Urgency or Incrementalism? Bold or Patient?

"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Years, in fact. I started writing this post several weeks ago and repeatedly had to set it aside and come back to it as I tried to find the right words and the right conclusion….

The 2020 Hawaii Legislative Session is well under away. Given what is expected to be an utter train wreck for some of the most pressing issues facing the people of Hawaii, I thought now might be a good time to broach the issue.

Collaboration is Central to the Legislative Process

As a bill goes through the tedious and groaning process of drafting, public hearings, and debate, it is often important for parties on all sides to share in the pain of compromise to reach agreement before it becomes law.

This collaboration and give-and-take on important issues facing Hawaii and its residents is part of the democratic process. I am often disappointed and frustrated by this process. Over years of doing this work, I’ve learned to temper that frustration in pursuit of progress. That progress may be slow, small, and not nearly enough for my taste, but progress is progress.

Though its a lesson I have to relearn on a seemingly yearly basis, I always go back to the very first time one of my mentors drove the point home for me.

Working Families Need Help

Back in 2013 and ’14 a broad coalition of unions, community groups, and social service organizations joined together to pursue an increase to Hawaii’s Minimum Wage, which at the time hadn’t been raised in seven years.

The “Fight for $15” was just ramping up around the country, but we had decided to “ask” for $12 over three years, elimination of the tip credit (look it up) and a CPI chain (look it up, too) for future minimum wage increases. We didn’t really get any of that.

Instead, what was offered as a compromise was $10.10 over four years. A reduction of the tip credit and no CPI chain.

At the time, I was chairing for the first time the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi’s Legislation Committee. I was so angry about this low-ball offer that I wanted to give the finger to the collective legislature and take my chances at the ballot box. 2014 was an election year….

One of my then (and now) mentors pointed out that minimum wage workers, at that time, had not received a raise in nearly a decade and $10.10 was better than nothing. Some relief now. He reminded me just what we were fighting for and I acquiesced. $10.10 became the last step in a series of raises that ended January 1, 2018.

“Politics is the Slow Boring of Hard Boards and That Anyone Who Seeks to do it Must Risk His Own Soul”

That is a quote from The West Wing episode titled “Privateers”. Those who know me well know that The West Wing is my all-time favorite television show. My “I Ching”. I’ve seen nearly all the episodes numerous times. I can recite many of the scenes by heart. And I often reference the show in my own life and work.

In the last scene of the episode, President Bartlet and the First Lady are talking about a bill she hates and wants the President to oppose. In response, Bartlet quotes Max Weber, a political economist. Among other things. While Bartlet’s line is actually paraphrasing Weber, I’m regularly reminded of it.

To be clear, here’s what Max Weber actually said:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth — that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.”

Put even yet another way; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perhaps more often than any other scene or line from my favorite escape, I am reminded of this one.

But Has the Time for Incrementalism Passed?

It is very possible that Weber’s wisdom reflected the sentiment of the time. Hell, there are those who would tell me it represents the current time as well. I, on the other hand, am not so sure.

Coral reefs are dying. Oceans are acidifying at an alarming rate. Wildfires are frequent occurrences around the world. Species are dying and the world is getting warmer.

The rich are getting richer. The poor, more poor. More and more families are struggling just to survive. Life-saving drugs are financially out of reach for those who need them. Workers are working harder for less money.

The whole world seems to be spinning out of control. So, at what point do we call bullshit on incrementalism? At what point do we say urgency and bold action are what’s needed?

Friends of mine might say the time was a decade ago. And maybe they’re right. Every day, every hour, I’m getting closer to tossing overboard incrementalism as a strategy. I may be there already.

It could easily be argued that the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” mentality is what led us to this crisis moment in the first place. Both here in Hawaiʻi and across the country, incrementalism has been championed as the reasonable, sensible approach to political and economic changes.

And in Hawaiʻi, among the Democratic majority in both chambers at the State Legislature, it’s become almost a force of nature. Or a religion. In the “square building,” incrementalism reigns supreme whether it’s called for or not.

So Why Not Be Bold?

With so many in Hawaiʻi struggling to just survive. With our natural environment groaning under the weight of human-made climate change, why is progress so hard? And why aren’t more people like me screaming for elected officials to do more?

It’s a good question.

Included as a part of this process is an understanding and acknowledgment that our elected officials have fragile egos. To run roughshod over those egos is to invite ire, backlash and, unfortunately, deliberate intransigence.

That’s right. Our elected officials, so enamored by their own status, perceived righteousness, and power, will deliberately and consciously not take action on an issue if… there’s really no other way to put it… they feel slighted. If they feel we’ve been “mean” to them, they will spitefully and gleefully put a stop to legislation we want. Not because it’s bad legislation. Not because they fundamentally disagree with our position, but because they can. Because we didn’t cower or genuflect in their presence.

In Hawaiʻi, more good legislation has stalled because of fragile egos than any other reason. This, in turn, has caused lobbyists and activists to contort themselves, twist themselves into knots to avoid even the slightest whiff of disagreement.

This. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what’s wrong with Hawaiʻi politics and the reason very little ever gets done. (Check out this post from a few years ago.)

There’s also the neoliberal mindset; support the free market and everyone will thrive. No matter decades of evidence to the contrary….

And the religion that cautious incrementalism is the virtue of statesmen. Crumbs to appease the masses and so as not to upset the “free market”. But ultimately, under all the high-minded talk and charades is a group of people more concerned with themselves than the people they’ve sworn an oath to serve.

Lose Your Soul Or Fight Back

Either option sucks for different reasons.

To cautiously navigate the political eddies at the Capitol means it could be years, decades maybe, before you can feel victorious on any particular issue. Many, sometimes even myself, would say this is the smarter, safer approach.

But outside the building, observers might not be able to distinguish any progress at all. By nearly any measure that matters to ordinary people, it could be perceived we’re actually moving backward.

To take the firm stand could result in potentially years of nothing getting done. To take a firm stand against self-interested and petty legislators would certainly result in a war of attrition in which the hardest hit are the ones just fighting to get by.

More and more I ask myself; which is more noble? The small incremental victories keeping hope alive that one day we’ll wake up to a truly new world? Or the principled stand, knowing short-term losses could result in quicker, larger gains?


I don’t know the answer. I struggle every day with these questions. Sometimes I rage against friends and allies calling for incrementalism. Sometimes I urge “the slow boring of hard boards”.

In the end, maybe that’s the struggle that really matters.

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