Social Movements Need An Infrastructure To Succeed


political Right currently runs the country. That’s very annoying,
but pretending it isn’t true is foolhardy. What is really annoying
is that in the late 1970s some of us were giving speeches and writing
articles explaining that rightists intended to take over the country.
It wasn’t hard to figure that out, since at the same time right-wing
ideolo- gues and strategists were also giving speeches and writing
articles describing in elaborate detail how they planned to do it.
Well, they did it. 

U.S. Human Rights Network observes, “human rights are protected
through building social movements.” Now we have a practical
demonstration that human rights can be undermined through building
backlash counter-movements. Central to the conservative plan was
understanding that social movements pull political movements toward
them, not the other way around. Social movements are often involved
in politics, but they step beyond the limits of the electoral and
legislative system to use other means ranging from demonstrations
to civil disobedience and beyond. 

strategists studied how the labor movement had yanked the Roosevelt
administration into crafting a social safety net in the 1930s. They
studied how the civil rights movement had whacked the Democratic
Party in the north into pulling away from the segregationist demands
of the southern Democratic Party “Dixiecrats.” So conservatives
decided to build a right-wing social movement to pull the Republican
Party to the right. It worked. 

in the 1970s, many sociologists rejected the idea that activists
were engaged in irrational collective behavior, but began studying
social movements as collections of people with complaints who develop
a plan to make the larger society respond to their needs. What does
it take to build a strong social movement? With a tip of the intellectual
hat to Goffman, Zald, McCarthy, Meyer, Gamson, Snow, McAdam, Benford,
Klandermans, Johnston, Ewick, Silbey, Polletta, and a marching band
of other academics, these are the basic building blocks of a successful
social movement: 

  • A discontented
    group of politicized persons who share the perception that they
    have common grievances they want society to address 

  • A powerful and
    lucid ideological vision linked to strategies and tactics that
    have some reasonable chance of success 

  • The recruitment
    of people into the movement through pre-existing social, political,
    and cultural networks 

  • A core group
    of trusted strategic leaders and local activists who effectively
    mobilize, organize, educate, and communicate with the politicized
    mass base 

  • The efficient
    mobilization of resources that are available, or can be developed,
    to assist the movement to meet its goals 

  • An institutional
    infrastructure integrating political coordination, research and
    policy think tanks, training centers, conferences, and alternative

  • Political opportunities
    in the larger social and political scene that can be exploited
    by movement leaders and activists 

  • The skillful
    framing of ideas and slogans for multiple audiences such as leaders,
    members, potential recruits, policymakers, and the general public 

An attractive movement
culture that creates a sense of community through mass rituals,
celebrations, music, drama, poetry, art, and narrative stories about
past victories, current struggles, and future successes 

  • The ability
    of recruits to craft a coherent and functional identity as a movement

Since the 1970s, the political right has invested more than $2 billion
in building an institutional infrastructure. Liberal and left foundations
actually hand out more money per year than their conservative counterparts
and there is some funding of training and inside-the-beltway policy
work. A few funders have shifted more support to alternative media
and conferences, but the most underfunded area on the Left is progressive
research and policy think tanks and groups monitoring the political
Right. I’m not talking about think tanks that are closely tied
to the Democratic Party, but independent research and policy organizations
whose central goal is building a strong progressive movement for
human rights, social equality, economic fairness, a healthy environment,
and peace. 

Since I work at a progressive think tank, Political Research Associates,
this claim is obviously self- serving, but that doesn’t make
it inaccurate. Studies by the National Committee for Responsive
Philanthropy have reached similar conclusions. I talked with folks
at several other research groups that study the political Right
(those that haven’t gone under in recent years) and it seems
we all have research tasks we would like to pursue, and research,
monitoring, or training projects for which we have unsuccessfully
sought funds. 

Here is just one example. The Center for New Community has a Building
Democracy initiative designed to counter “racism and other
forms of bigotry through strategic research, community organizing,
education and training. Its work to develop an anti-racist youth
culture; its collaboration with human, civil, and immigrant rights
organizations in response to anti-immigrant activity; and its release
of nationally recognized research reports mark its recent advances
to address these realities.” The Center would like to expand
this work. It lacks the funds. In a similar way, more staff and
resources could be put to good use at other groups such as the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, and Political Research Associates. 

Want a concrete example? Among the earliest progressive researchers
who wrote books and articles about the rise of the political Right
were Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. For a time Diamond
wrote an excellent column about the political right for

Z Magazine

In the long run, however, none of these three fine researchers and
journalists could make a living doing what they did best. Compare
them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing
ideologues plucked fresh from college and generously financed with
stipends, grants, and fellowships from conservative foundations.

Investigative reporter Bill Berko- witz has managed to continue
to write about the political right, as have I, and there is a new
crop of writers including Michelle Goldberg, Max Blumenthal, Esther
Kaplan, Jeff Sharlett, and others. But there still is no long-term
consistent funding for progressive research on the many sectors
of the U.S. political Right. 

Most liberal and left foundations will tell you up front that they
don’t fund research, conferences, or media. That’s exactly
what the political Right funded to help build the infrastructure
of their successful social movement. The staff of many progressive
foundations privately will admit that they are well aware of this
scenario, but they are not able to get foundation priorities and
guidelines shifted to respond to the strategic challenge by the
conservative infrastructure. 

The progressive movement for social change is being fed head first
into a gigantic, well-funded, right- wing, ideological sausage-making
machine, while foundations that consider themselves progressive
are dispensing band-aids. If we figured out how to stop the machine,
we wouldn’t need the band-aids. 

column is written by staff at Political Research Associates, but
the views are the author’s and not necessarily the organization.