"Yes we/they/you can/should/did!" (How has profound democratic change come about in the past?)
November 30, 2008 11:16 PM   Subscribe

"Is the hope for profound change misdirected in a country where almost 50% of the population voted for the incumbent party?" (Historical perspectives on this question, please)

I'm looking for specific examples of democracy from above and below—when democratic leaders have "gifted" [what is generally accepted to be positive] social change without popular motivation, and others in which this change has happened from genuine democratic/popular movements. USA history preferable, but international history definitely welcome.

Of course, any musings over that answer for today's situation would be appreciated, but preferred in a private message; this question is looking for a historic perspective where great politics has occurred in the absence of clear (or, perhaps, specific) voter support.

Finally, I'm looking for links to articles/journals [and books, eventually] which examine the difference between the feelings/views expressed by people in polls, on the one hand, and the professed missions of the parties they vote for, on the other.

i.e. Do people vote for the parties that best represent them?
posted by omnigut to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If a democratically-minded "benevolent dictator" qualifies, you might be interested in the King of Bhutan's GNH measure.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:37 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wish I had more time to answer the last part of your question. Googling for "political behavior" or "electoral behavior" should turn up a lot of syllabi with relevant references. For an overview, try Flanigan and Zingale's Political Behavior of the American Electorate. Since it's a commonly used textbook used editions are cheap.
posted by PueExMachina at 11:41 PM on November 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, Blazecock Pileon (eh?), GNH is fantastic. Perhaps even better that it's implemented by a benevolent dictator. Currently searching for validation as far as Bhutan is concerned, and where else it may have worked when implemented on a national scale (I can't seem to find specific positive steps taken by countries in pursuing a better GNH). And also, PueExMachina, thanks to your link I found this book, which looks like it will fit the bill nicely.
posted by omnigut at 12:11 AM on December 1, 2008

Somewhat related, The Reform Act of 1832.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:15 AM on December 1, 2008

You should read up on the history of the Whitlam Labor Government (Australia, 1972-1975). Though it was one of Australia's most short-lived Governments, it implemented a whole heap of socially progressive reforms we're still benefiting from today, despite the best efforts of subsequent conservative Governments to undermine them.
posted by flabdablet at 3:11 AM on December 1, 2008

The thing with the Reform Act is that it was passed after immense public pressure-- I was always under the impression that the powers that were decided it would be better to give the rabble some power than to have the government overthrown.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:44 AM on December 1, 2008

Bush was barely elected in 2000 and 2004, and we have (unfortunately IMO) seen how dramatically he managed to change things in those eight years.
posted by Bokononist at 6:03 AM on December 1, 2008

The Global Justice Movement
posted by symbollocks at 6:22 AM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everybody.
So it seems that there aren't any examples of top-down democracy. That all changes happen because of public pressure?
posted by omnigut at 7:12 AM on December 1, 2008

Be careful - it's not 50% of "the population," it's 50% [or whatever] of the votership in that election.
posted by Miko at 7:12 AM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Sorry, Miko, you're right. Thanks
posted by omnigut at 7:19 AM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: That all changes happen because of public pressure?

Whoa whoa whoa. It's hard to answer your question because it's so broad, but definitely, one of the reasons that political landscape swings right to left over time is that the governing party sometimes enjoys increasing support from the populace during the period of leadership. FDR's is a great example - he won in 1932 by something like 56% (after a deeply failed period of Republican leadership). His policies and leadership were well recieved and respected by many who had previously not voted for him, and in 1936, he won in a landslide with over 60% of the vote. Though he didn't meet that same margin in the next two elections in which he ran (and won,) his time in office definitely created a new American public. There were voters arriving at voting age (21 then) whose conscious memories of the President were all about Roosevelt and New Deal politics. That 'greatest generation' accepted entitlements like the GI Bill and Social Security and demanded that they continue - a shift toward a welfare state that has never yet been dismantled despite mighty efforts in the last forty years. So no, changes don't necessarily happen because of public pressure - changes can happen when a person wins the right to govern, governs, wins the good opinion of the votership through their governance, and shows through the evidence of successful leadership that their ideas work.

In fact, I'd argue that public pressure is an important but not determining factor in change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, was certainly passed because there was sufficient public pressure to act. At the same time, though, there was also public pressure against this act, and it was needed. Without federal law barring discrimination, discrimination would not have ended no matter how vocal the activists were. Sometimes a government needs to impose top-down measures in order to create a new standard. Today, we understand that discrimination based on race is not legal - even if you want to discriminate. That has materially changed life drastically for racial minorities and others, and yet it probably wouldn't have passed if put to popular vote. There are many other examples - many, many, many. This power to make change using the processes of the republic even when the popular majority might not endorse it is one of the very reasons why leadership in this country is so prized and sought after.

So, basically, no, public pressure is important but is not always the originator of change, and top-down change is entirely possible, and has occurred so often historically that it would be exhausting to list examples.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

You might be interested to read FDR's inaugural acceptance speech, found here...

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men... Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.

Remember how the McCain campaign lashed out at Obama for already having his acceptance speech written before the election? One might note how Obama could practically read this word for word.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: I'm sorry, and I'm not arguing against your point, but could you please list one or two notables, Miko, so I can do research on them? Thanks!
posted by omnigut at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2008

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed under LBJ was deeply unpopular in parts of the U.S.

Story goes that LBJ said afterward, "We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation." Boy, howdy, did they.
posted by mkultra at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I thought I did, omnigut - the New Deal (especially the Social Security Act) and the Civil Rights Act are good places to start. Have fun.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hell, go all the way - the biggest example of change that wasn't even understood by the majority, whether they supported it or not. Abraham Lincoln's presidency. That man knew what needed to be done though almost no one else did, and he did it.
posted by koeselitz at 10:15 AM on December 1, 2008

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