European social movements over the past hundred years have been largely out to change the values of one or more societies. These movements include Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and, more recently the drive to unite Europe into a federation and the counter-movement to reassert various European nationalisms. There are exceptions to this European pattern, such as the suffragette movement and the environmental movement, but the generalization holds. The United States, on the other hand, has over the course of the century from the 1880’s to the 1980’s had its history filled with movements that are interested in the issues that concern one or another particular section of the population, and that may account for the fact that American history is not regarded as a history of ideas while European history is so regarded. American movements for that period included the labor movement, which was out to protect workers; the reaction in the South against Reconstruction, which was out to re-entrench white minority rule; the temperance movement, where women wanted to save their husbands from drink; our own suffragette movement; and more recent movements, like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and our own environmental movement. But all that has ended. There has been no significant social movement in this country in nearly forty years, and the question is why that is the case.
It is as if people who start movements have forgotten what it takes to put together a movement that can sustain itself and accomplish something, even though the elements of social movements have been understood since the time of Moses. There are five of these elements: a legislative program; an inspirational leader; a mechanism for reaching and mobilizing the membership base; a distinctive mechanism for attracting attention; an ideological or general explanation of what it is up to. A movement can do without one or another of these elements. The women’s movement never had an inspirational leader-- Gloria Steinem was hardly fit for that role, as attractive as she was as a decent person. Nor did the women’s movement have a distinctive mechanism. It made use of marches and rallies, something common to most movements. But it did have a clear legislative program, equality in employment and abortion rights, the two tied together because the second makes the first possible, and it got those, even though that was through the mechanism of a Supreme Court decision rather than legislation. The women’s movement fell from grace when it could not say what the Equal Rights Amendment might entail. Spokeswomen did not want to say it would mean that women could get drafted.
The model social movement was the Civil Rights Movement, which had all of the elements of a movement tied up together, and needed them all in high degree to carry out a revolution in the status of African Americans that might have required a great deal of bloodshed and a few more generations, given the very strong opposition of both ordinary Southerners and Southern political leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the inspirational leader who was eloquent and high minded, and the one who called all the shots in consultation with his personal cabinet even if some other civil rights leaders resented him hogging the limelight. He knew that his fame and notoriety drew the national press and so got him and what he advocated attended to and so it made sense for him to treat his involvement in any particular march or action as a precious resource which he would spend only when he thought the time was right and people would follow his direction. King had an ideology of nonviolence that suited both the times and was also something that made his movement morally superior to the segregationists who opposed it. There were many writers and intellectuals, including King himself, who wrote about the cause, and there were no articulate spokespeople for the other side, perhaps excepting William Buckley, Jr. who had difficulty with the crassness of those who engaged in racist terminology rather than just in the traditional conservative argument that the government should not be in the business of supervising private relationships, that to be broadly enough interpreted to include employment practices. King had as his distinctive action the sit in movement, it descendant from the sit down strikes of the Thirties when workers interested in unionizing stayed with their machines after work was over. King also was good at arranging for what at that time were considered huge crowds to assemble in Washington and elsewhere. He commanded the instrumentalities of the Black Church, which meant phone lists and mimeograph machines and the skill at managing and moving people. And King kept his legislative agenda in mind: voting rights and public accommodations and non-discrimination in employment. At the end of his life, he came up against the barrier of dealing with economic inequality in the North rather than social inequality in the South, and we do not know whether he would have figured out a way to handle that.
What has happened since the Eighties? Occupy Wall Street may have put Wall Street greed on the agenda, a theme borrowed more from the movies than from scholarship, but it failed to do anything with that insight. It turned down the offer of Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning and very liberal economics professor, to produce a manifesto for them. All it did was take over a small park in the Wall Street area and then fail to make plans about where to move its settlement after the weather turned cold. It made all decisions by consensus or near consensus, which is hardly the way to run a democracy, and failed to present an attractive spokesperson. It was as doomed to failure, and much more quickly, than a Sixties or Seventies commune in Vermont. The same thing happened with Black Lives Matter, which is a good slogan, and the movement had a clear agenda, which was to reduce police violence, but which also had poor leadership and no dramatic way of calling attention to itself in a way that would ralley rather than dissipate support. Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri were not self-policed so as to avoid violence.
There may be an even deeper reason for the failure of American social movements to even take form in the past few generations. That has to do with the state of political discourse. Seymour Martin Lipset argued a long time ago that elections are an institutionalized way to channel social movements for change. You do not need violence or revolution if you can take control of Washington through the ballot box. But Lipset assumed that the energies behind social movements would always be there and so be in need of constructive channelling. There would always be social grievances, wouldn’t there? And such remains the case. There are issues out there, like college being too expensive (given that European countries have turned their higher education systems into a meritocracy supported by government), or a minimum wage too low to allow a full time employee a decent standard of living, or a guarantee of a job to anyone who wants one, or even a government subsidy for anyone so psychologically damaged that they cannot sustain a job. There are grievances about freedom of speech and about the Second Amendment and what to do about federal control of state lands. What seems to have happened, however, is that gun supporters and anti-feminists vote and gun control advocates and feminists do not vote, or at any rate, enough of them stay away from the polls so that their side does not win. The main question about the 2016 election isn’t why some Obama voters became Trump voters; it is why so many people did not turn out to vote against someone who was clearly a boor, a misogynist and a racist.
More generally, it seems that for a while now taking out one’s grievances through social movements and politics does not engage public passion, at least on the left and in the center. Maybe the public imagination, the culture, has turned its attention elsewhere: to sports, to purely personal relationships such as family and love affairs, though probably not to religion, which does not seem to be in the midst of a resurgence. Maybe economic life has become so fractionated that everybody busy to make their way on their own by piecing together a job history and therefore a career loses sight of what they have with other people caught in the same predicament, that serving as a basis for collective action. But whatever it is, the picture Clifford Odets drew in the Thirties of workers at the end of “Waiting for Lefty” yelling out “Strike! Strike!” in unison is no longer part of the cultural vocabulary, and I don’t know what will bring it back.