Over the weekend I watched the HBO movie Confirmation about the Clarance Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. It was painful to live through that period – and almost as painful to re-live it via this film. But the one benefit of hindsight is that we know what happened as a result of the ordeal Ms. Hill endured.
Her appearance became a catalyst for change. The following year was designated the “Year of the Woman” after women across the political spectrum ran for public office in record numbers. This was seen as a direct response to the treatment Hill received from the Senate, which was then 98 percent male…
And the spike in sexual harassment claims showed Hill was not alone. Hill’s testimony helped other women identify the unwanted sexual advances they’d experienced. In 1992, the EEOC saw a 71 percent increase in sexual harassment claims, continuing throughout the decade and peaking in 2000 with 15,836 claims.
I doubt that Senator Patty Murray is the only one who responded this way:
Self-labeled as “the only preschool teacher in the United States Senate,” Murray claims she never wanted to get into national politics, but was moved to run by what she saw as blatant sexism in the Anita Hill hearings.
That story captures many of the elements for how change happens. Millions of women (and the men who care about them) were mobilized by watching an everyday injustice that often happened in secret get played out on national television for the whole world to see. It had a similar impact as video of Sheriff Bull Conor’s dogs and water hoses and nightly pictures of the horror in Vietnam.
What is interesting about those examples is that none of them involved a POTUS (much less any other politician) leading the charge. As a matter of fact, most politicians don’t sign on to change – much less have any success at it – until it is taken up by what Evert Rogers called the “late majority” in his theory about the “diffusion of innovation.”
People like Harvey Milk and Rosa Parks were the innovators. Early adopters are the community organizers and activists who took action to highlight an issue – first garnering support from the early majority, and then finally reaching the late majority. That is the point at which politicians can take up the cause and push for change. As the saying goes, “when the people lead, the leaders will follow.” That isn’t a sign of cowardice, as some would claim, but the way things are supposed to work in a representative democracy.
Over the last few years I’ve reviewed most (not all) of Martin Luther King, Jr’s speeches. What I have noticed is that not once does he direct his remarks to a president or any other politician. In other words, you never hear from him what is a common refrain in activist circles these days: “Tell Obama to ________.” MLK always addressed himself to citizens – not politicians. His voice and the actions of those in the movement were the so-called “bully pulpit.” He knew that’s how change happens.
Some people were a bit aghast when Barack Obama said this during the 2008 election. It appeared as though he was comparing himself to Ronald Reagan.
But if you listen to what he’s actually saying, he is validating that this is how change happens. His analysis is that Reagan changed the trajectory of our politics “because the country was ready for it.” Obama dismisses himself as a “singular figure,” and instead implies that the country is – once again – ready to change its trajectory. The seeds of that were visible when Democrats re-took the majority in the House in 2006. That was followed up by the election of Obama, along with (for a few months at least) a 60 vote majority in the Senate.
Of course, Republicans met that movement for change with fear-mongering, obstruction and gerrymandering of House districts following the 2010 election. Those tactics worked to not only halt progress, but to discourage people who eventually became cynical instead of hopeful about change.
But the overall principle still stands. It is not a POTUS who will lead change. Pressuring them to adopt the policies we want to see enacted is a byproduct of winning over the late majority to the cause. In other words, instead of sending a message to a politician, try talking to your co-worker or neighbor or family member. That’s how change happens.