The president as Chief Change Manager

Photograph by Kayla Rice

I’m not the first to remark on this, but I’ll write it anyway: We have reached a point in American history at which the Pope is more progressive than the Republican party.

As His Holiness brings human kindness into vogue, even non-Catholics are posting pictures of Pope Francis on Facebook and emailing snippets from his speeches to their friends. He’s bringing sexy back to faith, hope and charity, and putting all the forgotten heroes of the Beatitudes into the spotlight.  To echo Eric March:  That is some papal badassary.

But back to the Republicans.  Specifically, the TPR (“Tea Party Republicans”).  Why all the nastiness? Toward the president, their Democratic colleagues, and their fellow Republicans?

I asked a friend this over dinner.  She told me, “Poor change management.”

It’s a brilliant insight. And I completely agree. There is enormous social change going on right now. Same sex marriage, legalized marijuana, transsexuals on television, and the end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Many of us celebrate these changes as evidence of human progress. But many people don’t. And while much of this resistance comes out of bigotry, I wonder if, more often than not, the resistance is simply resistance.

Many people just don’t like change.

It’s scary and uncertain, and we have a tradition in this country of treating social change as a transaction, a political win, a door closing on a loud debate, rather than a process that unfolds over time.

When I hear people down-talking Obama for tearing up the country, I think, “What?  Cheaper healthcare and marriage equality?  Where’s the problem?”  It all makes sense to me.  But for a lot of people, the shifts taking place right now are mind-blowing.  And there’s no national plan for bringing these people along, no forum for talking about what scares them, not without ripping them apart and labeling them “haters.”

Strangely, as our country has become more inclusive, we’ve become more exclusive.  There’s a right way to talk about change and a wrong way.  And we don’t want to hear the wrong way.  We don’t want our change to be messy.

But change, by its very nature, just is.

I’m in the camp that believes history will celebrate Obama for the social progress that has taken place during his presidency. With Obamacare and same sex marriage, we should feel as though we’re headed toward a kinder world, but we don’t.  Political discourse right now is just plain ugly, and as our nation’s leader, Obama needs to take a hit for the bad blood — both in Washington and on Facebook. Change management hasn’t been a part of his political strategy. He has been focused on winning and then on celebrating his winning.  And if you look at where the country has gone over the last 6 years, most “wins” go to the Democrats.

But if only the half the country feels as though it’s part of the winning team, can we truly call all this progress “winning”?

History belongs to the victors, that’s the saying.  But history is also chock full o’ losers who have risen from the ashes to wreak reactionary havoc.  Just look at what’s going on right now in North Carolina.  You can mock that mess as a circus and make fun of the ridiculous claims coming out of the proceedings, but those legislators are threatening to ruin people’s lives, and they’re fighting to ban a medical procedure that has been legal in this country for decades.

Back in 1973, the Roe v Wade supporters probably thought they could call the Supreme Court ruling a win, shut the political door and move on to other issues.  But here are we, more than forty years later, and we still can’t call reproductive freedom a social change that’s “done.”  We can’t seem to get to past tense on this.  The opposition, though it’s a minority, refuses to accept the change and move on.

Here’s the problem:  Effective change isn’t a contest in which the winners get to high-five each other while the losers get stuck cleaning up the locker room.  Majority support doesn’t ensure that change will be sustainable.  And the never-ending victory speeches given by the winners rarely remove opposition; they foster hostility and widen the divide.

When will the TPR concede that Obamacare has increased Americans’ access to affordable health care? Never. Partly because some of them are nuts, but also because this change isn’t theirs.  The Democrats excluded them from its creation and then from its success. And, yeah, it would be great if everyone in Congress would be gracious and statesmanlike in the face of defeat. But they aren’t. And they’re not alone. In corporations, universities, little leagues, garden clubs, and pretty much everywhere, when the majority forces change onto the minority and then treats that change as a partisan victory, rather than an inclusive process to be managed, backlash is right around the corner.

The cliche is true:  Change is a journey. And everybody needs to get on the bus to make the trek successful, even the people who didn’t support going on the trip. Getting a contentious bill passed in Congress isn’t the end of the change process; it’s the beginning. It’s just backing the bus out of the driveway.  If you leave people behind, though, they aren’t going to stand on the sidewalk, quietly waving as that bus goes by. They’re going to siphon off the fuel, slash the tires and pour sugar in the engine. They’ll spend all their creative energy on trying to derail the change, rather than working to make the change even better.

I’m personally delighted to see all this social change. But I’m not delighted that a large portion of my fellow Americans feel that their views are being dismissed and disrespected. I’m not delighted that the resentment they feel is fueling support for reactionaries, like Ted Cruz. No one serves America by threatening to shut down our government. Bullying and blackmail are never good for our country. But we have gotten to this place where Congressional childishness is the go-to strategy, in part, because people are being left behind. And they don’t like it.

Somebody smart recently wrote that the problem with politicians is that they spend all their time trying to get into office but none of their time thinking about how to make a difference once they get there. Something similar can be said about social change. Our leaders love to set it in motion and celebrate change as victory, but they refuse to take on the harder job of managing that change, which requires a large dose of humility and a plan for helping the opposition take part and shine.

Who in Washington is going to drive that bus?