Americans Embrace Change, But Only Gradually

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After Donald Trump's election in 2016, then-President Barack Obama asked whether his administration's liberal, forward-looking policies had been too much, too soon for American voters, according to a new book by his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Obama said. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.”

He may be on to something. Research suggests that Americans don't embrace change all at once, but instead change their minds at a glacial pace.

The political scientist John Kingdon studied policy proposals for health maintenance organizations such as Medicaid and Medicare, national health insurance and deregulation of transportation systems. He concluded that policy change can take decades. Advocates must spend many years educating and “softening up” Americans to bring them around to new ideas. The persuasion is done in lots of ways: through speeches, congressional hearings, studies, conferences, media and legislation.

“Many good proposals have fallen on deaf ears because they arrived before [people] were ready to listen,” Kingdon wrote. “Eventually, such a proposal might be resurrected, but only after a period of paving the way.”

Some of the biggest recent cultural and legal shifts have been the result of this “softening” process. It may seem as if the #MeToo movement emerged spontaneously in October 2017, with the abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. That was certainly the tipping point when women collectively started to say they would no longer tolerate sexual abuse. But it’s not when the process started. Generations of activists paved the way — from “first-wave” feminists like the suffragettes to the members of the “second wave” that began in the 1960s who advocated for gender equality in all aspects of life, from workplaces to homes. It was the gradual acceptance of changes in thinking about women’s rights and roles over time that made it possible for women to speak out now. 

Or take the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. It was the result of generations of activism on behalf of the LGBT community and its allies. Before the national law, same-sex marriage was legalized in 37 states. Activists advocated for equality for decades.

This softening process is also true of citizens of other countries. Egypt’s 2011 revolution may seem to have happened rapidly, as then-president Hosni Mubarak resigned after just 18 days of street protests. But my research found that Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who ran “We Are All Khaled Said” a key Facebook page that drove Egyptians into the streets spent years educating his compatriots about the abuses of their government.

He also spent a long time getting his followers comfortable with political activism. He started by organizing “Silent Stands,” for example, during which protestors simply wore black and stood outside together without making demands. It was only after Ghonim laid all this groundwork that he was eventually able to move people into the streets.

The evidence is clear: No matter how charismatic or correct a single person may be, it’s unlikely she or he will be able to alter the way Americans think quickly or single-handedly. People change their minds very slowly. But after lots of work softening up, they eventually come around.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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