Making social change requires a
political animal by Julie Lewin
Bill Moyer has spent more than 40 years as a full-time theorist, organizer, consultant and educator about social movements. Since 1973 the Midwest Academy has trained more than 20,000 activists, in a broad range of causes. Earlier editions of the Midwest Academy Manual have been required reading for many degree programs around the country. There is a lesson here: for decades other causes have concentrated heavy resources on organizing politically and developing political skills. Animal advocates have not yet made a comparable investment.
Moyer and the Midwest Academy have much to teach us that with few exceptions we have not learned from within our own movement. Most important is a way of thinking. Effective activism is only coincidentally self-expression, if at all. Effective activism requires the ability and willingness to accurately perceive the nuances of public perception and behavior. It requires strategic thinking. It requires evaluating goals and strategies utterly objectively, to discern where the balance of economic power lies, the political dynamics surrounding the goal, the resources available to activists to achieve the goal, and the most advantageous public image that activists can use.
Also essential is recognizing how these dynamics evolve over time, necessitating strategic shifts. Political thinking does not come naturally to most people, but is not difficult to learn. Once you get it, it is like e-mail: you realize you barely functioned without it. Responding to "the absence of a practical model that describes and explains the normal path of successful social movements," Moyer offers a highly detailed Movement Action Plan (MAP) which describes the trajectory of any cause and most effective use of any public opinion-shaping method. MAP identifies four roles of activism: citizen, rebel, change agent, and reformer.
He explains how each role can be filled effectively--and how they are often filled ineffectively. Moyer also diagrams "Eight Stages of the Process of Social Movement Success," which progress from "normal times" with a festering grievance, requiring advocates of change to "prove the failure of official institutions"; advance to "ripening conditions" and "take off"; either falter or regroup with "perception of failure"; and eventually achieve "majority public opinion," leading to "success" and "continuing the struggle." All readers will have their favorite observations or epiphanies.
Among mine is Moyer's analysis under "Stage 5, Perception of Failure." Moyer cautions activists against naively expecting the world to rapidly make a 180-degree turn on their issue, becoming wrongly disillusioned, and giving up prematurely, without having built the enduring foundation that is the only hope for real change. Incorrect appraisal of the situation produces naive disillusionment. Further, it leads to the "emergence of the negative rebel," who makes a "bad revolutionary."
The profile of the bad
revolutionary is described in marvelous, instructive and almost
humorous detail. Organizing for Social Change concentrates more on
how to develop a strategy and see it through. The "Midwest Academy
Strategy Chart," attributed to Heather Booth, consists of Goals;
Organizational Considerations; Constituents, Allies, and Opponents;
Targets; and Tactics. It is a fabulous accompaniment to Moyer's MAP.
The manual is divided into "direct action organizing," "organizing
skills," "support for organization" and "selected resources," which
cover 26 major topic areas. Let the book fall open anywhere and I'll
bet you'll learn something useful.
Even peaceful protests encourage
the target public to view advocates as marginal people with whom
they share few values. Further, protests subliminally encourage
advocates to view themselves as outsiders. If there is one lesson I
have learned as an animal activist and lobbyist for 16 years, it is
that we need to try to position ourselves inside, not outside
general society and social institutions. I am not suggesting
weakening our goals. However, a rule of thumb applicable to
revolutionaries in any cause is that the more controversial or
radical your goals, the more conservative your image needs to be.
Is it even aware of the homeless animal issue? Most important, are voters who care about animals aware of the councillors' state of awareness? Animal rescue groups call me often to seek advice about resolving dreadful situations regarding dog pounds, feral cat colonies, and other emergencies. Politically speaking, they nearly always are starting from scratch. Although the callers have often been in and out of the local pound for years, they are virtually always unaware of the many official documents available to them through Freedom of Information Acts to maintain accountability or help build their case. Nor are they familiar enough with town government to know that in nearly all jurisdictions, members of the public can address town officials by requesting to be put on the agendas of public meetings.
Learning to think politically includes programming yourself to conceptualize the workings of government (including your dog pound), and to assume the existence of documents awaiting your discovery. Function politically, and you will prevent many bad situations from occurring in the first place. You will also be able to reverse others more quickly. Creating a political culture A third example of counterproductive behavior is animal advocates' extreme resistance to being political-I use this term broadly-although many institutionalized cruel behaviors to animals can be stopped only by being political.
As a case in point, in Connecticut fewer than two percent of the adult population are licensed hunters, and only a tiny fraction of one percent are licensed trappers, yet our state wildlife agency consists of hunters and trappers who energetically promote both pursuits. Public education campaigns and protests have not and will not stop this. The solution is to create a grassroots political machine of animal advocates capable of rewarding or punishing legislators at the polls.
This is what the hunters have done and why they drive wildlife policy. Legislators fear that the politically organized hunting lobby-as small as it is-is large enough to vote them out of office by providing the winning margin to their opponent. Remember my favorite political axiom: A well-organized minority can drive public policy on an issue, because every politician knows that such a minority can swing elections. These examples bring me to the weakness of both these books. Their starting point is the use of the dynamics of participatory democracy to gain change.
To gain change in the public policy arena, advocates of a cause must wield the power of the vote to reward or punish politicians on Election Day. Doing Democracy is strangely apolitical. Moyer provides no information about the structure or dynamics of politics. Yet I enormously admire and applaud Moyer's skill in diagramming power in society. Animal advocates cannot approach their potential to help animals without understanding how power is allocated among social institutions.
Developing a culture of
professional, political activism is impossible without such
perspective. Organizing for Social Change does incorporate political
organization and the dynamics of elections, but wrongly generalizes
by attributing success on issues to winning majority opinion. Animal
advocates have long since won majority opinion on some issues, but
have not succeeded in translating majority support into reductions
of institutionalized animal abuse because opponents are much better
The faculty will consist of seasoned political activists from other issue groups, legislators, and other political figures. The program will be rigorous enough to qualify for academic credit if arrangements are made in advance. The first Institute session will be held October 18-21 in Southeastern Connecticut at a beautiful ocean-front retreat and conference center. We will provide train station and airport pick-ups and drop-offs. Alternatively, we can bring a future session of the Institute to you. For details, please contact me as soon as possible at <firstname.lastname@example.org> or 203-453-6590. Meanwhile, read Doing Democracy and Organizing for Social Change and let me know what you think of them. [Julie Lewin is president and lobbyist for Animal Advocacy Connecticut, and executive director of the National Institute for Animal Advocacy.]