Building a Movement, Socially
Jesse Singal puts together some advice for lefties who want to protest Trump:
Take the anti-abortion activists who were the subject of Munson’s book The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works. “I went back and I tried to determine what were their beliefs about abortion the first time they were involved in some kind of pro-life activity,” whether a protest in front of a clinic, the March for Life, or whatever else,” he explained. “At that moment, only half of them would have considered themselves pro-life.” Moreover, a quarter “would have openly said they were pro-choice.” So why do they get involved? Someone asks them to. In one instance, for example, a woman’s eventually intense, long-term involvement in anti-abortion causes began simply because her doctor, whom she respected a great deal, asked her to come to an event. Prior to that, it just wasn’t something she had thought of.
Now, imagine if this woman, or the other half of the activists Munson had interviewed who didn’t identify as anti-abortion, had been told at the outset that they were only welcome if they had certain preexisting beliefs about abortion. It very likely would have prevented them from becoming effective members of the movement. That’s a lesson Munson thinks today’s organizers should keep in mind: The more your movement broadcasts ideological demands, the more you drain the pool of potential members. There also appears to be a tendency, among lefty protesters, to bundle together all sorts of disparate causes — Black Lives Matter is paired with climate justice is paired with freeing Palestine, and so on. From the point of view of a potential newcomer, it can be daunting. [emphasis mine] “There’s this strong tendency in these protest groups to want to be ideologically pure,” said Heaney. “They’re much more concerned that they say their own piece and that they believe that they are right — that’s more important to them than actually achieving policy changes.”
Munson took that critique even further. “This has historically been one of the differences between the left and the right,” he said, “and it’s one of the things the left can learn from the right. What my research has found is that the right has far fewer ideological purity tests for activism than the left does. So they’re taking all comers and they’re converting people in action. Just come, and just do it. By contrast, there’s a whole language you need to know from some of the left groups — your ability to be involved often depends on already having a healthy résumé of doing other lefty things. I think that that basically makes it a kind of echo chamber, and it doesn’t allow you to bring in new blood.” The right, he said, has historically been more inclusive. “The anti-abortion folks are the ones that I know the best, but the right, they set up internships and they have summer programs and they organize these campaigns, and anyone who shows up they just take. And you’ll either be turned off and leave or you’ll become one of them.”
The fact that it’s usually social ties and networks, not hard-nosed ideology, which creates and cements newcomers’ activism offers hints not just about how protests should be framed to maximize the size of the crowd that will show up, but also what the next steps should be. After all, if most of the protesters who converge on Washington in January subsequently return home and never participate in fighting Trump’s agenda, they won’t have accomplished much. What’s key, said Munson, is to create the potential for newcomers to get enmeshed in activist-y social networks, but to not make the initial ask of them too intimidating. “I think it really does require that you figure out how to keep people involved in lots of everyday ways,” he said. “And in ways that involve more than simply sending in a check every six months or every year, or forwarding things on a Facebook feed — to get people actually practically involved, but not involved in huge ways, ways that are costly in terms of time and effort and things like that.”
I commented on ideological bundling recently on Twitter and got a nice response from OT Commentarian Dan Miller who said that the left has a long tradition of it because it’s good for recruiting. All hands on deck, so to speak. When Planned Parenthood tweets support for protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline or Black Lives Matter, it draws attention of both groups to both causes. This is true, as far as it goes, but it can also be, as Heaney says, daunting. People who are unsure about one may not want to get involved in the other, or be made to feel unwelcome. Responses to this notion are sometimes that if they’re not on board with this other cause, they’re not really allies. Or something to that effect. Sometimes, though, it’s a question of not being on board with it yet. Or, alternately, not having thought about it. Either way, it can be a barrier to entry. It may be tactically wise, or it may not be, but there is certainly a downside.
A while back, Katherine Miller wrote the following:
Anyway, the point of all this was that we’d go, and we’d read the readings (George Orwell and Tom Wolfe and so forth), and we’d put out the paper, and meet other people who put out the paper, and who liked doing the things we did, who thought like we did, the kind of friends whose weddings we might someday attend, and in the end, set in our conservative beliefs, we would go forth into the media and change it from within.
The thing is, I wasn’t really about it. I didn’t want to protest for the cause of liberty; I’d never read William F. Buckley or G.K. Chesterton. I was unromanced by that prospect, and I remain so. I joined the paper because they let me write whatever I wanted, and I got involved because the people involved — so smart, so cool, I thought — were so nice, so welcoming, [emphasis mine] to let me into this literary club. And in the place in my heart where I am forever a little lonely, where I am forever hoping that I can pass through the day silently and avoid some mistake, I can see my future unfurling from that kindness.
A lot of conservatives were really non-plussed by that part. Wait, this was being written by someone who wasn’t even conservative? But I read that part and nodded. I’d seen those dynamics at work, and they were effective.
I don’t ascribe my own (now in remission) partisan leanings towards my experience with the Colosse Review, but it was certainly something that was there. I had already lurched to the right (as far to the right as I’d get, which is still no very far to the right) by the time I became involved, and I became involved at the tail end of the enterprise, but it was a great opportunity to write something and have it published. You were invited to events and parties. You met congressional candidates (usually the hopeless ones), the County GOP Chair. And very little was required of you, ideologically speaking.
Obviously, you weren’t going to write something in the Colosse Review about the Means of Production rightfully residing with The People, but heretical beliefs were accepted without judgment. In my case, it was gay marriage. Both of the top two writers opposed tort reform, which was a big deal at the time. Another thought that limiting access to abortion was insane. The focus tended to be the commonalities.
I don’t know how such a venture would work today, if it would. But Miller herself remains an example of how it might. There was a Twitter discussion recently on rightward Twitter about an increasing number of conservative-publication journalists going mainstream. Their conservatism couldn’t be vouched for, but it was considered a positive development by conservatives because at least they speak the language. They have the exposure, which for conservatives is good even if they don’t write from an especially conservative perspective (or don’t believe in it).
At times the barriers to entry may be too low, of course, leading to the inclusion of people like Southern Avenger, but there is something to be said for a model that recognizes how social politics is. We come by our views by way of ideology, self-interest, self-image, and the social. As Singal has pointed out, it’s the “social” that is most likely to be overlooked and the ideological that is most likely to be overstated. Most people don’t have well-formed worldviews, and those that do tend to be subject to change. The Ordinary Times commentariat is not normal. And when people have shallow or incomplete worldviews, the gaps are most likely to be filled by the people around them. And if views aren’t, then the views of the players almost certainly are. You’re less likely to fall prey to overly simplistic versions of who “they” are when you’ve spent a lot of time around them in a cooperative environment.
Political science tells us that once people vote for a particular party for a couple of cycles, they become reliable voters for that party. That might seem to contradict the part about not having well-formed worldviews, but in fact it reinforces it. Political parties and loyalties are, as much as anything, a social activity. Political parties change over time, and huge chunks of the party change with them. They often take their cues from party leaders (or somebody), and those views filter down to the rank-and-file. Or they start to spread through the rank-and-file, and it becomes the consensus view. Not because everybody has carefully examined the pros and cons and come to a determination, but because they start hearing, from people they trust, asymmetrical arguments of fact and opinion. Unless there is a strong resistance to the notion, it will as often as not take hold.
Sometimes resistance does occur. Even the most superficial of us are not blank slates. It didn’t matter how much everybody else at the Colosse Review thought that gay marriage was a bad idea. I wasn’t budging. If we’ve spent a good part of our lives sincerely believing something, social pressure is going to be hard-pressed to change our perspective. It can happen, but it’s not terribly likely to happen quickly, if it happens at all. But a lot of views are not especially deep. They’re gut reactions, or immediate self-interest, and subject to persuasion. if, that is, the people around us are attempting to persuade us.
It’s also the case that new issues come on the horizon, and we haven’t even had time to consider them. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is one such issue. Now, some people are pro-environment and others are pro-energy and come into the discussion with a bias towards one or the other, but few are against all pipelines and few favor pipelines everywhere, so the question of this particular issue is often informed by who we’re talking to. War often works the same way. Some people are naturally dovish, while others are naturally hawkish. And in any given place, we have preconceived ideas at how important it is for us to get involved, or not get involved, in a particular region. But for a lot of us it depends on the details, and the details depend on who we are talking to, who we trust, and what they have to say.
This, of course, is the biggest argument for bundling. If we like and trust Planned Parenthood, then their endorsement of the DAPL protesters becomes enough for us. If we like and trust Planned Parenthood, than what they have to say about Black Lives Matter becomes enough for us. So they do risk alienating Blue Lives Matter folks, and Team Drill Baby Drill, but given their popularity and resources perhaps they can afford to. The DAPL protesters on the other hand are trying to make their case, and maybe it’s best to focus on the task at hand. An alliance with anti-fluoride people could be useful, and everything worked out for them (despite some conflict with the anti-fluoride folks, but it’s more likely to distract. Similarly, one of the head honchos at the Colosse Review became very involved in criminal justice reform as a conservative cause. I follow him because he invited me to Christmas parties when I was 22 and I agree with his cause, and I notice that his organization is meticulously neutral to everything but the task at hand. They took no stance on Trump and lauded Rick Perry’s work on the subject both when he was for and when he was against Trump. He has his cause to pursue, and he wants as many people on board as possible.
So Singal’s and Heaney’s advice is worth considering, up to a point. The more success you have, and the more popular you become (at in the pertinent circle, though preferably outside of it as well), the more you can use your influence for tangential causes that you support. But know when you’re not operating from a position of strength, and focus accordingly. Inclusiveness is not just an ideal, but often a tactical advantage.