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Monday, March 22, 2010

Are We Ready for Change?

Dr. Mary Manjikian
Robertson School of Government

The late American historian and sociologist Charles Tilly left behind a monumental body of work in which he grappled with the question of how best to explain and understand large-scale political and social changes: revolutions, wars and the rise and fall of states and empires. At base, he wanted to know whether such events were best thought of as the result of human decision (or human error); large-scale coordinated social movements (like the American civil rights movement) or a sort of natural evolution over time (as, for example, Europe’s smaller states that “evolved” into the European Union). He wanted to know why we as analysts sometimes choose one explanation over another, and what factors each type of explanation simultaneously highlights as most important and dismisses as least important.

This week, I found myself pondering what Charles Tilly might have made of America’s current attempts at large scale social change – in the implementation of a massive, expensive and perhaps transformative National Health Care Plan. In a sense, one could choose any of the three types of explanation to explain what is perhaps about to happen in the United States.

One bottom-up type of explanation says that systems are like bicycles – a combination of mechanistic forces which occur independent of human input, and specific human inputs of energy, time and enthusiasm. The result is a hybrid sort of change which explains the rise of the Tea Party (or the Communist Party). Groups got angry at the existing system and organized to restructure it through human action. One can create this sort of explanation to explain how “calls for health care reform” came about – large groups of disgruntled and disaffected consumers called forth this change.

The systemic type of explanation posits that the system is like a steam engine, an independently operating system which occasionally gets out of whack – it takes in inputs too quickly, changes them into something else or spits them out too quickly. In such a situation, the “engine” may need to adjust itself by going to war (in the case of the Concert of Europe) or collapsing (in the case of the Roman Empire). Systemic explanations tend to be relatively simple, easy to follow and neat. They don’t contain long chains of logic, and in retrospect the events being explained tend to take on a sense of inevitability. They appear to be a logical outgrowth of current events and probably unpreventable. (Think here of President George W. Bush’s explanation of the War in Iraq as “a clash between good and evil.” There’s no preventing cosmic conflict on a grand scale.)

People who favor systemic explanations want you to think that things could not have turned out other than they did. Thus, a systemic explanation for the adoption of national health care in America might sound something like this: As globalization continued and borders became less important, America found itself in a precarious position. The system was insecure due to unemployment, outsourcing of jobs, the rise of terrorism both internationally and domestically, as well as increased illegal immigration. In this situation, the provision of national health care was a logical outgrowth of the state’s drive to keep people secure. See? It’s inevitable, unstoppable and natural.

There’s just one problem. When George W. Bush favored systemic level explanations, he was described as displaying unbridled arrogance and hubris. How dare he imply that history had a logic, inevitability? His critics favored input-driven explanations. In this model, the event is seen not with reference to a self-contained combustion engine, but rather with reference to a vending machine. People (or groups) put in inputs, pull levers and the event or policy is the resulting product. A landslide presidential victory, for example, might be explained with reference to the vending machine analogy. People chose to ‘spend’ their votes to elect the winning candidate.

Those opposed to the health care plan are urging voters to view the upcoming debate in terms of a vending machine. Voters are urged to view the plan to move America towards nationalized health care not as the result of some avalanche of inevitable social forces – but rather as the result of conscious choice, which voters can and should make, which congressmen can and should make and which the president can and should make. In input-type explanations, rather than systemic explanations, it’s much easier to assign blame in the aftermath, to look at the levers which were pulled and to ask if the outcome might have been different. Critics were quick to blame George W. Bush for creating our current Long War, pointing to errors which he made and suggesting that he wandered into a thicket without carrying out due diligence, considering the costs and benefits as well as the likelihood of success. The question is – will they be as quick to call Obama on the carpet in the same way – or will we merely be told that “America wasn’t ready for this change” if the health care bill fails?

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