It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
~February 8, 1968
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
~Revolution/The Beatles (1968)
1968 was a good year for quotes, if nothing else. The first one, above, was made by a U.S. Major in reference to the bombing of Ben Tre, South Vietnam as reported by AP correspondent Peter Arnett. It seems particularly relevant when some members of the Democratic Party are telling us we need to blow up the party to win elections. The second presents an oxymoron similar to jumbo shrimp or civil war. If revolutionaries and evolutionists both want to change the world, is the pathway an evolutionary revolution?
There is considerable evidence this seemingly contradictory approach to change is more than a theory. It is an empirical fact dating back to the founding of the United States. The American Revolution did not begin as a colony-wide uprising following adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It started with the Boston Tea Party, a localized event on December 16, 1773. Likewise, armed resistance commenced on a knoll called Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. In the modern parlance of social experiments, you might refer to these two episodes in the battle for independence as “pilot projects,” which following “proof of concept” were scaled up to become the Revolutionary War.
The concept of testing ideas at the state and local level is embodied in the the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. In the case of New State Ice Co. v Lieberman (1932), Justice Louis Brandeis labeled this school of thought as “laboratories of democracy.” In a dissenting opinion, Brandeis wrote:
It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.
Consider the following examples where dramatic changes in national policy, some might call revolutions in governance, occurred through the process of evaluation at the state level before deployment through federal mandate. One of the earliest instances was women’s suffrage. Fifty-one years before passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the Wyoming legislature, while the future state was still a territory, passed the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869. Several states followed suit, further demonstrating the world would not implode if females were allowed to vote.
In 2010, we witnessed the same sequence of adoption unfold when it came to the Affordable Care Act. Many of the provisions had been tested in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney’s leadership. More recently, enactment of marriage equality laws in six states and the District of Columbia precipitated a showdown in the Supreme Court which guaranteed, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the right of marriage to same-sex couples under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.
The “laboratories of democracy” approach has not always resulted in nationwide ratification of a political or social movement. Perhaps, the best example is the so-called “Kansas Experiment” in supply side economics and the stimulus power of large income tax cuts enacted in response to the 2013 election of Republican Sam Brownback as governor. The enabling legislation was repealed in 2017 after the tax cuts resulted in a soaring state deficit, draconian reductions in education spending and anemic job growth compared to neighboring states. Louisiana under Republican governor Bobby Jindal mirrored the experience in Kansas. Politically, both states elected Democratic governors, a clear sign of dissatisfaction with these failed experiments.
SIDE NOTE: One might ask why Donald Trump and the Republican Congress did not take this into account when they enacted the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 which has more than doubled the deficit compared to the last year of the Obama administration. Simple. States which lost revenues had to cut back services because their constitutions require balanced budgets. When citizens realized they missed valued public services which vanished as the necessary revenues to maintain these services disappeared, they demanded repeal of the tax cuts.
Which brings me to Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All. His cause would be much better served if he had followed Justice Brandeis and the history of other political and social revolutions in American. You do not need to destroy the Democratic Party to save it. A more realistic path would have been to follow the Beatles who reminded us change comes from a combination of revolutionaries and evolutionists who all want the same thing. Proponents of Medicare for All would be better served to find a state that is willing to test it, moving any assessment of success as a national health care system from speculation to empirical analysis.
And those too impatient to test their ideas before demanding everyone accept them need to pay attention to the second verse of the Beatles’ “Revolution” when they warn:
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
For what it’s worth.