Protest can lead to action.

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Clinton's Lesson in Politics for Activists

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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When Black Lives Matter activists confronted Hillary Clinton last week, she argued:

Look, I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not gonna change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day we can do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them to live up to their own God-given potential ... You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts. But if that's all that happens, we'll be back here in ten years having the same conversation.

That’s a powerful insight about the way American politics works. Take health care. Reform wasn’t easier to pass in 2009 than it would have been in 1993, 1963 or 1948 because Americans suddenly changed their minds. Liberals essentially have had majority support for their bedrock position -- health care should be a basic right -- for decades. The difference in 2009 was that there was a liberal president with enough votes in Congress to make it happen -- and that health care had moved to the top of the liberal agenda.

And now that Obamacare is the law of the land, a lot of people who previously might have been swayed by liberal or conservative arguments about reform have a clear stake in retaining their benefits.

The same kind of dynamic was at work in the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Change didn't happen because activists persuaded bigots to give up their prejudices; it came about because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other laws and court decisions. Living under the new laws changed minds and hearts (overt bigotry rapidly moved from mainstream in the South to a fringe position), not the other way around.

And yet the Black Lives Matter activists also have a point when they press Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This isn't about changing voters’ hearts. It's activism within a political party, which is what produces legislative and executive action. And it’s not just about whether the party has reached a general consensus on policy. Priorities matter once a party wins; the activists are pushing for their issues to rise higher on Democratic agenda so that something will happen if the party wins. 

Whether the protest politics of Black Lives Matter is an effective way to challenge party priorities is an open question (though it’s certainly better than running a stunt presidential campaign).

It’s a good reminder to the rest of us to think of the nomination contest as a party story.

Sure, there’s the clash of individuals -- Clinton vs. Sanders, or Jeb vs. Rubio vs. Walker vs. Trump et al. Within that story, issues are instrumental; that is, they are ways for candidates to gain advantage.

The more important process, however, is that the nomination contest is a way for parties to define themselves, including their positions on public policy and choice of priorities. That’s not (at least in most cases) a story about individuals, and so it doesn’t receive as much coverage because the news media has a bias in favor of stories about individuals and against those about institutions. Voter attitudes, too, get plenty of press attention, in part because polls seem objective. But the party story is the best indicator of how the nation will actually change after an election.

  1. Beyond the question of public opinion, it's even more important that U.S. political institutions create a powerful status quo bias -- which worked against health care reform until it passed, but then protected it since then. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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