Friday, March 29, 2013

Today in Social Movement Theory

Matt Ygleisas raised an interesting issue today about the possibility that a large scale victory for marriage equality might lead to the decline of the social movement that created the win:
So something I wonder about is what happens if the marriage equality battle is won very rapidly over the next few years? Lester Feder writes for Buzzfeed that gay equality movements in both the Netherlands and Canada suffered large, nearly immediate losses in donations following marriage equality wins.
If anything I'd say Matt's summation is an understatment.  According to the orginal Buzz Feed article:
"After marriage passed in the Netherlands, the movement more or less collapsed," said Boris Dittrich, the former member of the Dutch parliament who won passage of the world's first-ever same-sex marriage law in 2000. After that, it was very hard to get people to engage on other issues the movement cared about, like discrimination against LGBT seniors in nursing homes and bullying in schools.
According to the article a similar thing happened in Canada in 2004.

This is pretty paradoxical, after all how can a movement's success lead to it's collapse?  I'd argue that the answer lies in social movement theory which is an interdisciplinary study of social movements in different societies at different periods in history.  One theory that has been proposed is that social movements need a sort of constant tension between reality and lofty goals in order to continue to function in the same way they need dedicated supporters, resources and leaders.  Think of social movements as a shark that has to keep swimming or, else die.

Indeed, if you look at the history of a lot of social movements they often go into a period of dormancy, reduced activity or even dissipation after big goals are achieved.  The women's suffrage movement is a classic example of this.  After the passage of the 19th amendment there was not a huge feminist revolution in this country, indeed many scholars of various women's movements have pointed to the period between the 20's and the 60's as being "doldrums" where the political activity of women was in many ways put on the back burner.  This pattern of passionate political activism leading up to a significant achievement followed by an ebb of political activism happened around the passage of the 26th Amendment that granted the franchise to 18-21 year-olds.

In addition, when a broad based political coalition, like a social movement, achieves a major goal it can often splinter as the various groups that made up that coalition move on to pursue their own agendas.  Every president is faced, often the day after inauguration, with once ardent supporters who now feel betrayed once the ease of campaign promises meets the harsh reality of the difficulty of enacting political change.  Liberal activists could easily think issues like climate change or drone policy are more deserving of their political efforts than anti-bullying legislation, for example.

This is not to say that a big victory for marriage equality will necessarily result in widespread decline in the gay rights movement.  Indeed I'd argue that such a victory is far from a sure thing.  But there certainly is precedence for this dynamic to recur. 

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