Incremental progress—is—revolutionary

By making small differences where we can, we gradually move society toward the more equitable, just, and fair place we all want for ourselves and future generations.

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SOURCEOccupy.com

As fun as it is to say, none of us will, in fact, eat the rich. 

None of us will march the billionaire class to the guillotine, or line oligarchs up against a wall, or subject the rulers of society to any other sort of cliche revolutionary trope one might find on a bumper sticker in the Pacific Northwest. While these are jokes we make amongst fellow travelers in polite company, cutting off a wealthy person’s head isn’t a serious political goal, nor should mass murder of politicians and CEOs be seen as a lofty or realistic objective for a movement to attain. 

Rather, the most revolutionary acts we can do are the least glamorous. By making small differences where we can, we gradually move society toward the more equitable, just, and fair place we all want for ourselves and future generations. Admittedly, the ordinary grunt work of grassroots organizing like phonebanking, canvassing, testifying before legislative committees, attending your congress member’s town halls, speaking to your city council, writing op-eds and letters to the editor to your local newspapers, and registering new voters is typically thankless and invisible. But these are the very same actions that make tremendous differences years and decades down the road.

In fact, when looking back at the last several decades of steady advancement toward a better future, we’ve made tremendous progress that’s significantly improved the material conditions of countless millions of people. If the goal of a “revolution” is to create a society where our children and grandchildren can live happy, safe, prosperous lives, then the diligent efforts of the nameless activists and organizers who got up every morning for years determined to create a better future they may not even live to see, are revolutionary acts all on their own.

How far we’ve come in just one lifetime

Those on the left who clamor for “revolution” may call this mindset some combination of “liberal/reformist/bourgeois,” but the easiest way to gauge efficacy of the reformists vs. the revolutionaries is to just look at the score over the past 70 years. In just the average person’s lifetime, the progress American society has made has been — for lack of a better word — revolutionary.

  • 10 years ago, LGBTQ+ couples were not able to have their marriages legally recognized in all 50 states. However, diligent work by LGBTQ+ activists in the judiciary over many years eventually led to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015.  
  • 20 years ago, health insurance companies could simply refuse to cover someone if they ever previously got sick. But thanks to the relentless efforts of healthcare advocates who testified before committees, called their members of Congress and their senators, and demonstrated public support in the streets, the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010. The law’s expansion of Medicaid programs in states saved roughly 20,000 lives over just a three-year period.
  • 30 years ago, an HIV diagnosis was effectively a death sentence. But in the mid-1990s, the advent of antiretroviral therapy made it possible for HIV patients to have a new lease on life. Thanks to the hard work of the scientific community, approximately 16.5 million lives have been saved all around the world in the 20-year period between 2001 and 2021, according to data from the United Nations.
  • 40 years ago, sulfur dioxide emissions from coal mining lowered the pH balance of rainwater, resulting in acid rain that starved plants of nutrients and threatened entire ecosystems. But after years of sustained pressure on elected officials, Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990. By 2003, acid rain declined by roughly 40%. After testing soil in various locations, scientists in 2012 found that “the deterioration of northeastern U.S. soils from acidic deposition has finally bottomed out.”
  • 50 years ago, the proliferation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was causing tremendous damage to the ozone layer, which is the protective barrier around the earth protecting the surface from the sun’s most harmful rays. Scientists discovered a large hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, and dedicated activists around the world ramped up pressure on governments to phase out the use of CFCs. Last year, the World Economic Forum estimated that the hole in the ozone has continued to shrink and could be fully repaired by 2050.
  • 60 years ago, water pollution was so egregious that bodies of water — like the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland — frequently caught fire. A widely publicized fire in 1969 angered people so much that the resulting public pressure campaign led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act. The Cuyahoga River isn’t perfect now, but Smithsonian Magazine reported that it’s gone “from a dump site to a place of recreation.”
  • 70 years ago, miscegenation laws prevented interracial couples from having their marriages respected and recognized in all 50 states. But in 1967 — after years of hard-fought struggles by the Civil Rights Movement to end segregation and guarantee voting rights for Black Americans — the Supreme Court agreed that miscegenation laws intruded on the 14th Amendment rights of interracial couples, and struck them down permanently in the Loving v. Virginia case.

And of course, these are examples from just the last 70 years. When going further back, it’s important to take note of other significant accomplishments by dedicated activists like the creation of child labor laws and the establishment of the federal minimum wage in 1938, the food safety movement that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (prompted in large part by the uproar that resulted from Uption Sinclair’s The Jungle) or the antitrust movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that broke up dangerous monopolies in the oil and railroad industries. 

It’s safe to say that the America of today is much fairer, safer, healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous for more people than it was a lifetime ago. That wasn’t because everything was corrected in one fell swoop in a bloody revolution, but because millions of people got up every morning and fought over the course of many years to make sure the world would be left in a better place at the end of their lives than it was at the beginning.

The devastating effects of the far-right’s incremental progress

On the flipside, it’s educational to see how steady, diligent efforts by the far right over a period of decades has led us to our current predicament.

As Occupy.com has previously explored, the Powell Memo of 1971 is a perfect example of how the far right’s forces patiently followed a playbook to the letter with great success over the course of decades. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell (R-Richard Nixon*) wrote the memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce laying out with precision how big business could usher the conservative movement into power by taking over various institutions.

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” Powell wrote. “Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by Labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.”

Powell focused on three specific arenas where corporate money could have the most impact in swaying culture, and, as a result, public policy, in its favor. In the memo, the conservative jurist urged the Chamber to mobilize its resources to influence higher education, the media, and the courts. He argued that because the labor movement and the left had embedded itself in those institutions, so should the right, with the assistance of the Chamber’s considerable financial resources. 

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Powell Memo is the Roberts Court, which Bloomberg found in 2023 had ruled in favor of big business in nearly two-thirds of all cases since Chief Justice John Roberts (R-Bush 43) was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In fact, the Roberts Court may be about to administer a coup de grace for corporations as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the so-called “Chevron Doctrine.” The Court is preparing to finish its term this month, and its decision on whether to effectively dismantle the administrative state could overshadow its ruling on former President Donald Trump’s claim of absolute immunity from criminal prosecution.

As SCOTUSBlog reported in January, the question of whether the Chevron Doctrine will endure depends on the outcome of two relatively obscure cases involving the commercial fishing industry. One staple of U.S. maritime law is a rule by the National Marine Fisheries Service that requires the herring industry to front the cost of trained observers on fishing vessels. Should the Court rule in the industry’s favor, the decision could have a ripple effect throughout the private sector. 

The Chevron Doctrine stems from the 1984 Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council case, which set the precedent that the courts will defer to experts within federal agencies to interpret how federal laws impact the industries those agencies are tasked with regulating. In summing up January’s oral arguments, SCOTUSBlog noted that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (D-Biden) pointed out that if the Court overturned the Chevron Doctrine, it would mean policy decisions wouldn’t rest with experts working for federal agencies, but with the Court itself. Overturning the Chevron Doctrine would effectively give the federal judiciary additional powers to set policy within any federal agency.

All of this is thanks to the blueprint laid out in the Powell Memo being followed patiently and diligently over the last five decades. Thanks to the incremental progress of the far right’s army of attorneys and lobbyists, there is now a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority in place to overrule the executive and legislative branches — not to mention the hundreds of federal judges with lifetime appointments wreaking havoc elsewhere. 

One of the most notorious examples of the right’s conquest of the courts can be seen in Judge Aileen Cannon (R-Trump) of the Southern District of Florida, who has ground the Department of Justice’s prosecution of the 45th president of the United States for allegedly mishandling classified documents to a halt. Additionally, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk (R-Trump) of the Northern District of Texas is known for his unilateral decision to suspend FDA approval of abortion drug Mifepristone (which SCOTUS recently overruled). Both judges are diehard followers of the conservative cause, and will be on the bench for decades to come.

There is unfortunately no easy way to undo the far-right’s diligent efforts to reshape society to suit their values. As history has shown, the only way to create the society we want is to make small efforts every day to improve things where we can. The combined efforts of millions of people determined to use their gifts, talents, occupations, and professional skills may not seem like much at the individual level. But collectively, we have immense power. Giving in to despair and sitting on our thumbs in hopes of a “revolution” is decidedly counterrevolutionary. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to march ahead toward our destination, one step at a time.

*Occupy.com has chosen to designate federal judges by mentioning both the president who appointed them and the party that president belongs to, in a manner similar to members of Congress. This is meant to contextualize to readers how a judge could rule in certain cases.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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