How Change Happens

Writing in the Huffington Post Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun Magazine,, takes a pop at liberals and realists lacking in utopian vision.

The last thing America needs is another "realist" or liberal compromiser as President. You never know what is possible until you fight for what is desirable. The realists are almost always wrong.

The assaults on Bernie Sanders' presidential candidacy reached new lows in the past week. Unable to effectively challenge the value of his policies, the denizens of the status quo have now focused on his alleged utopianism and his supposedly flawed vision of how change happens. In a later column I'll explain why I believe that if Bernie doesn't become our next President it will not be for these reasons, but because he is not utopian enough, stuck as he is in an economistic worldview that doesn't address fully the way that global capitalism invades and distorts our minds, our relationships, our families, even at times our souls. If he tied this together with his attempts to revive the New Deal, he'd break through the resistance that many people have to his style and elements of his politics that seem stuck in the past. But for the moment, lets focus on these current attacks.

Leading the charge was Paul Krugman's "How Change Happens" in the New York Times January 22, 2016. Krugman, who I believe has been one of the most significant voices of reason when addressing the horrific environmental and social consequences of the unfettered marketplace, suddenly turns chicken about the changes that are really needed to save the planet from environmental catastrophe and U.S. society from further disintegration. Using the massive credibility he has built up as the best known liberal voice in the establishment media, Krugman makes the argument that when looking at history it turns out that the compromisers have delivered real change while the idealists and utopians have failed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is certainly true that we will always need the legislators and technocrats to work out the details of new legislation and budget proposals that embody the ideals of a just and sustainable society. But getting to that society takes a very different kind of leadership--one that can project and mobilize people around a vision that they believe to be worth struggling to attain.

Yet such leaders are only possible if they emerge from and are supported by larger visionary movements to whom they are accountable.

Krugman wildly underestimates the importance of maximalist demands for peace, social justice, and environmental sanity, and thereby fails to see the importance of leaders who urge us to seek a fundamental transformation of our deeply broken society. Yes, it was Lyndon Johnson who helped pass the civil rights movement's call for Voting Rights legislation (recently eviscerated by the Supreme Court), but it was the civil rights movement and visionary leaders who made these victories possible.

The war in Vietnam was stopped by a liberal Congress elected in the 1974 midterm elections because the anti-war movement, in tandem with the military victories of the Vietnamese people and the disgrace of President Nixon by Watergate, had turned the country against the war. Ditto, it was the women's movement that managed to create a climate in which patriarchy would be on the defensive and the glbtq movement that created the climate in which the seemingly utopian idea of gay marriage could become a reality in the past few years.

Yet all of these movements have run up against the most intractable of all enemies: the global capitalist system. When Krugman and others talk about being realistic, what they really mean is that they will only support changes that minimally reform some of the worst excesses of this system. And what progressives have gradually come to realize is that such changes are mostly undermined by the dynamics of the global marketplace, as the endlessly inventive servants of international finance, globalized corporations, the top one tenth of one percent of the super-rich, and the 60 billionaires who own more wealth than half the people on our planet, manage to find new ways to protect their wealth, promote their worldview, and exploit the resources of the earth while (unintentionally but inevitably) destroying the Earth.

It is for this mother of all battles, the battle to transform our global economic and political arrangements, that we need visionary leaders in the presidency, the Congress, elected offices at every level of the society, and in the media, in every profession, in the unions and churches and synagogues and mosques, and teaching in the classrooms of our society.

It is true that such leaders, including Bernie if he is elected, cannot expect to find their highest ideals legislated by the Congress likely to be produced in the gerrymandered Congressional districts of 2016. But the President could use her or his office to shape public opinion and build a powerful grass roots movement that could eventually reshape public discourse in this country.

That is what we expected of Obama and he failed us. Not because he didn't get x or y idea passed, but because he didn't use his time in office to really tell the truth about what was happening, or to do what a powerful executive could have done by himself (e.g. getting his justice department to indict the criminals in the Pentagon, CIA and Bush Administration who implemented torture and other human rights violations or the criminals on Wall Street whose illegal actions caused the huge "great recession" of 2007-2010).

President Obama's liberal and progressive critics were depressed not because Obama made compromises in the course of fighting for the ideals he said he would fight for, but in making those compromises as his opening position, and then compromising further in order to be "realistic," rarely articulating the ideals around which he had built support during his 2008 campaign. Take, as one example, his switch from a campaign in which he distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton by emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq war with his speech receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in which he made a spirited defense of using military violence and warfare to achieve noble goals.

Or his failure to use the moment of economic collapse to challenge the Right wing anti-government ideologues by saying that the corporations should live by their values and let the marketplace "work its magic" as they claimed consistently it would when it was only working people and poor people who were in economic trouble. Or at least he could have insisted that for every dollar given to a corporation to bail them ut there must be an equal dollar given to help working people and poor people who were suffering from the consequences of that economic collapse, particularly those who were losing their homes to mortgage companies and banks "too big to fail."

The women's movement's articulation of a demand to end partriarchy, the civil right's movement demand to end racism, the gay and lesbian movement demand to end homophobia, and the environmental movement to save the life support system of the planet have made far more social change in the past five decades (women's rights in employment and control of their own bodies, ending segregation, homosexual rights to marriage, environmental legislation) precisely because of their ability to push political leaders beyond their comfort zone into standing for principles that at first seemed utopian or revolutionary. Proposing legislation like "medicare for every American" or insisting not on a slight raise in the minimum wage but instead "a living wage" for all Americans, or backing a constitutional amendment to provide public funding for all state and national elections while banning all other sources of money (both individual and corporate) as we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have developed in our proposed ESRA--the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S Constitution should be the starting points from which compromise may at times be necessary.

It's not that a President shouldn't compromise, s/he must; but that first s/he should be fighting for the world we really need rather than start off with a deeply compromised program and then compromise further from that point.

How do we know that that would work? Because that is exactly what the Radical Right did when it moved from isolation after the Goldwater defeat in 1964. Instead of compromising their ideals, they built a movement, developed colleges and magazines and policy institutes that could foster a new generation that would buy into their idea.

And they stuck with their ideas. They were willing to lose elections for their tenacity and commitment to their ideals. And its only if you are willing to lose for your ideals that anybody can truly trust you to stick with your ideals when you win. It was this tenacity and commitment to a worldview that enabled the Radical Right to elect to the highest office someone who blatantly and radically espoused those ideas in his presidency. President Ronald Reagan managed to move the country far to the Right--by sticking to and insisting on its vision even when it seemed politically unrealistic at first. And when they Right lost the presidency to Clinton and later to Obama, they stuck with their radical ideas and fought for them, in the process convincing more and more people that they were on to something important.

True, it helped a lot that their coherent (albeit in my view immoral and racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic) ideas did not face any serious opposition from the Democrats, because the Democratic Party was already enthralled to the notion that compromise rather than fighting for an alternative worldview is the path to power.

But if that's all that liberal politics is about, a desire for power and a willingness to scale down one's ideas so that they seem "reasonable" and "realistic" to a media that has increasingly moved the country to the Right, then the argument that there is no real difference between the parties and their candidates increasingly (and in my view, mistakenly) resonates deeply enough with millions of people that they don't even bother to vote.

What's positive about Bernie Sanders is that he appears ready to change this by sticking with his desire to restore the New Deal economic benefits for working people and the poor. But it will take a powerful movement, capable of insisting on seemingly utopian ideals and a willingness to lose some elections for those ideals for their vision to have any lasting impact. Staying true to the broadest vision of what a world we want could look like that a progressive movement could achieve lasting victories.

That's how social change could happen again with a visionary Democrat as President. If you'd like to see what a truly visionary agenda that derives from the great prophets of human history and is, therefore, unapologetically utopian in an age where utopianism is so badly needed, please read the vision of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives at If Bernie were to speak the way that covenant speaks, he'd be a guaranteed winner, and America would win as well!

Impossible, you say? What I've learned in my 51 years as a social change activist is that You Never Know What Is Possible Until You Engage In Sustained Struggle For Many Years For What Is Really Desirable. What I've seen is that the "realists" are almost always mistaken.

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