Why Social Movements Seem Ineffective

Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, antiwar activist, one of the Chicago Eight tried for instigating the Chicago Convention Riots in 1968, and a California State Legislator for many years, is donating his papers to the University of Michigan. He was editor of the Michigan Daily way back in the early 60's. [The fact that many of you still have no idea who I'm talking about is inevitable, and painful, but so what?]

Anyway, I heard him speak the other day, about the general history of social movements. I thought he explained a lot of what we have been through.

Social movements are unpredictable. There is nothing that will tell us in advance that it was to be the killing of Michael Brown that ignites the national movement, when African American men are killed by police or private security every 28 hours. The conditions have been there all along.

But when a social movement kicks off, both it and the elite that it confronts split into two camps.

Among the elite, there is an accommodationist wing, that wants to make small concessions to appease the social movement. And there is a repressive wing that wants to put down the rebellion.

Among the social movement, there is also a division: between a more moderate wing which seeks reform, and a militant wing, which wants longer term structural change, even revolution.

At some point, the moderates of both camps reach an agreement about the reforms that will be enacted. Think the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the result of a cooperation between Martin Luther King, Jr and Lyndon Johnson. That agreement marks the high water mark of the social movement; what it will have won, for now.

But then what happens? What happens afterwards? Just as social movements arise without warning, so also do they peak and decline. What happens in that stage?

The repressive elite does not give up, but seeks a way to continue the struggle against the reform. They minimize the reform, describe it as a mistake, reorganize to keep the fight going, to undermine or repeal the reform. Think of John McCain still arguing for more war in the Middle East.

The movement militants try to continue the movement and minimize the reform as well. So much more work to do; they are angry that the social movement seems to be losing energy and steam. Think of the common protest slogan, "I can't believe we still have to protest this stuff."

The moderate elite take credit for the reform, making themselves, and not the social movement, as the driving force of history. Who started the US withdrawal from Iraq, Barack Obama or Cindy Sheahan?

The moderate masses of the social movement move on with their daily lives. The sleeping giant seems to go back to sleep. They have no spokespeople, and no theoreticians.

The result is that vast social movements arise and win important concessions and reforms, but are never credited with any victories. A few years later, everyone with a prominent voice speaks of it as it were inconsequential, or a terrible mistake. The story gets retold as something silly and misguided.  And the attempts of the movement's militants to revive it are perceived as ego-centric hectoring by people who are stuck in the past. It's tragic, but the relationship between the militants and the moderates of social movement past its peak becomes bitter and accusatory.

A student asked Tom Hayden why the anti-Iraq War never had the effect of the Anti-Vietnam movement.

Hayden rejected the premise, and summed up the history of the Iraq War Movement this way.

In the beginning, there were demonstrations against the war; they were small, and risky; they were out of step with public opinion.

He mentioned Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11.

More demonstrations against the coming war -- getting bigger and bigger, really massive.

Bush wins the 2004 election. Democrats run Kerry who is not forthrightly anti-war. Demoralization.

Cindy Sheahan camps out at his ranch, reviving anti-war energy.

Democrats harness antiwar energy and sweep 2006 elections.

In 2008, Democrats choose Obama over Clinton. Much of the energy propelling him comes from his more forthright anti-war position.  The US policy in Iraq shifts. And stays on a policy of dis-engagement from Iraq until recently, as conditions changed.

In 2014, students talk of the anti-Iraq war movement as inconsequential. Seriously?


  1. Elisabeth8:26 AM

    Tom, this comment is about your []on knowing who Tom Hayden is. That Cosmo Photo of Burt Reynolds from the 1970s appeared on one of my 40 something friend's face book page. Almost all the comments suggested that it was homo-erotic porn. None connected it with Women's Lib. Brings regret and "so what" to me and added a whole bunch of gray hair!
    Blessings, Elisabeth

  2. I don't have a detailed knowledge of the history, and wasn't around to personally experience the anti-Vietnam war, but my sense is that one difference between the two eras is that the anti-Iraq war movement was generationally different. My image of the Vietnam peace movement is of college students (or college age at least) marching and protesting the '68 Democratic convention.

    By contrast, Cindy Sheehan wasn't a SDS leader from Ann Arbor or Madison, but the mom of a soldier who died in combat. Howard Dean was a presidential candidate in his 50s. John Kerry may not have been as emphatically anti-war as Dean, but my sense was that he absorbed a lot of that energy. The "vote for change" concert I went to with the Dixie Chicks & James Taylor definitely operated under the assumption that a Kerry victory would affect US policy in Iraq.

    This isn't a criticism of the anti-Iraq war movement but just an observation that a student thinking that it was very different from the Vietnam era protests had a point.


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