After the euphoria of Obama's victory (shown above in Grant Park, Chicago, November 2008), disillusionment has set in for many who voted for him. But Sharon Welch argues it is far too soon to make such negative judgments.  --  Photo CREATIVE COMMONS/ORANGE PLASTIC
After the euphoria of Obama's victory (shown above in Grant Park, Chicago, November 2008), disillusionment has set in for many who voted for him. But Sharon Welch argues it is far too soon to make such negative judgments. -- Photo CREATIVE COMMONS/ORANGE PLASTIC

Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010

The Machiavellian Dilemma

Paradoxes and Perils of Democratic Governance

by Sharon D. Welch

On an unseasonably warm fall evening in November 2008, I joined thousands of people in Grant Park, cheering the win in each state, and relishing the grand collective jubilation of shouts, dancing, cries, laughter, and hugs when the polls closed at 11:00 p.m. and we knew that we had done it. A year and a half after that momentous election, however, there is a complicated mix of satisfaction, frustration, and confusion. How have the joyous cries of "Yes, we can!" become the painful realities of lowered expectations and blocked and only partial changes in political processes and policies?

Before the vote on health care reform, some analysts went so far as to pronounce the failure of the Obama presidency, and more than a few progressives agreed, many even expressing profound disillusionment with electoral politics and the existing democratic process as a venue for significant social change.

Both the analysts and the activists were undoubtedly too hasty in their verdict. What was it, though, that made the struggle for even modest changes in health care policy so difficult and so deeply contentious? What has occurred since President Obama was elected is indeed unsettling and sobering, but it is also predictable and unsurprising to those who know the complexities of institutional change.

It is a painful fact that caring passionately about justice—understanding thoroughly the contours and dynamics of oppression—does not mean that we are equally skilled in the task of coordinating and managing human and natural resources justly, creatively, and in a way that lasts for the future. As an activist, I have seen the impact of speaking truth to power: the inspiration and sense of identity evoked by clarion denunciations of injustice and faithful witness to ideals of justice and peace. As we take up the task of using power truthfully, however, we recognize that the work is not done when the protests are heard. Rather it is here, it is now, that another type of work begins.

The move from knowing what should be done to actually getting it done is as great a shift ethically and philosophically as is the move from is to ought.

For here, as we move from ought to how, we encounter a paradox.

Not only does work for constructive social change take significant amounts of time, but there are also intrinsic differences between prophetic critique/vision and democratic leadership. We may critique alone and we may even envision alone, but to implement that vision, to build on that critique, requires the cooperation of other people—other people to actually carry out the work on a daily basis, other people to judge, refine, and critique new systems and processes. And, as you may have noticed, other people tend to have different ideas—not only different ideas of how to meet shared goals, but possibly better ideas about the most fitting, concrete ways to administer health care or to support ecologically sustainable forms of energy production.

Furthermore, as we implement new forms of social organization, there is one type of response that can be reasonably expected and anticipated, the ubiquitous Western resistance to social change. Professors at Booth, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, teach courses in which leaders in corporations, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions grapple with the complexities of institutional change. We often expect that a successful innovation will follow a steady trajectory, gradually and inexorably moving from obscurity and slight acceptance to being taken for granted as the way things are done. The researchers at Booth, however, found just the opposite in their study of successful business practices. While lasting innovations had an initial rush of success, this was followed by a dramatic decrease in support and a long period of intense resistance and uneven movement toward acceptance and implementation.

Their conclusion: resistance cannot be prevented, but it can be overcome, and it can possibly even serve as a catalyst for greater insight and creativity.

There are indications that this may well be a long-standing pattern in Western culture. The words of Machiavelli, in The Prince, are instructive:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly ...

Machiavelli certainly helps us understand why the supporters of health care reform have been relatively silent in contrast to those who fiercely resist any reform. And yet, it could be that the relative lack of passionate support for change is grounded as much in reason as in incredulity. In addition to known limits, any course of action may have devastating unintended consequences. It is in light of this reality that ecologists such as Anna Peterson (in Being Human) and Wes Jackson call us to a fallibility-based worldview: an acknowledgement that all that we know—whether through the resources of reason, imagination, intuition, or compassion—is partial, always vastly exceeded by that which we do not know. For example, we can only ever have partial knowledge of the long-term impact of our agricultural and industrial practices, the ripple effects of changes in social and economic policies, and the unpredictable consequences of our attempts to nurture and sustain the generations that depend upon us.

Let us return to the question with which we began. Has the Obama administration failed? Are there any other strategies that could have insured greater success? If Machiavelli and the researchers at Booth are right, it is unlikely that any other strategy would have gone more smoothly, or that any tactic would have assured success. In fact, what many see as a particular failure of one administration is giving us essential lessons in the very nature of Western political practice. As we acknowledge the complexity of institutional change, we encounter a paradox: a fundamental lack of parity between the moral certainty of our denunciation of existing forms of injustice and our ethically reasonable uncertainty about the justice and feasibility of our cherished alternatives.

In short, these are the challenges of leadership, for which we need resilience and practical curiosity:

  • While we can reasonably expect significant challenges to any innovation, we can predict neither the reasons for the resistance nor the identity of the bearers of resistance.
  • We cannot know in advance which visions will spark the imaginations of others, nor which plans will prove to be plausible and energizing.
  • We can neither predict nor control the actual impact of our efforts.

Here, then, is our challenge as activists: it is easy to mobilize political will against a common enemy and for certain goals. As Nelson Mandela stated: "It is a relatively simple proposition to keep a movement together when you are fighting against a common enemy. But creating a policy when that enemy is across the negotiating table is another matter altogether." We have yet to learn how to mobilize political energy when we acknowledge that even we, the "righteous vanguard," are flawed, and while our goals of common flourishing are unambiguously clear, the means of attaining those same goals are intrinsically ambiguous and fluid.

In spite of these obstacles, there is change in corporate life. And in spite of these obstacles, there can be change in political life. These changes happen, however, only when we succeed in learning what the educator Lisa Delpit, in Other People's Children, calls the "codes of power," which enable us to move from solitary or minority critique and vision to vital collective action. In this process of mastering change, some analysts urge us to forego truth in the interest of success. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, for example, states in The Change Masters that there is often a clear disjunction between the institutional memory of change and the process of change itself. While the memory of successful changes in the past focuses on clarity, certainty, and consensus, the process of change as it occurs is characterized by conflict, risk, errors, and confusion. Kanter writes:

  • Where there is apparent consensus, there was often controversy, dissent, and bargaining.
  • Where the ultimate choice seems the only logical one ... there were often a number of equally plausible alternatives that might have fitted too.
  • Where clear-sighted strategies are formulated, there was often a period of uncertainty and confusion, of experiment ... and there may have been some unplanned events or ‘accidents' that helped the strategy to emerge.

According to Kanter, those who master change must know and understand the conflictual, ambiguous process of change, and they must create and utilize dualistic myths that deny that very ambiguity. She argues that "change masters" create myths in which "conflicts disappear into consensus," in which "accidents, uncertainties, and muddle-headed confusion disappear into clear-sighted strategies," and in which "the champions of an idea have to look unwaveringly convinced of the rightness of their choice to get people to accept the change." Kanter assumes an inevitable hierarchy that puts those who engineer change above those affected by it. As Kanter states, "those who master change know that they can never tell the ‘truth,' but they also know what the ‘truth' is."

Many of us are committed to another path, one that combines honesty and persistence, and in this journey we have much to learn from the longstanding political leadership of former Congressman Ronald Dellums. Dellums warned against compromising too soon and taught what was required to make transformative compromise possible.

In Lying Down with the Lions, Dellums recounts the history of his work in politics and the commitments and strategies that have shaped his work, a career grounded in two factors: an ongoing openness to listening to the stories of injustice and hope of those who were marginalized and exploited, and an astute understanding of the nature of the democratic process.

Although affirming the "moral certitude" and "righteous rage" of those who are oppressed, Dellums' own political engagement led him away from denunciations of other people and social structures. Dellums recounts that he had to make a choice early on: was he going to be a "rhetorical activist" or "an effective legislator committed to securing social change through the process of governance?"

Dellums learned the importance of these principles early in his political career. In a speech in Milwaukee in 1971, he referred to colleagues in the House of Representatives as "mediocre prima donnas ... with no real understanding of the pain and human misery being visited upon our people." Back on the floor of the house, Rep. Wayne Hayes verified that the statement was accurate, and then asked Dellums, "I just wonder if you then want a bunch of mediocre prima donnas to pay more serious attention to your amendment?"

As Dellums states, "The lessons here were clear":

I had not come to Congress to attack and alienate my colleagues; I had come to challenge their ideas. I needed to step back from the personal ... I had to return to the educative role that Dr. King had laid out in his challenge to leadership. I needed to become better informed, to understand my opponents and be able to best them in open debate. I had to bring them along with me, not demand that they reject themselves ... I could not be content with a role as the radical outsider if I wanted people to pay heed to our radical ideas. I needed to develop arguments that my fellow legislators could take home to their constituents and imagine articulating at their constituents' day meetings.

This is a lesson that many progressives have yet to learn. As we have moved from the stance of critical outsiders to empowered insiders, we may have thought that the mandate of the Obama presidency was greater than it actually is. The oft-repeated statement that the Democrats have a majority in both Houses is both factually true and practically irrelevant. Given the great divides within the Democratic Party on every issue of importance, from health care reform to military policy to reproductive choice and marriage equality, it has been as difficult to garner consensus among Democrats as it was in the past to gain accord between Democrats and Republicans.

This is as much a challenge for progressive activists as it is for members of the Obama administration: how can we find arguments that are persuasive to independents, to conservatives, to those fearful whites who are drawn to the polarizing and violent rhetoric of the Tea Party movement? We know how to create forms of public witness that denounce what is wrong—demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins. What is harder, however, is finding the means of providing energizing and compelling public support for what may be right. How do we show support for the messy and ambiguous process of change? How do we symbolically and collectively express a fallibility-based worldview and delight in imperfect, impermanent creativity?

While certainty may at times be a creative delusion, uncertainty is the inescapable matrix of all our problem-solving efforts. In fact, the illusion that there could be strategies that guarantee ultimate victory is itself the product of injustice. My work as an activist, administrator, and ethicist has been profoundly shaped by the womanist critique of dominant ethics. The problem is that what counts as "responsible action" for the Euro-American middle and upper-middle class is predicated on an intrinsically immoral balance of power. We assume that to be responsible means that one can insure that the aims of one's actions will be carried out. We are challenged by African American women and men—such as Katie G. Cannon, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Toni Cade Bambara, Dwight Hopkins, Paule Marshall, Stephanie Y. Mitchem, Toni Morrison, Anthony B. Pinn, Mildred Taylor, and Emilie Townes—to find the resources to see clearly both the imperative of action and the limits of our political insight and strategic power.

Has, then, the Obama presidency failed? Has it succeeded? It is too early to tell, for its work, our work, has just begun. Our role is not only to support policies that we cherish, but also to find ways to bring others along. As we do this work, conflict and resistance may be experienced not as obstacles to be bemoaned, but as realities to be accepted, even played as the ingredients of greater creativity.

To seek the fitting response, not the definitive response, places us in the good company of those who, to use the words of Patrick Chamoiseau, "know through which vices to rifle in order to stumble upon virtue." In our work as leaders, stumble we will, yet create we may, evoking the beauty and justice to be found in a group, a situation, a moment in time. This is our great challenge, our rich legacy, and our sustaining and empowering hope.

Dr. Sharon D. Welch is provost of Meadville Lombard Theological School (Unitarian Universalist), member of Global Action to Prevent War, and author of Real Peace, Real Security: the Challenges of Global Citizenship (Fortress Press, 2008). 

Welch, Sharon D. 2010. The Machiavellian Dilemma: Paradoxes and Perils of Democratic Governance. Tikkun 25(3): 19

tags: Activism, US Politics  
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