Recently, I noticed–during a television commercial in which an S. C. Johnson representative was telling us that their products are both environmentally friendly and effective–that by consumer demand “green” in becoming essential for business. Not because laws were passed that mandated that S. C. Johnson make less harmful cleaning products, but because the public wanted–or was perceived to have wanted–this.
One thing that has come up a lot in the Democratic race for president, though usually obliquely, is the difference between bottom up and top down change. Hillary Clinton has sold herself as the woman to face down the special interests and get things done in Washington. Barack Obama has sold himself as a man who can bring the American people to his side and get change by the sheer force of popular demand.
When it is discussed, it’s usually mentioned that Mr. Obama was once a community organizer in Chicago. And that community organizing works by convincing lay people to get involved or change their position, not by playing games in the center of power.
There is also mention of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously fought with President Johnson over civil rights legislation. And when told that he didn’t have the votes to get his legislation passed headed back out to the street, proclaiming that all he needed was more action, more organizing, more public attention and hence, public outcry.
And indeed, it’s hard to deny that without such action popular support would not have been behind the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The point that people, having seen the injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the outright racism of many whites would not and could not tolerate the injustice was made, as The Race Beat pointed out, long before the movement, by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.
Now, the movement could not have changed everything on its own. Bottom up organizing has hundreds of inherent problems. Surely some businesses may have given in to popular demand and ended segregation if they’d not been legally mandated to do so, but it’s highly unlikely that it could have been eliminated so radically and swiftly without action from the powerful. And the powerful are, far too often, insulated and safe from the will of people.
It’s also important to remember that S. C. Johnson ad. And though it’s very possible that the company is truly committed to environmental preservation and the citizen’s safety, without external verification such ads could be simple greenwashing. The people must depend on the powerful for such verification.
The two method of change, by the people and for the people, are not mutually exclusive. The will of the people, in legitimate honest and open democracies changes who is powerful. And who is powerful influences strongly what is done for the people.
Surely something is to be said for Senator Clinton’s insistence that Barack Obama’s vision of change may be empty. But if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that when given truly open and democratic control of their leaders, the majority of the people get who they want and the changes they seek. It simply does not work the opposite way.