Many self-righteously sober-minded liberals scoff at activist calls for political revolution. They focus instead on incremental reforms and tiddlywink improvements that, they insistently tut-tut, are moderate and thus achievable.
However, if the Democratic Party wants to stave off political collapse, liberals would do well to consider reform that is so aggressive that it makes drastic and fundamental changes to the structure of society — what we might call revolutionary reform.
And here's the thing: Revolutionary reform is possible. It has already happened here — twice.
Revolution is a capacious concept. And while there has only been one official revolution in American history, there have been at least two other events that by rights ought to qualify. The first was Reconstruction, which made spectacular changes to the basic American political structure: creating due process, abolishing slavery, and enfranchising four million freedmen at a stroke, among a great many smaller programs. The change was so drastic that while the new order lasted, it required a military occupation of the defeated South to stick — and even after the ensuing counterrevolution enserfed and disenfranchised those freed people, many of the institutions that had been created remained, even in the South (like public schools).
The second revolution is the New Deal. This was a tremendous overhaul of the basic American economic structure, changing it rapidly from the 19th century's unfettered capitalism to a mixed economy recognizing the absolute necessity of vastly expanded government responsibilities. Workers got sweeping new union rights, the rich got stiffly taxed, the old got Social Security, and new government agencies took a much more active role in overseeing most economic sectors — especially finance, which had proved to be so incredibly dangerous in 1929. As historian William Leuchtenberg writes, over a few months in 1935 President Roosevelt got Congress to debate the "most far-reaching reform measures it had ever considered. In the end, Roosevelt got every item of significant legislation he desired."
By far the most important factor in such revolutionary reforms is the rottenness of the existing state. "All successful revolutions," as John Kenneth Galbraith said, "are the kicking in of a rotten door." And America's door may well be rotten.
Congress has seldom been more dysfunctional, or more hated. Constitutional mechanisms that are supposed to separate powers are plainly not working at all. Nearly every day brings a new astonishing revelation of corruption, grotesque immorality, or sheer bug-eyed nuttiness from a president who will certainly go down as one of the worst in American history. It seems, as Adam Davidson writes, that his presidency is going to collapse somehow or another, and soon.
Yet Vox's Dylan Matthews argues that this yearning for some kind of apocalyptic release from President Trump is itself bad: "The mounting desire for something cataclysmic that could change their trajectory strikes me as dangerous. The best we can do, I fear, is to muddle along and try our best to keep things from getting worse."
It is surely correct that simply getting rid of Trump won't fix the country. But if one wishes to preserve American society, rapid revolutionary reforms will be necessary. As in the late 1920s, American is once again a tremendously unequal and corrupt society — and now one of two parties is in the grips of a pervasive political lunacy. Fundamental restructuring to crush the power of the extreme right, wrench down inequality, address the grotesque legal double standard between the poor and the rich, and make America's democratic institutions more in line with a normal parliamentary democracy are just the kind of "reform from above" ideas that might keep America from collapsing.
Muddling along, by contrast, is mostly what Democrats under President Obama did from 2009 through 2016. Some positive changes were made, to be sure, but mainly it was a restoration of the status quo. The result was President Trump.
The worst predictions of the Trump presidency have not come true. And Democrats will probably win back power in 2020 or later. But if a future person or group does overthrow American democracy, I fear it will be because the coming cohort of Democrats could not overcome their traditional cringing timidity (or corruption) and match their program to the size of the problems besetting the nation.