On the Road to Change: The Psychology of Progress

The morning after last November's historic election, triumphant chants of "Yes We Did" drowned out the Obama campaign message of "Yes We Can." Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, "I don't think that people should be fearful about our future."

The morning after last November's historic election, triumphant chants of "Yes We Did" drowned out the Obama campaign message of "Yes We Can." Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, "I don't think that people should be fearful about our future."

The striking contrast highlights the fact that any long and difficult journey should be measured in two parts - the distance already traveled, and the distance still left to go. Both measurements are necessary to really understand how much progress you've made toward reaching your destination. Neither one alone is sufficient.

This simple idea - appreciated by many a parent during road trips with young children repeatedly asking "Are we there yet?" - has special relevance for progressives as we contemplate where we stand today. On the one hand, we rejoice that the previous administration's unprecedented incompetence, corruption, secrecy, and lawlessness are fading in our rear-view mirror each day. On the other hand, we are sobered by the realization that the horizon ahead is clouded by a crippled economy, an inadequate healthcare system, and multiple wars with no clear end in sight.

These competing tensions are readily apparent in the daily news headlines. One day last week, for example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed a sharp one-month jump - from 26% to 41% - in the percentage of Americans who think the country is headed in the right direction. A very encouraging sign. But then the following day the Labor Department reported that 651,000 people had lost their jobs in the month of February alone. These Americans are certainly not among those now brimming with greater optimism.

This is more than just a "half-empty versus half-full" moment. It's a reminder that these dueling psychological perspectives will inevitably shape our efforts as we push forward in our pursuit of progressive goals, as we look for ways to collaborate with policymakers and with each other, and as we confront resistance from those who will smugly smile and celebrate if we fail.

Some valuable guideposts for this unfolding journey can be found in an intriguing study published last year by social psychologists Amanda Brodish, Paige Brazy, and Patricia Devine. Comparing the responses of White and non-White Americans to survey questions about racial progress in the United States, here's what these researchers found:

* The non-White participants perceived significantly less progress toward equality for minorities in the U.S. than did their White counterparts.

* The non-White participants primarily relied on comparisons with the future rather than the past in forming their judgments about the extent of racial progress.

* A subset of White respondents displayed three characteristics: they focused on comparisons with past inequality, they emphasized that much progress has already been made, and they scored higher than others on a measure of racial prejudice.

Although this study focused specifically on perceptions about racial progress, it can help illuminate the challenges facing progressives as we track our progress toward a more equitable world.

First, many of those who have suffered most egregiously from the heartless and greed-driven agenda of the Bush years will understandably be skeptical and slow to embrace the view that better days have arrived. They will not easily be persuaded that things are suddenly different now. Personal experiences of hardship and injustice create powerful and stubborn mindsets that are not quickly changed without tangible improvements in the circumstances of people's daily lives. A freshly-paved road offers little promise if your car is stuck in the mud.

Second, over time many vulnerable individuals and groups - for whom progressive policy alternatives offer real hope - will evaluate their situations much more in terms of goals not yet achieved rather than on the basis of progress made to date. Although this particular focus may seem to discount important advances, it represents a reasonable perspective for those who have learned that their plight and efforts have typically been forgotten as soon as the news cycle changes. Ongoing forward momentum requires never coming to a complete stop. Or to look at it another way, no matter how clean and attractive it may be, a highway rest stop is nobody's dream home.

Finally, given their support for "free" markets and greater inequality, many conservatives will be quick to argue that enough change has already taken place - while secretly longing for the "good old days" of elite rule and consolidated wealth. Despite appeals to bipartisanship, they will oppose and obstruct all efforts to advance policies with real redistributive effects, claiming that they are unnecessary, unwarranted, or dangerous. In short, as progressives we need to recognize that Rush Limbaugh and his supporters will never be well-behaved passengers on the road trip we're undertaking. Given a chance, they will grab the steering wheel from us, find excuses for time-consuming detours, or simply flatten the tires. As we've recently heard from the very top of their ranks, they would love to see us fail.

There is no doubt that this is an ascendant moment and a special opportunity for progressive advocates for a more just society. But this new era has begun during a time of turmoil and despair. For many people, things are slipping backward even as the stage is finally set to move forward.

Unfortunately, we simply don't get to live in the utopian world where the first leg of our collective journey unfolds under cloudless skies. These realities reinforce the critical role that dueling perspectives on progress will play in the weeks and months ahead - and we need to understand all of them. Psychological perceptions will often be at least as important as any facts on the ground. So even when we think we've traveled great distances in leaving the past eight years behind us, we are wise to heed the warning on our car's side-view mirror: "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."

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