how change is made

From June 1-June 11, 2020, “support for the [anti-racism] protests grew 10 points among Mixed Feelings voters, 14 points among Lean Biden voters, and a head-spinning 25 points among Lean Trump voters. ‘I had never in my research career seen public opinion shift on the scale in this time frame,’ Michiah Prull said.’”

But how much does this change matter? Beyond affecting the vote in November, what does the shift in public opinion portend?

I’d offer the following general observations.

Public opinion is subject to fairly quick and major shifts when people assess something that doesn’t affect them directly and substantially. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement persuaded many white Northerners to turn strongly against segregation in the South ca. 1958-65. This mattered because it changed votes in the US Congress, yet Northerners were not asked to renounce any of their own advantages. The Civil Rights Movement struggled when it shifted to the North and the issue became White Northerners’ behavior.

People will voluntarily renounce advantages over other people (“privileges”) so long as they don’t have to pay a tangible price or undergo a serious risk as a result. Most straight people have decided that it’s no problem if gay people also marry. In a way, this means renouncing a privilege or a status advantage. But since straight people can still marry, it’s not really a sacrifice. Marriage equality is win/win. To be sure, some people take challenges to their status advantage as threats, but they can often be outvoted by people who are willing to give up merely symbolic privileges.

It is not true that people always act out of self-interest. More than 600,000 Americans died in the US Civil War (putting both sides together), which is hard to explain in terms of individual self-interest — or coercion. Many were eager to sacrifice. But when human beings sacrifice, it is very rarely for other people. It is usually for some “we” to which the individual feels loyalty. And that “we” usually takes a tangible, concrete form as well as an abstract one. Maybe Americans will sacrifice for America because it’s part of our identity, but each soldier is more likely to sacrifice for his own buddies in the squad.

Although people sacrifice when they belong to cohesive groups or during moments of dramatic change, self-interest tends to prevail over the longer term. Relative advantages are astoundingly durable, surviving even revolutions and invasions. The descendants of pagan, Roman gentry became medieval French bishops. Even in the hardest circumstances, people find ways to pass relative advantage to their own offspring and justify doing so using the ideological materials of their time and place.

Still, we are capable of building fairer societies, ones that guarantee more security and opportunity to the least advantaged. Typically, those societies are also democratic, and a substantial majority sees the social contract as beneficial to them.

People will also make concessions to organized groups who can extract a price. For instance, we’ll pay more for a good if the people who manufacture it can strike for better wages. We’ll give up a social advantage to calm a restive group so that they leave us alone. In these cases, a majority yields to a minority for pragmatic reasons.

If these generalizations generally apply, then it’s unlikely that White Americans will voluntarily change their behavior in ways that are actually costly to them or their descendants. I believe that efforts to educate people about their relative advantage are apolitical in the sense that they do not reflect a coherent strategy for addressing power. I fear that these efforts can actually alert people to their own advantages and cause them to dig in. As Steve Biko wrote, “No amount of moral lecturing will persuade the white man to ‘correct’ the situation.” Trainings in diversity, equity and inclusion may be ways for institutions to maintain the status quo, not tools for changing it.

But that does not mean that change is impossible. In fact, I am optimistic that change is coming. It will come in other ways.

First, a majority of the American electorate is shifting on issues that they see as not directly costly to themselves, although these issues matter. Aggressive, racially biased policing and mass incarceration really don’t benefit you if you happen to be white and middle class. In fact, you may suffer collateral damage. Even though African Americans are much more likely than whites to report discriminatory treatment by the police, a plurality of all the people who report such treatment are white. White people can definitely be persuaded to oppose militarized, muscle-bound (and expensive) policing.

We may shift toward a new social contract that prevails because a broad cross-section of voters see it as beneficial to them–and it reduces racial injustice. Many Americans will vote for universal health care or cheaper college because of their self-interest. A society with better access to health and education should also be more racially equitable.

Second, the composition of the public shifting. Although a majority of the electorate remains White, about half of Democrats are now people of color. Their concentration on one side of the aisle poses risks but also offers advantages. When Republicans falter for any reason, people of color suddenly have a lot of leverage.

Third, skillfully organized people of color can (and are) extracting concessions by protesting, boycotting, and otherwise challenging institutions that need them in various ways.

Finally, change can result from random events that are skillfully exploited. I think, for example, that both childhood and gender have been transformed by the rise of girls’ team sports. One reason was Title IX (1972), which was not intended to popularize girls’ athletics. Girls’ sports didn’t arise automatically as a consequence of Title IX; many women and girls (and some men) had to work hard to create teams, leagues, training programs, role models, etc. However, the law created an opening–more or less by accident–and people took advantage of it. We should look for such opportunities today.

See also: the significance of the progressive primary victories; when social advantage persists for millennia; why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others; the remarkable persistence of social advantage.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.