Many Americans know that Edmund Hillary was the first climber known to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. A remarkable individual feat. Or was it? (More)

Winner-Take-All Politics, Part III – Who Climbed Mt. Everest? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature reviews Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker’s Winner-Take-All Politics. Thursday we looked at rising income inequality and the conventional wisdom causes: the rising value of education and technical skills, and natural forces of a modern economy. Yesterday we considered political causes: action, drift, and the “black hats” and “gray hats” of the two major parties. Today we look at Pierson and Hacker’s solutions.

A remarkable individual feat?

On May 29, 1953, New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary became the first man known to reach “the top of the world,” the summit of Mt. Everest. The common telling portrays it as a remarkable individual achievement. Fewer people know about Hillary’s climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, and those who do usually portray him as a “Sherpa guide.” In fact, Norgay was among the most skilled and experienced mountaineers of his generation, with climbs across the Indian subcontinent. The 1953 expedition was Norgay’s fifth attempt on Everest.

But the story doesn’t end with Hillary and Norgay. The 1953 expedition was a vast effort, with 12 climbers, 350 porters, 35 guides, and 18 tons of equipment and supplies. After setting up base camp in March, the expedition spent two months working their way up the mountain, with a final camp 3500 feet below the summit.

John Hunt, was the expedition leader. Indeed Hillary and Norgay were the backup team to primary climbers Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. Bourdillon and Evans made an attempt at the summit on May 26th, but Evans’ oxygen system failed 300 feet below their goal. On May 28th, Hunt gave Hillary and Norgay the go-ahead to try for the summit, and even then they did not go alone. Three support climbers accompanied them to within 1500 feet of the top, and helped them pitch a tent for the night. The three others returned to the expedition camp, and Hillary and Norgay set out for and reached the summit the next morning.

Massive Organizational Realities

Pierson and Hacker find it “revealing” that most Americans remember only Edmund Hillary, and tell the Everest story as an individual effort:

Critically, when we say this is a nation of individualists, we don’t just mean Americans embrace individualism as a social ethic. Underpinning this ethic is a tendency to interpret the world in highly individualistic terms. We distribute blame and praise to individuals, because we believe it is their individual actions, for better or worse, that matter. People get what they deserve.

Our media-driven culture of celebrity reinforces this individualistic outlook. Television, of course, is tailor-made for visual images of larger-than-life individuals. Building up (and tearing down) those who capture the media’s fancy lends itself to the simple storytelling and audiences crave. Never mind that, just like on Everest, massive organizational realities lurk behind the individualistic facade.

Along with drift, which we discussed yesterday, this passage is the key to Pierson and Hacker’s thesis. It explains how economic policy action and drift over four decades of Conservative Autumn and Winter favored our archetypal wealthy Charles over our archetypal median Fred, even as progressives made gains on issues like LGBT rights, women’s workplace rights, and electing minority candidates for local, state, and federal offices. It explains how President Obama and Democrats swept the 2008 elections, and why the Affordable Care Act and Financial Stability Act were such hard battles for incomplete victories. It explains the Tea Party rise through the 2010 midterms, and the Wisconsin protest and recall movement less than six months later. In each of those battles, the strongest and most active organizations carried the day or (in Wisconsin) appear poised for victory.

Politics as Organized Combat

And “battle” is not too strong a term. Pierson and Hacker contrast the media-driven myth of “politics as electoral spectacle” with the harsh reality of “politics as organized combat.” Most of our political dialogue focuses on individuals and personalities. But policy is made – or blocked – through institutions and organizations. As Pierson and Hacker write:

The story of organizational triumph over popular concerns has been repeated time after time, especially in the last thirty years. A possibly apocryphal story about FDR has him responding to a delegation imploring him for action: “Fine, you’ve convinced me. Now make me do it.” What he meant was, “Get some organized pressure behind you, so that I will be rewarded for doing the right thing and punished for doing the wrong thing.”

Our archetypal Charles has a vast and well-funded network of advocates: pro-business think tanks, lobbyists, and public relations firms to sway both political leaders and voters. An individual Charles may not know about proposed changes in corporate charters in Delaware that would make it harder for shareholders to challenge executive pay. But Charles’ advocates know, and as we saw yesterday they are weighing in.

In the last Progressive Spring and Summer, from roughly 1932-1968, labor unions were Fred’s organizational force. Now private sector union membership is down to 7%, despite more American workers wanting to join unions than did forty years ago. Unions could rebound, but that will require policy changes, and Republican governors and legislators spent much of 2011 working to destroy what remains of organized labor. Not all of those efforts succeeded, and those that did may yet be repealed.

But merely holding our ground on shrunken union organization will not be enough. We need stronger organizations, like the two million volunteers who carried President Obama to victory in 2008. Indeed the one point on which Pierson and Hacker fault the president is the decision not to turn Organizing for America into a mass movement for policy advocacy in 2009. We need to make groups like Democracy for America and the Progressive States Network more visible and effective organizations that can reliably push petition drives, rallies, media narratives, and turn out voters.

A recent Pew Research poll showed most Americans support the policies that would be a Progressive Spring and Summer. But individuals acting alone can’t make that happen. Only organizations can.

And, together, we will.


Happy Saturday!