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The Need to Go Beyond Incrementalism: Go Big or Go Home

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Teklemariam
February 18, 2020

In a July 18, 2019 PA Times article titled, “Social Equity and Inclusion in Emergency management,” I argued that historically the field of emergency management had failed to be equitable in all aspects of its core planning and response phases. For far too long, we have witnessed these devastating failures, with Hurricane Katrina just being one great example. In March 8, 2020, I reflected on the oncoming pandemic with another PA Times article titled, “The Role of the Administrative State in Times of a Possible Pandemic.” In the aforementioned article, I tried to emphasize the stance of the previous administration’s proven intent to deconstruct the role of the American federal bureaucracy, and how it could lead to failure of the government to protect its citizens from potential harm, both manmade or naturally induced. Of course, not in a million years could I or anyone have imagined the overreaching impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, nor how it will inflect an immeasurable and unprecedented health and economic crisis we have yet to control over one year later.

In the political sphere, short and small windows rarely open where going big towards transformative actions can translate in shaping long-term equitable outcomes for a more just society. Historically, it is during unfortunate and critical times, such as major economic downturns, wars and social unrests. Hence the idea of going bold and not settling for the safety of incremental progress is not revolutionary, a misnomer nor an aberration to social development. Humanity today is facing one of those moments at the global scale with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when transformative action is not only necessary, but also the only option for a recovery that is equitable and just. 

For example, coming out of the Great Depression, the United States built on bold and big policies that aimed to make America a fair and just society. Perhaps the first to coin the idea of the, “First 100 days,” of a new presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt set on a bold and transformative agenda that has yet to be replicated almost 100 years later. The New Deal was not only a stabilizer for the economy, but also the linchpin to many equity-based federal programs such as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, just to name two of significance.  

In my last article on June 5, 2020 on PA Times titled, “A Trifecta of Inequity in the United States Boils to the Surface: What are We Doing Wrong?” I discussed the triple pandemics we as a society were facing in the United States. The first two reflected on the obvious disproportionate effect of the infection and death toll from the coronavirus on communities of color, as well as the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on the same populations, and the third being the social injustice of police shootings of unarmed Black Americans. With the genuine and full-hearted sentiment of the dire situation we were facing at the time (and continue to face), I had asked why public policymakers and the bureaucratic system continues to fail us as a society over and over again. I ended that article with the simple question of, “What are we doing wrong?”

Well, since the publication of that article, it gives me hope that much has changed and there is that once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to make a leap towards a more equitable society. The pandemic has put a bright light on the need for a robust government to exist in order to facilitate the unseen and underappreciated role of the bureaucratic system that all citizens need, both in times of crisis and when they function behind a vail of tranquility. Moreover, for the first time in American political history, the new administration has put equity front and center in all of its policy agendas. This includes executive actions that direct the Housing and Urban Development and Justice Departments to redress, advance and promote racial equity within their departmental policies. Yes, these are much needed changes, but let us not fall back on incremental changes, as we have seen the failure of such incredulous governmental and bureaucratic actions for more than a century. It is a time of great hope, so we must go big or go home.


Author: Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam is a Doctoral candidate at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teklemariam is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and a 2018 ASPA International Young Scholars recipient. [email protected]

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