Recent worldwide events have escalated concerns over political transitions and transformations. Some are fearful, while others are elated, as the news media feeds elevated adrenaline rushes. Elections, impeachments, trials and Brexit – everything is cataclysmic, requiring immediate attention, crisis intervention and loud voices.
I seldom listen, but one commentator’s remarks appeared worthy of consideration and repetition. Regrettably, I cannot remember the source, but the message is valuable: “Political change doesn’t equal social change.”
Interpreting this comment stimulates a wide range of cautious analyses of the contemporary world. When faced with elections, we sometimes fear the outcome. Will a new leader win and bring irreparable damage to our system? Some countries are so embroiled in controversy that they cannot make a choice – Israel, for example, is facing a third general election in a year. Some populations seem so torn that commentators speak of nations verging on civil war.
What we need is a measure of wisdom; of political and historical insight. When leadership teams change, we should remember that it doesn’t necessarily lead to social change. Those shifts in administration are sometimes good and sometimes not. But they are not forever. Social change occurs in many phases and in many diverse sectors of society. We cannot see it all at once.
When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, some heralded it as a symbolic victory for all African-Americans. It was hailed by some as the defeat of racism. But of course, it was not.
That political victory did not signal any far-reaching social change. It did not herald a new age of non-discrimination. It did not indicate that African-Americans would now be seen in all sorts of leadership positions. It did signal that race was less of a handicap than gender in U.S. politics.
The current president of the United States may make some people fearful of the changes he is making to the American system of governance. Yet aside from Supreme Court appointees (which are for life), none of his executive orders, firings, appointments or embarrassing diplomatic faux pas are necessarily representative of changes in the social fabric of America.
The real questions for people in places like the U.S., Israel, Quebec and Britain are: What changes are taking place within their respective social systems and communities? How are people reacting to the decisions made by their elected officials? Are the underlying social changes supporting the political changes, or are the people and communities unmoved or uninvolved, to some degree pulling in a different direction? And is there hope of other types of changes?
To turn the aforementioned quote on its head, is it possible that social change doesn’t equal political change? In other words, is it conceivable that there are social changes occurring that are not presently represented in the political system?
Hidden and slow-moving shifts in our social fabric are significant, yet hard to describe. Sometimes social changes rise slowly and push political systems to respond. The American student action on the draft and Vietnam, especially after Kent State, is one example. Perhaps Greta Thunberg will lead to real political action.
In Israel today, there are dozens of examples of Jews and Israeli Arabs, even Palestinians, working together on creative projects and finding peaceful ways of living together. There are people who are acting to change their social environment without resorting to the political sphere.
Is it possible, or desirable, to seek social and political change at the same time? Sometimes, the past paves the way for the new seamlessly. Sometimes, the old is worth preserving. Sometimes, we mix it up. How we face, manage, process, understand and carry out transitions is up to us. Change is inevitable. Politicians are not.