« Questioning Methods of Studying Social Movements | Main | Touraine and Historicity »

Social Movement Cohesion

One of the striking featurs of the Stewart text is the extent to which it mirrors the status of the American Left. Much in the way the Left exists on such an enormous continuum as to dilute more stable positions, the Stewart text covers so many movements by way of brief example as to render some of their conclusions rather bland. For instance, in their discussion of social movement strategies and tactics to achieve movement goals, Stewart et al. offer the relatively banal conclusion that "nearly all movements have 'radical' and 'moderate' factions and the differences are often more pronounced in tactics than in ideologies" (59). Fair enough. Stewart et al document this claim noting that the Southern Female Rights Union, the Sierra club, and various elements of the civil rights movement differed in their assessment of the viability of certain tactics. Again, fair enough.

Although I have begun with criticisms in concert with both Amy and Jessica's recent posts, I would like to attempt to begin some application of the Stewart text in order to demonstrate that the book should be judged both by the manner in which its arguments effectively correspond to actual social movements as well as by the extent to which their ideas serve a useful function for critics analyzing social movements. In fact, although some of the book is rather bland indeed, I am more than receptive to discussions of social movements or other broad rhetorical phenomena that paint in broad brush strokes and thus sacrifice thick descriptions of particular movements.

I'd like to pick up with my initial comment about the Left. Many scholars and pundits have made that claim that America has experienced so much of a rightward tilt in the last 30 years that the Left has become increasingly fragmented. The common claim is that the Left is divided over so many different issues as to compromise efforts at a singular voice. Cartoons featuring caricatures of Hillary, Bill, John, Al, Teddy, and others each shouting separate diatribes are standard features in the wake of the NSA probes and the Alito confirmation. John Stewart recently showed footage from a presumably Leftist protest that featured signs demanding abortion rights, whale protection legislation, an end to the war, and several other social and economic demands. Such pictures prompt spoofs like, "What do we want? An end to pro-life legislation, fair trade legislation, progressive taxation, a Middle East pullback, an end to nuclear testing, debt relief in Africa! When do we want it? Pretty darn soon!" Even the November 2, 2005 "walk out" at the U that was explicitly a protest against the war featured signs calling for an end to Coca-Cola's anti-revolutionary activities in Columbia, an end to global capitalism, etc. I think there was something about sea turtles in there but I can't be too sure because I got caught up in guessing how many of the event speakers could benefit from an 1101 public speaking class. How arrogant of me.

But this picture could describe the early stages of any movement. If one were to look back at the early conservative movement, various lines of fragmentation were clear. Even Barry Goldwater's campaign manager decided, a bit ironically, not to have William F. Buckley involved in the campaign because he was too far on the fringes of the Right. However, the Right's ability to coalesce in well-funded organizations, popularize through alternative media, and mobilize around a coherent vision has all but quashed once-substantial debates between Christian conservatives, neoconservatives, paleo-conservatives, libertarians, Southern Democrats. What was once a term wrought with fissures, "conservative" now presents a much more stable ideology.

Although there are multiple access points in the Stewart text to help explain this process of solidification, Stewart's discussion of devil creation was particularly insightful. For Stewart, such devils are "nebulous forces" that manifest themselves in people and in things. Nonetheless, here are some ideas that crystallize one of the Right's central cohesive efforts are, "Some social movements perceive their devils to be conspriring together in secret agreements to commit 'crimes' against the movement and therefore against 'the people.' The conspiracy may be real or merely imagined, but the process is the same; a chain of apparantly unrelated events or actions is linked to reveal concerted actions and intentions to cause all sorts of social, economic, political , religious, or moral problems." Outside of the language of conspiracy, Stewart has struck an interesting chord. I would submit that one of the most effective tools in the right's solidification has been the coalescence of its various segments around the enemy of big government. Big government at once can mean aggressive taxation and the oppression of religious expression. In other words, the nebulous enemy around which the right could mobilize, as Bush likes to say, "connects the dots" between seeminlgy unrelated actions. Furthermore, this enemy has been utilized by various conservative politicians toward different ends. Reagan's powerful statement against big government in his first inaugural does not share the same tenor of religiosity and aggressive nationalism that George Wallace's gubernatorial address did. Nonetheless, both invoked a powerful enemy in big government. As a result of their efforts at connecting the dots, even Clinton would have to declare the era of big government over in a statement he would later regret.

What is the link between Coca-cola in Columbia, abortion rights, Iraq, and saving the whales, you ask? Beats me. Nonetheless, part of the process of enemy creation is a process of issue selection. Whether or not this presents a forced choice between social and economic issues remains to be seen. However, Stewart and company have provided a useful idea in noting that enemy creation is related to connecting the dots between issues which is a central part of mobilizing successful and cohesive coalitional forces.