What Successful Movements Have in Common7 December, 2016 / Articles
The declaration of surrender was touted as a triumph: “Microsoft Loves Linux,” the headline read, but just a decade earlier, the firm’s then CEO, Steve Ballmer, had called Linux a cancer. The all-powerful tech giant had lost and lost badly — to a ragtag band of revolutionaries, no less — but still seemed strangely upbeat.
Overthrows like these are becoming increasingly common and not just in business. As Moisés Naím observed in his book, The End of Power, institutions of all types, from corporations and governments to traditional churches, charities, and militaries, are being disrupted. “Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep,” he writes.
The truth is that it’s no longer enough to capture the trappings of power, because movements made up of small groups are able to synchronize their actions through networks. So if you want to effect lasting change today, it’s no longer enough to merely command resources, you have to inspire opponents to join your cause. History shows these movements follow a clear pattern.
Make Your Purpose Clear
In a previous article about why some movements succeed and others fail, I compared the Occupy and Otpor movements. Occupy, as most people are aware, was a band of young activists who took over Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to protest against social and economic inequality. Otpor was a similar group in Serbia that sought to overthrow the Milošević regime.
Despite their similarities, the results they achieved couldn’t have been more different. In the case of Occupy, the protesters were back home in a few short months, achieving little. Otpor, on the other hand, not only toppled Milošević, it went on to train activists in the Georgian Rose Revolution, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, just to name a few.
One reason for the disparity is that while Otpor had one clear goal, to overthrow Milošević, it was hard to tell what Occupy wanted to be done. As Joe Nocera noted in a New York Times column, the group “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the “oppressive” power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.”
Clarity of purpose is a common theme in successful movements. For example, Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus, because they favored a plan for more comprehensive change, but he saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.
Values Are More Important Than Slogans
In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal argued that building a shared purpose is essential to distributed action. “An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness,” he observed.
Here again, we see a stark contrast between Occupy and Otpor. While both took a non-hierarchical approach, distributing power broadly, Otpor was far more organized and disciplined, creating a training curriculum and holding bootcamps to indoctrinate new members in the principles of nonviolent struggle.
Like clarity of purpose, an emphasis on training is a common attribute of successful movements. In John Lewis’s memoir of his role in the civil rights movement, Walking With the Wind, he continually underlines the importance of training activists. Protests are incredibly stressful and often meet with fierce opposition. Training helps activists maintain discipline.
If you look at pictures or film of the sit-ins and marches of the 1960’s, you’ll see nicely dressed young men and women keeping their composure in the face of snarling dogs and police batons. That was a tactic civil rights protesters intentionally adopted, and it worked. Now compare that to the unkempt protesters at Occupy events. That’s the difference that creating and instilling values makes.
The Strength Of A Movement Is Not Large Crowds, But Small Groups
In the 1950’s, the prominent psychologist Solomon Asch undertook a pathbreaking series of conformity studies. What he found was that in small groups, people will conform to a majority opinion. More recent research suggests that the effect applies not only to people we know well, but that we are also influenced even by second and third degree relationships.
So while we usually notice successful movements after they have begun to attract large crowds and hold massive demonstrations, those are effects, not causes, of successful mobilization. It is when small groups connect — which has become exponentially easier in the digital age — that they gain their power.
In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson observed that the movement was largely based in a wide-ranging assortment of groups that met in local cafes and coffee shops. “There is not, therefore, a single Tea Party organization or even a well coordinated network,” they wrote.
That’s why founders of Otpor warn in their training manuals about the dangers of holding large demonstrations too early. Rather, they suggest that protesters focus on building capacity and strategically sequencing their actions to gain support. If you can do that successfully, eventually the large crowds will take care of themselves.
Overcome Increasing Thresholds Of Resistance
While focusing on building a shared purpose among a network of small groups is an effective way to build ideological continuity, it also presents a danger. Tight-knit groups of likeminded people often forget that many others do not hold the same views. Often, as in the case of the Bernie Bro phenomenon last summer, they come to regard dissent as illegitimate.
That’s a real problem, because for any movement to spread and effect change, it needs to overcome steadily increasing thresholds of resistance. If only the views held inside the movement are seen as legitimate, then outsiders come to be seen as targets for attack. That’s why so many movements never create change that lasts, they create enemies that undermine their cause.
Consider, on the other hand, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It spoke not just to the problems of African Americans, but to the founding principles of the nation. It was that approach that grew the movement beyond its core constituency of southern blacks and made inroads to the larger public.
The truth is that movements rarely, if ever create change themselves. Rather, they inspire change through influencing outsiders. Consider that in the end that it was President Lyndon Johnson, a southern white man from Texas, who signed the Civil Rights Act that Martin Luther King, Jr. had championed.
Rely on Engagement, Not on Rhetoric
Eight years ago, Barack Obama created a powerful movement that swept him to a stunning electoral victory, but inspired such fierce resistance that he had trouble enacting his agenda. Donald Trump now aims to lead a nation that seems, if possible, even more divided. We seem doomed to stay stuck in a cycle of recrimination.
While it is easy to place the blame for this polarization on the politicians themselves, we must also realize that they reflect the movements that brought them to power. All too often, we are content to live in different worlds and shout at our screens. And as long as some feel victimized and others feel demonized, we will remain a country divided.
You can write all the scathing tweets and heartfelt Facebook posts you want, but the truth is that rhetoric rarely persuades. The way to change minds is through face-to-face engagement. This is what President Obama was talking about when he said he won Iowa in 2008 because he “spent 87 days going to every small town, fair, fish fry, and VFW hall.” Similarly, progress on LGBT rights in America has not been made just because of eloquent arguments, but because of all the many personal interactions between straight Americans and their gay friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
We can only truly form a national consensus by internalizing the concerns of our fellow citizens and forming a common cause. If we can learn anything from successful movements throughout history, it’s this: lasting change does not come when one side delivers a knockout blow to the other, but when both sides are able to claim the victory as their own.