American political culture currently contains a strong bias in favor of political and social stability over other values — implicitly, stability is promoted even more than the political values that we trumpet to the world, such as freedom, democracy, and justice. Social stability has its proper place, to be sure: no one wants social chaos; excessive change, dynamism, and tumult make for uncertain and miserable living; and a foundation of stability is needed not only for prosperity but for democracy too.* But the degree of stability that is needed is often overestimated, and the excessive emphasis on stability impedes badly needed social change — and therefore perpetuates injustice, for justice delayed is justice denied.
In current circumstances, America’s stress on stability is preventing much-needed social, economic, and political change: the civil rights movement remains incomplete, oligarchy has infested the world, and we are committing slow environmental suicide. The history of political and social progress in the United States is a history of gradual reforms achieved only after generations of exasperating struggle. This historical pattern must now give way to a new era of open-minded experimentation and adaptation.
Let me first define terms: by social stability I mean the belief that society should be orderly, calm, predictable, and only change slowly, without unexpected disruptions, especially violent ones. It also usually means orderly in the sense of adhering to the established, “normal” practices: doing things as they (appear to) have always been done; following the routine that society has established as customary and that it usually takes for granted as natural.
The primacy of stability is an excessively strong element in both our domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, democratic protest is often frowned upon and demonstrators mocked; changes is social norms and values come painfully slowly, with grave injustices like slavery and sexism taking decades to correct; and our constitutional structure resists much-needed amendment. In foreign policy, the United States has often been willing to support authoritarian or dictatorial regimes if they preserve a stable investment climate and don’t threaten the established international order, over and above the promotion of democratic governance.
In short, we reveal our in our actions and policies, if not our words, that stability is more important to us than democracy.
Some might ask, Why is this wrong? Why should freedom and democracy instead of stability have a higher priority in our ranking of political values?
- Excessive stability and orderliness are social control devices. It is easier for elites to govern if no one rocks the boat. But for the people to be democratically self-governing, they must be able to make some changes to their social, economic, political arrangements when justice and freedom demand it, i.e. alter or even tip over the established order. Having everyone buy into the primacy of social stability makes people more sheep-like, easier to control, and reduces the risk that the elite will be held accountable for their choices and actions, and so reduces democratic accountability.
- Excessive stability delays justice — sometimes for decades or even centuries. One only need look at the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States to see this. People live their entire lives under oppressive systems, sometime waiting for the blessing of social change, sometimes giving up all hope when the injustice too entrenched. Social stability is a moral evil when that which is stabilized is a tyranny. Today, stabilized injustice continues in various forms: while many of the injustices against race, sex, and gender identities are gradually weakening, many remain; and we have actually regressed on the injustices of economic class over the last four decades, as the middle and working classes have been squeezed since the 1970s, more wealth has been redistributed to the top, and social mobility has diminished.
- Stability is a value partly because it protects people’s safety, and insofar as it does so it is good in itself. But stability is also partly instrumental to other, higher values, namely individual autonomy and collective democratic self-governance. By “instrumental” I mean that stability is partly just a tool or instrument necessary to achieve higher goods, and to that degree has a secondary value to them. Therefore, when stability promotes autonomy and democracy it is a moral good, but when it hinders or prevents them it becomes a moral bad. Being instrumental to these higher values, stability must give way to change when stability hinders them and change would promote them. Like many things, there is a mean, with both the deficiency and excess of stability violating higher moral goods. When order and stability become so strong as to threaten or crush freedom and democracy, or when elites have control over social conditions such that they can impose or withhold stability for their own purposes, then the achievement of social and political change through instability — in extreme cases revolution — is justified.
We should be clear that prioritizing social stability is not the “natural” or default position, something dictated by natural law or human nature. It is a value choice: electing to maintain or to oppose the status quo is a decision that can and should be made with considerable reflection and deliberation. Continuity of institutions is desirable to maintain just social systems but must be discarded in the face of unjust ones, and human beings have the power to deliberate about and make the decision when change must begin. While democracy needs a certain degree of continuity, it also requires a certain degree of discontinuity — in fact, it’s probably the case that a healthy democracy requires a certain degree of social disorderliness in the form of challenges to established authority and convention.
The experience of other countries, especially the social democracies of Europe, shows that in a capitalist framework maintaining strong democracy, middle-class prosperity, and equal opportunity requires some degree of semi-permanent, low-to mid-grade social turbulence, because the powerful do not give up their privileges willingly: France is famous for strikes and protests, and the labor movement is stronger in other advanced industrial societies, and holds real bargaining power ultimately because labor is willing to disrupt the established order when necessary. Such strikes and street protests seem disruptive to many Americans, primarily because they are wedded to bourgeois consumerism and are indoctrinated into the belief that their lifestyles will be threatened or diminished by social change.
While no one wants social chaos, we should be much more willing to accept some inconveniences, a little bit of protest, and a little bit of disorderliness in the short run, both at home and abroad, in order to achieve the greater order of a strong and healthy democracy in the long run. Given the many problems that the world faces, we would be better of if our political culture was more experimental and more willing to try new arrangements. We have had more experimental periods in our history — our founding era was one of them, as was the New Deal — and we should look to those periods for inspiration. Progress and experimentation go hand in hand.
*Which raises the question whether the dynamism of capitalism is compatible with democracy — especially crisis capitalism, with its shock doctrine: the intentional creation and magnification of crisis, in order to exploit crisis for profit, heedless of the human suffering it causes.