Posted in Communicating for Social Change, Political communication

For Change, Aim Higher

As the desire for change in some form fuels every political campaign this election cycle, ensuing discussions have revealed some interesting assumptions about how change happens. I need to take issue with these assumptions, as someone who studies and teaches the processes of communication and social change.

The topic first came to my attention when I read the transcript of a discussion between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activists, Daunasia Yancey and Julius Jones. There, Clinton expressed her beliefs about how change happens:

Look I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. (Black Lives Matter, 2015)

I was struck by the power-based, top-down, coercive nature of this approach to change. It seemed to ignore or disregard the possibilities for bottom-up, communication-based, cooperative approaches. As reactions at the time indicated, Mrs. Clinton’s approach to change overlooks the power of social movements that have produced significant change in this nation and continue to do so (Berman, 2015).

As the polls tighten in the Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the topic of how change happens is again bubbling up. For example, after the Democratic Debate in South Carolina, pundits contrasted how the two leading candidates would approach change, using various versions of “the revolutionary vs. the pragmatist.” (For Democrats, 2016). As Graham (2016) phrased it,

Sanders offers Democratic voters an alluring, pure, crusading figure for a party moving leftward. Clinton offers them a more pragmatic but less emotionally fulfilling vision.

Now today, in an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “How Change Happens,” Paul Krugman echoes the same drumbeats of pragmatism and realism that Mrs. Clinton is using to distinguish herself from Senator Sanders. Of course, Mr. Krugman’s support for Mrs. Clinton over Senator Sanders is also clear, and he extols her pragmatic approach to change as a comparative virtue.

But is it a virtue? And is it how all change happens? Certainly not. The flaw in this approach to change lies in the way that it assumes the strength of opposition to change and then promptly scales down the goals in anticipation of that opposition. In other words, it is timid. And in this timidity, it actually cedes the power for making change to the opposition. To put it in Democrat-Republican terms, it is as if Mrs. Clinton and her supporters are saying that the Republicans will set the agenda for change even if Democrats hold the White House. Another limitation of this approach is that it lacks imagination. Its advocates seem to wear the blinders of the adversarial, power-based system in which they are entrenched. As a result, they see only power-based fights and change efforts that must be steered from above.

What this approach to change misses is substantial – all of the change that has been wrought in society through the leadership of visionaries and efforts of ordinary people, through courage and will, through grassroots social movements and activism, through conversations and connections at the grassroots, and through changing hearts and minds. It overlooks events like the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the movement for LGBTQ rights. It overlooks our American history.

This is not to diminish the need for pragmatism when it arises – in fact, pitting idealism against pragmatism creates a false dichotomy — but it is to say that we do not need to start there. We do not need to begin in a place that is timid and unimaginative. We can aim higher.


Berman, R. (2015, Aug. 22). Hillary Clinton’s blunt view of social progress. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Black Lives Matter confronts Hillary Clinton in overflow room: “You don’t change hearts.” (2015, Aug. 18). Real Clear Politics. Retrieved from

For Democrats, a revolutionary vs. a pragmatist. (2016, Jan. 18). CNN. Retrieved from

Graham, D. A. (2016, Jan. 17). Sanders and Clinton go to the mat. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

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