One of the many books on my shelves is The Radical and the Republican, by James Oakes. It discusses the roles played by abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. The book got me thinking about the most effective ways to initiate change.
As a former slave, Douglass felt an urgency to end slavery, and now. He actively and emphatically pressed his case to anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t. As Lincoln was emerging as a viable voice against slavery, Douglass thought the man too timid, unwilling to take a stand for black rights. Ever the moderate, Lincoln focused solely on blocking the extension of slavery into the territories, feeling the U.S. Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, mainly the South. Lincoln did advocate for gradual, compensated, voluntary emancipation, but also that ex-slaves would be better off if they colonized their own countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
Two men with inherently different perspectives and beliefs, yet eventually, the two would work separately and together to accomplish the same goal – emancipation. They became mutually respecting friends.
Today we have many issues that seem too difficult to resolve. And yet, for example, marriage equality, which seemed an impossible goal just a few years ago, is now the law of the land. Climate change is not only an American issue but a global one, and while it seems an insurmountable challenge, we’ve seen tremendous steps being taken on unilateral, bilateral, multilateral, and global levels.
How did these sweeping changes occur? In many ways, there are radicals and there are the politicians (which, in this age, are now mostly Democrats). LGBT rights activists, as had Frederick Douglass, maintained high visibility for the issue. They used media, grass roots demonstrations, and aggressive lobbying to raise awareness of discrimination. Like slavery, this went on for many decades with little apparent change effected. More moderate forces working within our legislative structures slowly sought incremental steps. Over time, public sentiment evolved enough for key political leaders like President Obama to have enough breathing room to publicly offer support. And then change happened, seemingly overnight.
Critically, there is the often agonizingly slow drift of public sentiment. Lincoln once noted:
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
So it seems there are important roles for both radicals and political players in reading, and molding, public opinion. One keeps the high-pitch of awareness in the public eye; the other works the levers of legislative debate to find incremental compromise. Over time, the interplay between the two impacts public perception. When the public begins to accept the concept of change, in the sense that they no longer feel a threat to their own self interest, then change is allowed to happen. Often this happens quickly, as if a threshold is reached. The Sisyphean labor moves the boulder up the hill until, despite repeated setbacks, the crest is reached and it rolls into the future rather than the past.
Change is hard. Inertia keeps a body at rest in that inactive state until sufficient energy is applied to cause movement. But inertia also describes the state where motion remains in motion until something causes it to stop. There are always those who cause friction, that resist change; there remain today people who believe slavery was a merely “states rights” issue and not morally wrong. This means that once change occurs there will be continual struggle to maintain the benefit of that change. Just ask the LGBT and climate change action communities who must fight against reversals by bigoted and political forces.
To once again quote Abraham Lincoln: “I am a slow walker, but I never walk backward.”
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book on Abraham Lincoln is due out in summer 2017.