called The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be.

It's a study of the history of progressive change in America. One of its conclusions is that change is not spread randomly throughout our history. It is concentrated in bunches - in "big change moments." So far in our country's history there have been five:
· The period surrounding the enactment of the Constitution;
· The period surrounding, and immediately after, the Civil War;
· The "Progressive Period" in the early 1900's;
· The "New Deal" in the 1930's;
· The Civil Rights period in the 1960's.

In fact, 19 of the 21 biggest progressive changes in American history were concentrated in only four decades of the over 22 decades since the enactment of the Constitution.
Last Sunday's passage of health care reform confirms that we are once again in the midst of a "big change moment." Until last weekend, someone could credibly argue that the Obama election - that the Obama movement - had only aspired create "big change." Now its promise has begun to be fulfilled.

And now there is almost certainly more to come.

When you look back at the story of progress of democracy in America, you are struck by what I call the "Drano theory of history." When one "big thing" happens, several others almost always follow. It's as if the first "big thing" cleans out the pipes - and then others begin to flow.

One of the reasons why last Sunday's vote was so significant is that it is likely to set up just that kind of cascading series of fundamental changes.

First up will likely be a Senate vote to rein in the power of the big Wall Street Banks. The House has already passed a reasonably robust set of measures aimed at preventing the recklessness of the big Wall Street Banks from once again causing the collapse of our economy - and costing seven million more Americans their jobs.

The Senate Banking Committee passed out its own package of regulatory changes on Monday. It will likely go to the floor after the April recess.

Immigration reform - which has been pronounced dead almost as many times as the now-passed health reform bill - has once again shown strong signs of life. The giant 200,000 person march for immigration reform coincided with, and helped stimulate, a serious movement to draft and bring
to the Senate floor a bi-partisan immigration bill this spring.

There appear to be seven or eight Republicans in the Senate who understand that the future of their Party is contingent on their ability to attract Latino voters - the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. Immigration reform is a realignment issue for many of those voters. That could be enough to pass a bill - especially one that is supported by both business and labor, as seems likely.

Legislation restructuring our energy economy - protecting us from climate change, creating clean energy jobs and freeing us from the tyranny of foreign oil - is still very much alive in the Senate. It has already passed the House.

Representative George Miller's proposal to fund over one million jobs is beginning to pick up steam, and the reauthorization of "No Child Left Behind" could reshape American education.
The opponents of change were rocked by the victory of health care reform. Their entire political strategy was premised on stopping fundamental change cold - keeping the legislative pipes clogged and then arguing that Washington - and Obama - were all talk.
There are many reasons why "big changes" come in bunches. In general, fundamental change requires the convergence of two factors.

First, the status quo must become so untenable that there is substantial latent pressure for change from some large segment of the population.
But that first condition is not by itself sufficient. Change requires a second critical ingredient. It requires leadership that is capable of organizing those with a self-interest in change, and assembling enough political power to overcome the forces with a vested interest in the status quo and the natural fear of something new. Turning latent pressure for change into active agents of change requires organizations and leaders.

You don't need to convince the poorest people in the world that they need change. But the poorest people are often the easiest to subjugate because they do not have the power to resist, to successfully make change.

Those with a vested interest in the status quo never give up power until they are forced to do so. Victory requires the aggregation of enough power to force change - not beg for it. Fundamental change requires struggle. It requires that those with an interest in the status quo be defeated, not convinced.

One of the major reasons why "big change moments" beget other "big change moments" is that victory builds the power of the forces for change
. It builds that power in particular by energizing and mobilizing its advocates. Defeat demoralizes and demobilizes. Victories lead to additional victories - and to additional followers. People follow winners, not losers. Political momentum continues forward motion in politics, just as surely as momentum in physics keeps objects in motion in the physical world.

The other reason why successful "big change moments" are often followed by others is that once people have experienced "big change," the fear of change itself begins to weaken.
Fear is the major tool of those who wish to preserve the status quo. When health insurance reform does not bring with it the promised "Armageddon," American voters will be less vulnerable to the fear-mongering that was used so effectively by the insurance industry and Republicans against health care reform. Their credibility will shrink like the boy who cried wolf.
The latent pressure for change in the health care system has been present for decades. President Obama led a movement that, for the first time, was capable of organizing enough political power to overcome the enormous clout of the insurance industry, the political right and substantial elements of the business community.

Different constellations of power present themselves in the other major issues facing America. The big Wall Street bankers wield enormous influence. On the other hand, they certainly convinced a lot of Americans that fundamental change was needed when they sank the U.S. economy. People hate the big banks so much that the banks are trying the Orwellian tactic of naming the bill to hold them accountable the "Bill to Bailout the Big Banks." I'm betting this 180 degree perversion of truth is too much even for the ever-gullible main stream media.
But to win the battle with Wall Street, Progressives have to sharpen the distinctions between Wall Street's interests and those of everyday Americans - and we have to squeeze the Republicans on this issue until they sue for peace and agree to pass tough changes in the law because they will be in deep political trouble if they block change.
With immigration reform the alignment of forces is very different. There, business and labor have almost come to terms on the need for reform. One wing of the Republican Party understands their long-term interest in close relations with the growing Latino community. The other wing will seek to play on fear, and blame the lack of jobs on "immigrant competition."

To win, immigration reform advocates need to mobililze the immigrant community and demonstrate its power, at the same time they reassure swing Democrats and Moderate Republicans that a vote for immigration reform is politically "safe." We know that when immigration reform is discussed properly, reform receives over 80% support. But when it is not, it can be politically radioactive.

The other side will try to make the battle about "amnesty." Progressives will frame the battle as a move to fix the broken immigration system - to reintroduce law and order to a system that has collapsed - to combine smart, effective enforcement and well-regulated flows of future immigrants, with requirements that undocumented immigrants become legal, pay taxes, and get in the back of the line to become citizens. Progressives will argue that we cannot build an economic recovery on a broken immigration system that allows 12 million people to live in the shadows subject to exploitation by unscrupulous employers that undercut the wages of other workers. Immigration rights advocates will also argue that their approach is the only practical solution to fix the broken system, since it is neither politically nor morally possible to deport 12 million people. In fact, the only alternative to immigration reform is to continue the broken status quo that no one supports.
To be successful this year, the immigration battle requires that a bi-partisan bill be assembled during the month of April and move in the Senate by the end of May.

In the battle over clean energy, our opponents are led by the huge oil companies. The coalition for change is well-funded and managed by some of the best political talent in America. Once again the need for change is manifested every day. Enormous amounts of money are at stake. So is our national security.

It is possible that before the year is out, Congressman Miller's proposal to directly fund a million new jobs through state and local government will pick up momentum. It is likely that the "No Child Left Behind" reauthorization will pass as well.

Finally, depending on the outcome of the fall elections, and the early 2011 battle over the filibuster and rules in the new Senate, we may once again have the opportunity to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). In many ways passing EFCA would have more long-term consequences on our ability to extend this "big change moment" than any other factor.
The labor movement is the foundation of progressive economic change. The stronger the labor movement, the stronger the forces that can do combat with the status quo. Had it not been for organized labor, there is no way on earth that President Obama would have succeeded in passing health care reform. Labor provided troops, money, potential electoral muscle and seasoned political strategists to the cause. They will do more to keep the pipes of change unclogged than any other institution.

Of course our ability to maintain the "big change" momentum will be impacted enormously by the outcome of the fall elections. But it is also true that legislative success this year will massively impact our ability to mobilize our base to volunteer in the elections, to give funds, to go out and vote.

Passage of health insurance reform has already transformed the progressive rank and file. Victory caused them to stand up straight. It was as though a giant national shot of "Red Bull" energy drink had coursed through our collective veins. We've also seen a sudden increase in the popularity of the "health care reform" brand. People love to support winners. And in the case of health care reform victory will enable us to highlight the concrete, short-term benefits of the bill -not the ogre manufactured by the far right - from now to Election Day.

President Obama, his brain trust and organizers suddenly got a whole lot smarter around 11PM Sunday night when the health care bill passed. This means that the next time he calls people to join him in the political arena, they are much more likely to hustle to the playing field ready for battle.

Robert Creamer's recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

Rate this article

Click the stars to rate

Recent articles