Inside Story

The incrementalists

Is there a case for gradual change in a radical age?

Sean Kelly Books 5 July 2023 2285 words

Right time, right style? Prime minister Anthony Albanese with US president Joe Biden in Phnom Penh in November last year. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

If you were in a book club with Anthony Albanese and you came across a book called Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age, would you consider putting it forward as the club’s next read? Would this seem like tough love: a sly suggestion that the too-bold Albanese should slow down? Or would you offer it as encouragement to your fellow reader to stick with his admirably sober strategy? Or perhaps your proposal would carry with it the hint of a cheeky taunt, a way of prodding a government sensitive to accusations of timidity?

The answer depends, of course, on your view of the Albanese government’s chosen pace. Reasonable observers divide over not only its strategic smarts but also whether it is fast or slow in the first place. The government, it should be said, sometimes seems to want it both ways. It disputes the idea it is only doing small things, pointing to its climate and childcare changes, but its leader stresses the importance of being in government for a long time, implying that gradual change can be a virtue.

Or can both be true at once? In a memorable phrase, treasurer Jim Chalmers told journalist Katharine Murphy, “My theory of governing is people will cop big things done slowly and little things done quickly, but not big things done quickly or little things done slowly.”

Is that what “incrementalism” is? The term is harder to define than you might think. “Incrementalism does not always mean small steps,” Aubrey Fox and Greg Berman, American veterans of criminal justice reform, write towards the end of Gradual. “An increment can be big or small.” The first time I came across this I felt outrage rise in my chest: those two short sentences threatened to make a mockery of what I’d read. So incrementalism could be… anything? Everything?

The next sentence, however, offered some clarity. “There is nothing inherent in the idea of gradual change that rules out large steps, so long as they are politically feasible.” Now the authors’ definition of incrementalism sharpened: it meant proceeding in steps, big or small, that were politically feasible. This, of course, is what Chalmers meant when he spoke of what “people will cop.”

So, back to your book club: recommend away. However mischievous your intention in recommending the book, you will be spared Albanese’s wrath. Every politician attempts to do what is politically feasible. And what politician doesn’t like being told that the way they are already going about things is correct?

I learned many new buzz-phrases from this book. Amara’s Law: people overestimate what can be done in the short term and underestimate what can be done in the long term. Secret Congress: the legislation we never hear about because it has bipartisan support. High Conflict: when conflict becomes a feud, bewitching us into a different state of mind in which it is impossible to comprehend those on the other side (frequently encouraged by Conflict Entrepreneurs, who work to provoke disagreement).

Then there’s the Exhausted Majority: most voters, tired of polarised debate. Thermostatic Public Opinion: the tendency of public opinion to move away from the actions of those in power (if politicians spend more, the public wants them to spend less). Public Judgement: distinct from public opinion, it is a stable set of beliefs the public has arrived at after consideration.

I knew about the Deep State already: Donald Trump’s name for the way institutions and public servants conspired against his purposes. The authors point out that he was right. One of the reasons the American system tends towards incrementalism — and this point transfers easily to Australia — is the embedded habits of those who work in government. Public servants tend to do things as they have always done them. This means that even if politicians do want to deliver sudden, bold change, they find it difficult.

Which, write the authors, is fine with the public. The authors use polling, their own and others’, to make the case that voters don’t much like the idea of radical change. After a decade of re-electing one of the most inactive governments this country has seen, Australians will agree.

Given these obstacles, it is not surprising that incrementalism is already the way most of government works. Relying on research by political scientists Frances E. Lee and James M. Curry, the authors point out that important legislation from major parties in the United States passes about half of the time; compromise and consensus are common. American government is not at the standstill so many think.

This prompts the question: why write a book arguing for an approach that already dominates? The authors’ answer is that the way we talk about politics at present is skewed. We live at a time when “incrementalism is profoundly unsexy.” “It’s time to dream big again,” says the­ New York Times. The New Republic describes the “damp squib of incrementalism.”

Fox and Berman believe increasing calls for bold action — among commentators, activists and politicians themselves — are misplaced in three ways. First, they derive from a misunderstanding of the way that government works: incrementalism is its default and much of the time that’s fine. By unrealistically steering discussion towards bold solutions — often for partisan campaigning purposes — they feed the perception that there is no common ground between the parties, inflaming debate and making reasoned public discussion of genuinely possible solutions less likely.

And so we all get government wrong. Their second problem with the current obsession with boldness is that it gets incrementalism wrong too. Rather than being a way of doing nothing, it is fast (you can act immediately) and politically astute, and often leads to large and permanent change. Fox and Berman examine in detail the introduction of Social Security — the American program for payments to retirees and people with disabilities — arguing that the system was initiated slowly, with the chance for citizens to get their heads around it and for changes to be made along the way. Compromises were reached, and it is those compromises that made possible its long life and enduring importance in American society.

The third part of their case is that we tend to get bold change wrong too: we assume it is easier than it is. The authors worry particularly about implementation. It often goes haywire. Fox and Berman criticise advocates for assuming that if something is politically possible it is practically possible as well. That is hubris — and hubris is something the authors strongly warn against. Gradualists, they write approvingly, “know how little they know.” That is particularly important in this era, when it is impossible to assimilate all the information we can access. And if you don’t know enough, then proceeding slowly is wise because it enables you to use trial and error, the only way of avoiding much bigger mistakes.

What, though, if the biggest mistake you can make is not acting? Or acting too slowly to make a useful difference?

One of the largest problems with promising bold change, Fox and Berman argue, is disillusionment. Leaders promise the moon and barely reach the rooftops. What is worse, they knew all along that the moon was never an option. By raising expectations, they foster distrust of institutions and the political process and undermine the very useful things that are being achieved.

I am not sure over-promising lies at the heart of the current loss of faith in democracy. Or, if it does, I wonder if it is over-promising to a wild extent, such that “over-promising” doesn’t begin to capture it: the suggestion over decades from much of our political class that deregulated markets and slimmed-down governments would lead to a better world, when instead they have led to whatever it is we have now.

Still, the basic suggestion — of lowering expectations by accurately describing what you believe you are able to achieve — is a good one. For a start, it’s honest. But it is also an important reminder that, if leaders are going to pursue an incrementalist approach in this “radical age,” then they must make the case for it. In the relieved aftermath of Donald, Boris and Scott, it is easy to think the case makes itself. The problem is that in each of those countries the troubles wrought by decades of neglect and inaction will soon enough reassert the case for bold action. Politicians committed to gradualism will have to hold their nerve and convince voters to do the same.

This assumes gradualism is the way to go. But it is at least possible that the same set of facts the authors rely on — the disillusionment that comes from promising the moon — points to the opposite of what the authors think. What if the answer is not lowering expectations but meeting the high expectations that have been set? If that sounds naive, let me put it another way: perhaps we are particularly susceptible to bold promises right now because we accurately perceive the scale of the problems facing us. If so, the problem is one not one of rhetoric but of substance: we need boldness and we are not getting it.

Fox and Berman anticipate this objection and disagree. They acknowledge that radical change is sometimes possible and desirable, and that extraordinary moments require bold solutions. This, they believe, is not one of those moments. There are serious problems but “that has always been the case.” They quote commentator Matthew Yglesias: “mostly I think we’re living through a time of toxic self-involved drama that threatens to make things worse through twitchy overreaction.” “To which,” the authors write, “we say: amen.”

That the problems of this era are no worse than those of others is a reasonable argument to make: humans are notoriously bad at evaluating their own times in realistic terms. But the authors don’t really make the argument, and it is a difficult assertion to accept given what seem to many outside the United States like a historic set of troubles.

Easily the most important objection to this idea, though, is climate, a difficulty lightly skipped over in the text. (It is addressed most thoroughly in a footnote in which Fox and Berman acknowledge that this may be a rare issue where non-incremental change is required, before arguing incrementalism still offers the best hope.) It is a significant gap in the book’s argument. The objection comes partly because of the size of the problem, but partly too because there is a deadline on our chance to meaningfully act. It is harder to maintain a faith in incrementalism with a loudly ticking clock in the background.

In politics, we tend to remember two types of leader: those who dealt with crisis and those who changed their country through huge reforms. In the era of Albanese, Biden and Sunak (or perhaps Starmer), Fox and Berman might have found their moment, directing our attention instead to those who go about things haltingly, through trial and error, with a nuanced view of what may happen and a humble understanding that they may know less than they think. Perhaps we are at the advent of an era of a quieter type of political figure.

There is one way in which Fox and Berman do believe this time is remarkable: the fragmentation and polarisation of the electorate. Gradual change, they say, is the way to keep their country together; by choosing solutions that most voters support, rather than policies the extremes support, you avoid backlash and bring people with you.

It is an appealing argument. The difficulty for those of us in Australia is that much of the past decade has been defined by exactly that: very, very gradual change, so gradual it might as well not have existed. The most “radical” policies of the past decade were probably those proposed by Bill Shorten as opposition leader. But they weren’t really radical — they were made to seem that way by his opponents and sections of the press. Partisanship and hyperbole, at this moment, find a way. Or perhaps when gradualism becomes the norm even the smallest attempts at slightly bigger change come to seem too frightening.

As Fox and Berman remind us, we must always work to avoid the trap of believing the world is other than it is simply because we say so. If politics works the way they propose, then, whatever our opinion, we must grapple with it. If significant changes in government are occurring outside the realm of conflict, we should know what they are. And if such changes are being presented as small but have the potential to grow with time and become dominant features of our landscape, attention should be directed to that fact. For these reasons, I suspect the people who could learn most from this book are journalists.

And there is another reason. Journalism is the first draft of history. If the political history of this era is going to have to be done a little differently from before — dominated less by conflict and more by the many small things that change only gradually — then it will need a different type of journalism to draw on. If, in twenty years’ time, you are in a book club with Anthony Albanese, perhaps you will propose reading one of those history books. But that will probably depend on how the next few years turn out: whether this really is an incrementalist government and, if so, whether that really is the best approach for these times. •

Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age
By Aubrey Fox and Greg Berman | Oxford University Press | £22.99 | 232 pages