What does it take to build a popular movement that has a chance of succeeding in its objectives? I thought about this a good bit during my recent vacation in the West Virginia mountains.
I’ve been personally involved in several mass movements over the course of my adult life: the draft resistance and anti-Vietnam war movements in the late 60s and early 70s; the very short, very small, but very successful mass movement to impeach/remove President Richard Nixon in 1973-74; the 1980’s Rainbow Coalition movement; the third party movement of the 90’s; the global justice movement in the first years of this century; the movement to end the Iraq war of the past decade; and the climate movement that has been building since about 2005.
Based on these experiences, these are what I would see as the essential components of a genuinely popular mass movement:
— an issue, or a set of issues, about which millions of people are deeply concerned;
— a consistently growing number of people stepping up to do all of the work necessary to translate those concerns into an overlapping, increasingly coherent network of organizations at local, state, regional and national levels;
— mechanisms of communication that link, educate and inspire both those who are consistently active and a critical mass of those who are concerned but are primarily supporters; and,
— visible, on-going, demonstrative actions that rally the troops, draw media attention, alert broader numbers of people to the existence and persistence of the movement, and exert pressure on corporate or government decision-makers that forces them to respond in some way to the demands of the movement.
What are the issues or constituency-based efforts of today, in the summer of 2011, that fit all of these criteria? There are not many. It is indeed sobering how few there are.
It’s not that there isn’t work going on around a whole broad mix of issues by lots of groups around the country: war and militarism, lgbt issues, police brutality, prisons/prisoner rights, women’s rights, labor rights, fair trade, green jobs, unemployment, poverty, mortgage foreclosures, housing, electoral reform, third party organizing, environmental issues, the schools, faith-based, health care, social security, immigrant rights and more. But as far as a mass movement, one that meets the four criteria laid out above, I can see only two-three: the labor movement (especially because of what happened in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year); the climate movement (see more below) and, perhaps, the US social forum movement.
I say “perhaps” for the social forum movement because, although it pulled off two massive, important and successful national conventions in 2007 and 2010, and there is some on-going activity as far as People’s Movement Assemblies, there is little visible, demonstrative social forum-network organized action taking place in an on-going way.
The climate movement, it seems to me, has emerged over the last few years as a genuine mass popular movement that continues to grow and develop. Key to that emergence are groups such as the Energy Action Coalition (which organized a national conference of 10,000 young people this spring), 350.org (which organizes international, locally-based actions each fall; there were 7,200 last fall, 2,000 in the USA alone), and the Appalachian-based movement to end mountaintop removal (which pulled off a powerful March on Blair Mountain two months ago). These actions took place despite — or perhaps because of — the failure of the Democrats in 2009-2010, when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress by wide margins but were unable to pass any substantive climate legislation.
And that climate movement is about to shift into a higher gear. As I write, over 2,000 people have signed up to take part in nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House for 15 straight days, beginning Saturday, August 20th, to demand that President Obama refuse to allow a 1700-mile, Keystone XL pipeline from the dirty-oil tar sands in Alberta, Canada to be built across the middle of the U.S.
It may be that in one or more of the other issue areas conditions will ripen soon such that mass movements will emerge as major political players in the country. Or, hopefully, an independent and multi-issue movement will emerge in reaction to the abject failure of both political parties, in different ways, to respond to the myriad and deepening crises we are facing in the world today.
Those of us who are committed to social, economic, racial and gender justice, to the protection, care and revitalization of our wounded Mother Earth, to peace and nonviolent ways of resolving conflicts, to a very different future than the past we have inherited and the present we have no choice but to live in — all of us, whatever issue or issues we are working on, whatever the state of that work, however strong or weak the social forces behind it at present, must use our brains and our energies to help others come forward to join us. That is the only way lasting social change for the better takes place.