David Bernstein’s book "Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America". is an example of incrementalism gone badly wrong. In the late 1970s, the federal bureaucracy decided to create racial and ethnic classifications to be used for data collection purposes only. They established five standard official classifications: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander (the latter later spun off to a new category with Native Hawaiians), Black, Hispanic, and White. Nevertheless, this classification system has been incrementally incorporated into a myriad of government bureaucracies to determine which groups are eligible for affirmative action, are given minority perks, and hundreds of other preferences. Today, incrementalism of a bad idea (racial and ethnic classifications) has become a tsunami of irrational identity politics. Yes, incrementalism is probably better than utopian revolution, but it doesn’t guarantee a good outcome.

Expand full comment

I find this an oddly incomplete argument. Seems to me that, using historical analysis/examples, one could easily make the case for incrementalism or for Grand change. And sometimes for both. It all depends on the circumstances. And strong opinions on many sides of an issue do not necessarily disqualify or recommend either approach.

Our entire last century was precipitated and structured by a grand design, known as the The New Deal. Smaller, but still pretty grand changes came through decisions to enter WWII and transform our society into an enormous, overpowering war-making machine, to create the Medicare and Medicaid programs, to take bold approaches to alliances, boith economic and political/military, and more. And then, of course there are always incremental changes, improvements, innovations that must and do follow.

All of these changes, whether grand or incremental have a common denominator: a vision, a plan, and the leadership and resources to guide decision-making and implementation. And here’s another perspective: Isn’t it generally both/and? How does one take even small, incremental steps without an overall plan? Why can’t you employ incremental steps in adopting an overall grand design? And what would be wrong about a grand design arriving out of the accumulation and results of incremental changes?

The general idea that it is prudent to take things slowly and methodically is fine. But in politics, as in life, there are times when you go big or you go home. Arguing for incrementalism may be a tactic to address the fraught forces battling over the future of our Republic at the moment, but then you need to explain how and what sorts of incremental steps might be contemplated that are better and different from what Biden has been doing, which has been overwhelmingly incremental.

Anyhow, I’m sure there is much more behind this short essay that you did not share. Perhaps you might elaborate at some point.

Expand full comment

Great piece.

My career has been as a change maker in organizations. I have a great deal of experience with what works and what does not work. Incremental change is always easier to make happen with some caveats. Basically, 70% of constituency are change averse, and so incremental change can help with the acceptance and adoption. However, long change projects are subject to lose momentum and also are at risk of the foundation shifting and new options forming before the thing is done.

Sometimes the change is urgent... and thus there is a need for top-down edicts that trample on the change anxiety of the change averse. In those project people get fired for failing to accept the change. Related to political public policy, there is no firing... but there can be a lot of attempted trampling. However, the masses don't like that and will use their vote to express their displeasure. Obama and the Dems paid the price for doing this with Obama care as the 2010 election was a red wave.

However, what is lacking with respect to change needed to help fix some of most pressing social problems like growing income disparity (the root of almost everything wrong in my opinion), homelessness and drug addiction is simply intellectual honesty for the root of cause and the actual steps needed to address the root causes... in consideration of the consequences that the changes would cause.

Liberals have an irritating tendency to crave the glass half empty view of almost everything. They tend to be cynical and unsatisfied. They cannot seem to accept progress because criticism is their stock and trade. If we make progress and fill the glass, they just dump out half and start screaming about unfairness and harm again. Like for hunger.... today we spend many hundreds of billions on free food benefits and really there is no reason for any low income American family to go hungry. Yet the screams of food insecurity etc. It will never be enough for the lib brain because the lib brain needs to find things to complain about. So with respect to "progress" we need to understand that a large percentage of people in the political realm are never going to be satisfied with change... and will always demand more.

However, if we get better at targeting tangible goals (i.e. reduce homelessness by 50%) we can at least separate this constant doubling down on the criticism from the projects to get something done.

But intellectual honesty is required. For example, exploiting the infrequent mass shootings to try and push AR gun bans is intellectually dishonest as it will not solve the REAL problem with gun violence and gun death, it is infeasible and stupid as there is de minimis gun violence with registered gun ownership. Incremental change is fine, but it has to be real and feasible and really connected with real intended outcomes. For example, Stop-And-Frisk works. So does enhanced punishment for using a gun in a crime. So does more policing in certain high gun violence neighborhoods. So does cash bail requirements. So does not releasing violent criminals back to the streets. So does closing the border with a wall to prevent illegal guns being imported. And finally, so does improving economic opportunity and schools in current high crime and violence territory... where young men would have more options to make a good living instead of getting into drug gangs.

Radical change is generally demanded by those without intellectual honesty about root causes and feasible solutions. Radical change generally supports some hidden agenda.

There is a saying by late Thomas Sowell: "Activism is a way for people to feel important, even if the consequences of their activism are counterproductive for those they claim to be helping and damaging to the fabric of society as a whole"

We need to have serious and honest debate about the need for change and what we want to see accomplished. Change to support political power structures should be rejected out of hand.

Expand full comment

If you look at evolutionary change, most of it is incremental, and the times of rapid radical change ("rapid" in relative terms, of course) come in the wake of massive death and destruction. (Nature heightening the contradictions?) It's the same with human change. No Depression, no New Deal. If the Nazis hadn't given racism a bad name, the civil rights movement wouldn't have happened the way it did. Hoping that things can get worse so they can (supposedly) get better is so incredibly cruel. So incremental change is better in most circumstances, and radical change should be saved for when the level of suffering is so high that it's worth the risk. And whatever our problems, America in 2023 is not there.

Expand full comment

For those of us who have been involved in manufacturing, gradualism/incrementalism is best represented by the Deming Cycle: Plan - Do - Check - Act - Repeat. Practitioners of the Deming Cycle understand that everything that we do can (and should) be improved and that everything is subject to the demon of variability.

Expand full comment

Fortunately, incrementalism isn't just a preference, it's a fundamental fact. While there will always be aspirational utopians, the real world -- our real world of 333 million people -- won't and can't possibly allow for any immediate changes, and no law of congress can nullify that truth. Think of the many months and herculean efforts it took to get COVID masks obtained and available when they were most needed. Or the year it took to get relief funds to small businesses. Or, well, anything that involves more than just a few people.

And in my view -- agreeing with the authors -- that's just fine. And localities are much better laboratories than a nation for trying things out.

Radicals will always be with us, mostly because kids will always be with us. Good for them. But given the scale of our national population, the biggest things will always take time. And by that I don't mean months or years, but generations.

Expand full comment

The counter argument to gradual incrementalism was penned by Martin Luther King in his, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” addressed to a committee of ecumenical Clerics who urged , in the early 1960s, the gradualist approach in overcoming the oppression of a , then, ninety year old racist system of Jim Crow peonage. I recommend it to all who who seek change but will not likely personally benefit directly from the change they seek to read what gradualism means to those afflicted by problems only government has the power to solve for them. The fact that it took just over 1 40 years from 1880 to 2022 to pass a bill to make lynching a federal crime , illuminates just how long gradual incrementalism may actually delay a solution.

Expand full comment