What “revolution” means to different Democratic voters, and why incrementalism isn’t incompatible with the notion of revolution.


The word “revolution” has been a prominent fixture of this election. There are voters talking about revolution, candidates talking about revolution, media talking about voters and candidates who are talking about revolution.

Rarely, however, is there a clear definition of what revolution means, exactly. To some people, it means breaking up the banks. To others, it means making America great again. To still others, it means electing a history-making candidate.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, there is a particular disagreement about “revolution”—how it’s defined and how it’s best enacted—that has come to be framed as those who want revolution (generally Sanders supporters) and those who don’t want revolution (generally Clinton supporters).

But that is a false dichotomy, one that unnecessarily segments progressive voters in ways that could be detrimental to our common interests; a misleading division born of and facilitated by a profound misunderstanding of why some Democratic voters, eager for change, may quite reasonably embrace a more measured and incrementalist approach.

Much to the confoundment of a number of Sanders supporters, and even key members of his campaign team, Bernie Sanders’ message of revolution—which, while nebulously defined, centers more on an upending of the system, rather than a refinement of it—has largely failed to resonate with black voters.

But not just black voters: non-black voters in red states have joined with black voters to deliver crucial victories to Hillary Clinton across the Southern US, especially white voters from marginalized communities.

This is the Obama Coalition—and their support for Clinton is variously explained by citing her embrace of President Obama’s policies and by writing off voters in those states as too conservative to appreciate Sanders’ big ideas.

While the former is certainly impactful, and the latter is just demeaning hokum, neither gets to a crucial truth about many of these voters: The prospect of revolution, and the notions of monumental, sudden, chaotic change it conjures, can be utterly unappealing to people desperately longing for comfort and stability.

This is an idea with roots in black anti-poverty activism, whose activists have detailed that, for many people living on the precipice, the idea of revolution can be nothing short of terrifying. People struggling to find money to keep themselves fed may be justifiably wary of the consequences of economic tumult for those already in financially precarious circumstances. People whose communities are under constant assault from police, corporations, and gentrifiers may be justifiably anxious about the prospect of further civil turmoil.

Like black communities, other marginalized communities may have members who regard the specter of revolution with fear and suspicion. And with good reason: Revolution is not always kind to the vulnerable people.

At least not the kind of tumultuous, upending revolution being proposed by people who don’t view Clinton’s incrementalist, within-the-system approach as deserving of being called a revolution at all.

But how we view revolution often has a lot of do with from where we come.

Ginger McKnight-Chavers is a Generation X Black woman, a Texas transplant to New York City, who graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced law for many years before becoming a writer and political consultant. [Full Disclosure: She is one of my colleagues at BNR.]

Like any voter, she speaks for her own, individual lived experiences, and is not a representative of a monolithic voting bloc. Her particular background, as a Black woman from a red state, informs her view about why it is that many of us from marginalized communities in red states favor a “revolutionary” approach that is inherently more cautious, but no less desirous of radical change.

“A discomfort with revolution is not necessarily passivity,” says McKnight-Chavers. “With respect to African-American people, we’re not monolithic by any stretch. But there is a sense of pragmatism in the way many of us approach politics that arises from needing real solutions to problems. We don’t necessarily want to overthrow the system—we want the system to work for us. We want to turn on the faucet and be able to drink the water. We want our communities to be safe and clean. We want affordable healthcare. We want jobs. We want the criminal justice system to work for us instead of against us. We don’t necessarily disagree with elements of the anti-Wall Street push. We don’t see it as a zero sum game; we’re just more concerned about our own streets. And to be frank, many of us want the opportunity to be part of a fair capitalist system. We want to see people like us on Wall Street and in the capital markets, so that perhaps some of that capital will make its way into our communities.”

There is a particular sort of privilege, easily and widely taken for granted, in being able to turn on the faucet and drink the water. To know that, despite other problems in a broken system, you reliably have access to clean water. To know that your basic physical safety and essential rights are not social and political footballs.

Marginalized people, especially those who live in states with legislatures governed by a Republican majority, are thrown into constant chaos by abortion restrictions, “religious liberty” bills, “trans bathroom” bills, housing and employment discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and all the other political tug-of-war we are obliged to navigate, in addition to social oppression and a ceaseless onslaught of microaggressions that can leave us reeling.

Those same things also make us urgent for change, but it disposes many of us toward an incrementalist approach, as opposed to the lurching upheaval of revolution.

It is a privilege, in many ways, to be able to “think big.” To have the space and safety where one can imagine seismic shifts that don’t come with the risk of falling off the edge. We don’t all have that luxury.

Which is not to suggest that marginalized people don’t desperately long for change. The greater the cavernous divide between reliable drinking water from the kitchen tap and having to bathe your child in bottled water, the more fervent that desire for change is.

McKnight-Chavers notes that “revolution” is not the same thing as protest. “Marginalized people regularly protest and speak out against injustice,” she says. Incrementalism is often misrepresented as complacency, but that mischaracterization elides the reasons that many marginalized people have for their abundance of caution.

“The Reagan-Bush-Bush years did a number on our community,” says McKnight-Chavers. “From a pragmatic perspective, a lot of Black folks don’t think Bernie can be elected and can’t afford for the Democrats to lose this race. Secondly, the talk of overturning President Obama’s healthcare and other policies is seen as disrespectful and unnecessary. We want improvements and forward progress, not an overthrow.”

In blue states and spaces where the Democratic Party is not as progressive as many of its constituents, the Party can seem almost quaint to its most privileged voters. It’s easier to be contemptuous of the Democrats when one lives in a state, or municipality, where they have a comfortable governing majority.

People who live in red states, however, may rightly view the Democrats as the only thing standing between them (with varying degrees of passion and efficacy) and the complete annihilation of voters’ rights by Republican-majority state legislatures.

The Democratic Party, for all its perceived and actual flaws, means a lot to people in red states. Like in Indiana and Wisconsin, where Democratic state legislatures left the states and went into hiding to try to stop Republicans from running roughshod over voters’ rights and needs.

Many marginalized people in red states depend on the Democratic Party in ways that privileged people in true blue states don’t need to. They (we) don’t have the luxury of being contemptuous of the Democratic Party for not being as progressive as we might like them to be, because marginalized people’s basic rights are constantly under assault.

There are certainly a number of people who voted for Clinton in Southern states who appreciate and value Sanders’ critiques of corporate corruption, yet bristle at his disdain for establishment politics. In those states, the near-total lack of progressive infrastructure means that the Democratic Party—the establishment—is the only well-funded institution prepared to hold the line against conservative oppression.

A revolution that includes the decimation of establishment politics risks leaving many Democratic voters in red states without any functional defense at all.

The truth is, the framing of this election as those who are desirous of revolution and those who are not entirely misses that the real distinction is about strategy. Everyone wants meaningful change: The real disagreement is just about how best to achieve it.

As we near a general election in which the two camps need to find a way to come together, this point must be made clear. Incrementalism is not a rejection of revolution, and it is certainly not indicative of indifference. It would be a mistake to misinterpret as indifference what is in reality a calculated caution.

A greater sensitivity to those considerations may reveal that supporters of both approaches have more in common than some of them might imagine.

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)