Reflection 12: Radical Decency in Politics — Pitfalls and Possibilities

Radical Decency’s goal is to systematically replace the values that predominate in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values:

  • Respect;
  • Understanding and empathy;
  • Acceptance and appreciation;
  • Fairness and justice.

But embedded in the culture are a myriad of beliefs, ways of operating – and supporting institutional structures – that maintain and deepen the grip of its mainstream values on our lives. If we hope to meaningfully advance Radical Decency’s ambitious goal, a thorough understanding of these processes is an essential first step.

With this as its starting place, Radical Decency offers fresh perspectives on what really drives our lives – “what is” – and what we need to do to craft more effective change strategies.

In this Reflection, I deal with these issues in politics and public affairs.

I have been involved in public affairs for almost 50 years: The civil rights and anti-war movements as a young man; Common Cause/Philadelphia in the 1970s; the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; the National Constitution Center; domestic and overseas service trips; Radical Decency; and, when it seemed important, partisan politics.  A lesson I have drawn from these experiences is that the key processes that make meaningful change so difficult are seldom recognized and discussed – and, for that reason, all the more effective.


One of the geniuses of the mainstream culture is that it rarely quashes people who want to reform it. Instead, they are distracted and marginalized, leaving the engines that drive the mainstream culture free to pursue their purposes with little meaningful interference.

A key element in this process is the way in which our reform energies are channeled and, in so doing, domesticated and marginalized.  Everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to work in discrete subject areas – poverty, housing, the environment, nutrition and health.

And the problem with this approach? The best intentioned and most highly motivated among us wind up working on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Then, they are provided with just enough financial support to keep them going but not nearly enough, even to accomplish their (highly commendable but) partial agendas. These processes, and possible responses to them, are discussed in greater detail in other Reflections: # 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other; # 7: Gathering in the Good Guys; and # 45: Re-visioning Social Change Work.

Another phenomenon, instrumental in this process, is way in which the mainstream culture creates the illusion of meaningful choice around particular elections and issues.  Inordinate amounts of energy are then sucked into the fight over this “pivotal” election and that “make or break” issue. The result? The systemic issues that could more effectively promote meaningful change are never attended to.

The obvious example is elections. They are, without question, important. Millions of lives are affected by our choices.  But, in the end, they offer no realistic prospect for fundamental change. The consuming sense of urgency generated by Kennedy vs. Nixon, Kerry vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Romney masks a deeper truth. On the vast majority of big issues, nothing ever changes – not, at least for the better.

So, across the last 50 years, without regard to who is in office: Our enormous defense budget remains; the grotesque underfunding of services for the poor has steadily increased; businesses continue to use their economic leverage to enrich ownership and senior management and squeeze workers and consumers; degradation of the environment continues; and unnecessary wars are fought.

Equally distracting are the so-called big policy fights. John Kenneth Galbraith noted years ago that what usually captures our attention are hotly contested, rather than important, decisions. Thus, we recently spent 2 years, riveted by a tax and budget battle, which resulted in a 4% income tax increase, applicable only to that part of an individual’s income that exceeds $450,000.

In reality, most really important changes just happen, without little or no debate at all.  In the late 1970s, for example, a bankruptcy reform bill was quietly passed allowing judges to modify labor contracts. Over the ensuing decades, this has become a key mechanism used to disempower the labor movement.

Equally invisible in their implementation, and in seismic in their impact, have been

  • The dismantling of country’s pension system (401ks replacing true pensions);
  • The transformation of the criminal justice system into a decentralized system for locking up and disenfranchising shockingly large numbers of African Americans and other minorities; and
  • The deregulation and centralization of the financial services sector, paving the way for massive money grabs by our largest financial institutions.


The juice that keeps the current indecent system going is the priority it places on money, power, and success; that is, on its compete and win, dominate and control values.  In the service of these goals, indecent behaviors are condoned, encouraged and celebrated while, on the other side, “being nice” is subtly (or not so subtly) dismissed as soft and naïve – the province of losers. With this mindset permeating every aspect of our lives, it is hardly surprising that “nice” public policies – that is, policies that are humane and empathic – are pushed to the margins of our public awareness and debate.

Compounding the problem is this dispiriting reality: While the temptation to be indecent for the sake of success is immense in our private lives, it is even greater when it involves strangers; that is, in the area of politics and public policy.


What we need to do to change this mindset – and the indecent public policies it brings in its wake – is to promote an alternative set of values that is just as forceful in the other direction; that make decency a priority in every area of living and, crucially, at all times and without exception.

Why? Because our current approach to change – employing the advocacy tools of the mainstream culture to fight “this” policy battle, or “that” one – will never work. Failing to challenge the values-based premises that drive the mainstream culture’s policy choices, here is what typically happens.

Well-intentioned nonprofits, with little or no reflection, modify “less important” aspects of their mission and ways of operating to meet the expectations of a key foundation or other mainstream funding source. And, as these exceptions accumulate over time, the clarity of their mission erodes, and their tactics increasingly mimic the tactics of the mainstream culture. In the end, playing the culture’s conventional game, but with far fewer financial resources than the corporations and lobbyists that oppose them, guess who wins?

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that more conventional reform efforts should be limited or curtailed. The ameliorative work of nonprofit entities, healing professionals, and more enlightened office holders is highly important. Their work softens the virulent consequences of the existing system, helping millions. The problem, however, is that this work is too often confused with the transformational political work that our culture so desperately needs. We need to be clear about the difference – and deeply supportive of both.

The approach I advocate is a difficult and uncertain pathway toward fundamental political change. But the alternative – to go along with the indecent values that drive our culture and, in this way, being marginal players (at best) when it comes our most basic public policy choices – is worse.


Needless to say, this approach is both intellectually and emotionally challenging.

Thus, for example, we need to embrace the fact that public policy is thoroughly implicated in our private choices – in how we allocate our time, energy and money. Doing so, we need to decisively diverge from culture’s singular focus on financial security and consumerism; replacing it with financial choices that reasonably account for decency to self and, at the same time, actively considers decency to others and the world.

The approach to public policy I advocate also needs to challenge the taken for granted ways in which we view collaboration.

We live in a culture that promotes and celebrates individualism and also places a very high value on privacy; translated to mean that you have no right to know what I am doing, and vice versa. Effective public policy initiatives, however, require collective action and that, in turn, requires deep and sustained collaboration. With this in mind, notice how effectively these mainstream values discourage collective efforts, encouraging a “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” approach and, more darkly, allowing deeply irresponsible private choices to be protected from public sanction by our fierce over emphasis on privacy rights.

A far better approach would integrate a more modulated and qualified emphasis on individuality and privacy into a larger perspective that more fully accounts for the effort of others – melding our efforts with theirs. In this new approach, we would no longer take refuge behind a cloak of anonymity and, instead, hold others – and ourselves – accountable for our choices.

Still another key challenge involves the attack/counterattack style that is so predominant in our politics – and the importance of weaning ourselves from these habits.

The simple — and uncomfortable – truth is this: Ridiculing Sarah Palin (on the left) or Barack Obama (on the right) – as opposed to challenging their policies and tactics on the merits – only reinforces the caricaturizing and dismissive behaviors that allow others, in other contexts, to discriminate against minorities or to dismiss the suffering of the poor.  On this crucial issue, I strongly recommend Encountering Bigotry, by Philip Lichtenberg, et al, a book that brilliantly and with empowering specificity describes how to engage in this vital work. See, also, Reflections 75 and 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1and 2.


These steps – greater collaboration, increased personal accountability, attention to the quality of our political dialogue – are not, realistically, going to transform our public policy in the foreseeable future. However, initiatives such as these are the vital the ground out of which a meaningful shift toward more decent and humane public policies can emerge. And if we neglect them, movement toward this goal will, I fear (and believe), continue to be surpassingly small.