How far should certain Democrats go in their policy prescriptions for the 2020 Presidential race? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders insist that Americans are eager for major initiatives, for breakthrough programs involving healthcare, higher education, infrastructure, the environment, child care, etc. Incrementalism simply won’t do any longer, not in the face of so many unmet critical needs.
Calls for such decisive actions are not received favorably by those who believe these proposals, while surely praiseworthy, are unrealistic, given current legislative realities, and so represent a leap too far. As an American historian, I would point out that most all of our much heralded and long-celebrated reform legislative breakthroughs were, when passed, considered as unduly restrictive in scope (though often expanded later on), contained unavoidable concessions. An analysis of such landmark legislation, as the Homestead Act (1862), Civil Service Reform (1883), Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890), Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), Social Security Act (1930), Wagner Labor Relations Act (1935), Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), Affordable Care Act (2010), etc., reveals that reformers rarely achieved all they hoped for. Obliged to accept the realities of the situation, they accepted compromise and prepared to fight another day. The clear message and lesson from our past: shoot for the moon and take heart even when heading back down to earth.