How do Social Movements Gain Political Power? (4c)
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Aug 20, 2007 at 11:04:36 AM EST
At the recent Yearly Kos conference I handed out a flyer on Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right. This is the last post on the advice in the section from the flyer on the need to "Decode the Right's Agenda on Your Issue." To do this means undersatnding how the Christian Right is actually a series of smaller sub-movements working on projects over time in which there are disagreements over specific projects, but a general consensus on a number of broad issues, often involving gender and church-state issues. In the same way, the Christian Right is itself part of a broader coalition of social movements--libertarians, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, militarists, corporate interests--which also are involved in political movements within the Republican Party to elect candidates and pass legislation.

The two Yearly Kos panels on the Religious Right I was on with Fred Clarkson and Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite featured our assessment that the Christian Right social movements had successfully outmanuevered progressive social movements and the Democratic Party. Political Research Associates, where I have worked for the past 25 years, has been studying sociological social movement theory and how the Political Right uses ideology, frames, and narratives in a creative an effective manner. The last post looked at how ideology, frames, and naratives work together to build a strong social movement. But what do we need to know about social movements themselves in order to craft effective counter-strategies to challenge the Christian Right?

The following list has been developed over the years at PRA, and this is the version I use:

What are the basic building blocks of a successful social movement:

  • A discontented group of politicized persons who share the perception that they have common grievances they want society to address;
  • A powerful and lucid ideological vision linked to strategies and tactics that have some reasonable chance of success;
  • The recruitment of people into the movement through pre-existing social, political, and cultural networks;
  • A core group of trusted strategic leaders and local activists who effectively mobilize, organize, educate, and communicate with the politicized mass base;
  • The efficient mobilization of resources that are available, or can be developed, to assist the movement to meet its goals;
  • An institutional infrastructure integrating political coordination, research and policy think tanks, training centers, conferences, and alternative media.
  • Opportunities in the larger political and social scene that can be exploited by movement leaders and activists;
  • The skillful framing of ideas and slogans for multiple audiences such as leaders, members, potential recruits, policymakers, and the general public.
  • An attractive movement culture that creates a sense of community through mass rituals, celebrations, music, drama, poetry, art, and narrative stories about past victories, current struggles, and future successes.
  • The ability of recruits to craft a coherent and functional identity as a movement participant.
This list is based on the work of Goffman, Zald, McCarthy, Meyer, Gamson, Snow, McAdam, Benford, Klandermans, Johnston, Ewick, Silbey, Polletta, and many other scholars. The list is part of a page on how social movements work at PRA's PublicEye.org website, which itself reflects input from a study on mapping social movements for women donors conducted by PRA founder Jean Hardisty with Ana Perea. A few years ago I wrote about the practical outcomes of movement building by the U.S. Political Right for Z Magazine in an article titled: "Social Movements Need An Infrastructure To Succeed":
The U.S. Human Rights Network observes, “human rights are protected through building social movements.” Now we have a practical demonstration that human rights can be undermined through building backlash counter-movements. Central to the conservative plan was understanding that social movements pull political movements toward them, not the other way around. Social movements are often involved in politics, but they step beyond the limits of the electoral and legislative system to use other means ranging from demonstrations to civil disobedience and beyond.

Conservative strategists studied how the labor movement had yanked the Roosevelt administration into crafting a social safety net in the 1930s. They studied how the civil rights movement had whacked the Democratic Party in the north into pulling away from the segregationist demands of the southern Democratic Party “Dixiecrats.” So conservatives decided to build a right-wing social movement to pull the Republican Party to the right. It worked. 

Instead of learning this lesson, Democratic Party strategists have raised millions of dollars to fund inside-the-beltway policy think tanks that do publicity and opposition research rather than building a network of social movements to create an actual base. These Democratic Party strategists are Wrong About the Right, according to an article by Jean Hardisty & Deepak Bhargava. More on this in a later post.

For now the obvious lesson is that the more we know about how social movements actually gain power, the more likely we are to build successful counter-movements


Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right

Making Distinctions - Seeing Possibilities (1)
Recognize that the Right is a Complex Movement (2)
Respecting the Right to Hold Religious Beliefs You Find Offensive (3)
Decode the Right's Agenda on Your Issue (4a)
Ideology, Frames, and Narratives in Right-Wing Social Movements (4b)
How do Social Movements Gain Political Power? (4c)

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates --- Chip's Blog




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I have to agree.  I see the Democrats acting within the party much the same as the Republicans:  an oligarchy of "good old boys" whose prejudices and opinions are the guidelines of the party and a hierarchical organizational structure much the same as the Republicans.  How can we claim the Republican party is a pyramid but the Democrats offer an alternative when the Representatives do exactly as Nancy Pelosi says?

They aren't even listening to polls much less dirtying their hands with building grassroots organization the way the Neocons did in churches.  What galls me the most in their "you can't fault us if we don't stand for anything" strategy is precisely that they don't offer an ideological vision the way the Republicans did.  And, yes, I'm sure that is a stand coming straight from an inside-the-beltway think tank that loves the mythical middle-of-the-road voter.  In a society that has been split 50-50, what can be more insane than riding the trough of an inverse normal curve with little more than a PR campaign?

by smchris on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 11:11:30 AM EST

I agree.

It is so amazing that the idea that spin can replace bold stands on important issues will somehow bring the Democrats to power.

We need to build networks of progressive grassroots organizations to drag the Democrats kicking and screaming back into real political struggles.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Aug 22, 2007 at 10:16:58 PM EST
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