By Deva Woodly
“I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison 1787
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
– Ella Baker 1964
Social movements are often regarded as potentially hazardous disruptions, uprisings that interfere with the normal mechanisms of politics – insurgencies that must be either repressed or swiftly re-incorporated into the regular legislative process. In 2016, three years after its emergence, President Obama chided the Movement for Black lives by saying that it had been “really effective at bringing attention to problems” but claiming, “once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention […and] elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.” He went on to say, “the value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, to get you in the room, and then to figure out: how is the problem to be solved.”
Obama’s view is a common one, but it is also incorrect. The value of movements is something much more profound. Movements are what keep democracy from falling irrevocably into the pitfalls of bureaucracy and oligarchy described by Max Weber, chiefly: dehumanization, expropriation, and stagnation. This is important because democracy is more than the institutional – largely electoral – framework that is commonly associated with it. In truth, democracy demands a broad political orientation toward participation and citizenship from “the people” who are to govern. A democracy where people have come to believe that voting is the only kind of participation that matters; that their vote, in any case, doesn’t count; that the system is fundamentally “rigged;” that those who govern are not “like them,” and worse, are unresponsive; is a polity that will struggle (and perhaps fail) to bear the burden and responsibility of self-governance. If citizens, from whose authorization the legitimacy of democratic government arises, come to believe that their capacity to act as authors of their collective fate is a fiction, then what follows is what I call, a politics of despair.
I argue that the force that counteracts the Weberian pitfalls of bureaucratization and oligarchy and which can counteract the politics of despair by “re-politiciz[ing] public life,” is social movements. Social movements infuse the essential elements of pragmatic imagination, social intelligence, and democratic experimentation into public spheres that are ailing, and have become non-responsive, stagnant, and/or closed. They are necessary, not only to address the concerns of those engaging in public protest, nor only for the ethical purpose of achieving more just conditions for all, but also, for the health and survival of democracy, as such. The Movement for Black Lives is a contemporary movement that shows us the dimensions of the essential function that social movements play in democracy.
The Political Context
The graphic and bewildering 2016 electoral contest, and its surprising outcome, seemed to make the world anew overnight, especially for the 73 million voters who had cast their ballots for someone other than President Trump. Those Americans woke on November 9, 2016, to what suddenly seemed a new and uncertain era. However, the political tumult that gave rise to the contentious and surprising election cycle began much earlier. Already, the 21st century had begun to put the lie to the 1990s notion that America and the world had reached “the end of history,” in which the liberal international order and increasing development would lead to ever growing tolerance and prosperity. Instead, the first year of the new millennium showed us the birth of a new form of international conflict and the first decade ushered in the largest financial collapse the world had seen since the 1930s. During what was dubbed the Great Recession, one quarter of American families lost at least 75 percent of their wealth, and more than half had lost at least 25 percent. As with almost every indicator of American well-being, for African Americans, the news was even worse: the median net worth of black families fell 53 percent (National Association of Real Estate Brokers, 2013). The national unemployment rate had climbed to above 10 percent, for blacks, the rate topped 17 percent. When the wave of job loss began to recede in 2013, it left in its wake occupations that did not provide as much stability or income as the ones that had been swept away.
But the economic devastation of the Great Recession and the precarity that it laid bare was not the only tumult testing the temerity of American Dreamers by 2016. Already, a black teenager named Trayvon had been hunted and gunned down by a vigilante as he walked home in a small town in Florida. Already, Rekia Boyd had been shot dead by an off-duty cop on a burger run, while standing in her neighborhood park. Eric Garner, a black man selling loose cigarettes on a New York City street corner, and pleading “I can’t breathe,” had already been chocked to death on video by a police patrolman. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, mistaken for a twenty-year-old man, had been slaughtered by law enforcement while playing behind a community center. Already, Sandra Bland had been disappeared into the cell where she would die for behaving as though she were free during a traffic stop. And, Mike Brown’s cooling body had already lain uncovered on the hot concrete for four hours after being shot dead by a police officer who claimed the unarmed teen looked like a “demon.” In each case, the killings were deemed justified. The perpetrators left free.
The justice system’s shrug of acceptance in the face of the violent, unnecessary deaths of black people at the hands of vigilantes and the state, mirrored the unconcern that seemed to suffuse all the institutions of power as they witnessed the post-recession suffering of ordinary people of all colors, seeming to do little or nothing in response. Indeed, in the second decade of the 21st century, the world had already witnessed a series of uprisings demanding democratic accountability and economic fairness around the world. This context made organizer Alicia Garza’s hastily typed cry that “black lives should matter,” one that entered the political environment resonant with grief and gravitas. Garza’s fellow organizer, Patrisse Cullors, put the exhortation behind a hashtag that yet another organizer and collaborator, Opal Tometi, pushed onto what were in 2012, the lesser used social media platforms of Twitter and Tumblr. #BlackLivesMatter quickly diffused across social media and became a part of national discourse, and later, a rallying cry for mass mobilizations in the streets. But what characteristics created a “political opportunity” for the political commotion that has characterized America’s early 21st century?
The Politics of Despair
Scholarly interest in the role that emotions play in social movements was piqued after the intensely emotional political work of attempting to get recognition of and redress for the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Veterans of that work, most notably sociologist Deborah Gould, began insisting that studying movement organizations without taking note of the emotions that motivated, animated, and complicated them, was overlooking a major part of the story of emergence, maintenance and demobilization of movements. In 2012, Gould introduced the concept of “political despair,” which she described as a “feeling of inefficacy and hopelessness, the sense that nothing will ever change, no matter what some imagined collective “we” does to try to bring change.” Gould goes on to describe political despair as a part of the “affective landscape of the early twenty-first century.” But political despair is more than a public mood, it is also a politics, that is, “the activity through which relatively large and permanent groups of people determine what they will collectively do, settle how they will live together, and decide their future.” Politics “concerns all aspects of institutional organization, public action, social practices and habits, and cultural meanings insofar as they are potentially subject to collective evaluation and decision-making.” For citizens, a politics of despair is characterized by a lack of institutional investment and public trust, suspicion of the social practices and habits of others in the polity, cultural meanings that are illegible across difference, as well as deep cynicism about the possibility of political efficacy. For governors, a politics of despair is characterized by a Weberian retreat to bureaucratized oligarchy particularly marked by either indifference or inability to respond to the concerns of constituents.
Evidence that the United States can be described as in the grips of a politics of despair can be found in several trends that have been intensifying for decades; namely, 1) rising inequality, 2) declining political trust, 3) declining interpersonal trust, 4) declining civic knowledge, 5) declining and stratified political participation, and 6) declining political efficacy. The data demonstrating each of these trends is voluminous and robust. Social and economic inequality has been rising since the mid-20th century, with income inequality currently more stark than it has been since the Gilded Age imploded in 1928. The top 1% of income earners have seen their share of total income rise from 8.9% in 1973 to 21.2% in 2014. This startling proportion doesn’t capture the fact that income growth during that time has accrued almost exclusively to the top 1% of income earners. The data on the increasing wealth gap is even more severe, with America’s upper-income families possessing 70 times the wealth of lower-income families and 7 times the wealth of middle income families, the largest gap recorded by the Federal Reserve in the 30 years it has been collecting data. When these numbers are parsed by race and ethnicity, the already wide divide reveals itself to be cavernous, with the median wealth of white households increasing by 2.4 percent, from $138,600 to $141,900, between 2010 and 2013, while Hispanics’ median wealth decreased by 14.3%, from $16,000 to $13,700, and black households’ fell 33.7%, from $16,600 to $11,000.These gaps in income and wealth are not unique among indicators of well-being. Egregious and persistent gaps in class, race, and gender are evident in everything from education, to physical safety, health, and contact with disciplining institutions.
Additionally, trust in government is at an historic low. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of respondents trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” By comparison, 73% of Americans answered this question affirmatively in 1958; 49% did so in 2001. Questions about individual institutions reveal similar skepticism. The only institutions that a majority of Americans trust are the military (73%) and police (56%). Only 36% trust the President and the Supreme Court, 23% trust the criminal justice system and organized labor, 20% trust newspapers, and 9% trust Congress.
Alongside this lack of trust in institutions, Americans have become much more likely to sort themselves by party sympathies now than two decades ago. This partisan sorting is not limited to issue positions, with more Democrats and Republicans espousing policy preferences that align with their chosen party, but also includes social sorting. Democrats and Republicans are now less likely to participate in the same entertainment, live in the same neighborhoods, or consume the same goods. Perhaps because of this sorting, there has also been a stunning increase in personal antipathy between Democrats and Republicans, with 86% of Democrats reporting that they have an “unfavorable” view of Republicans and 55% “very unfavorable.” Likewise, 91% of Republicans report that they view Democrats unfavorably and 58% very unfavorably. The personal antipathy between partisans hints at an even more troubling phenomenon: Americans’ declining trust in each other generally. In 1974, 46% of Americans reported that they trusted most people; by 2012, only 33% said the same, with millennials reporting less trust in others than any other generation. To make matters worse, Americans know less about how their government is structured and how it is supposed to function than ever before, with only one quarter of Americans able to name the three branches of government and one third of Americans unable to name any of them.
These changes in fortunes, trust, and knowledge have taken a toll on the belief that democratic government can be responsive to most citizens, producing dramatic and widespread disillusionment with the idea that political participation by ordinary citizens can create positive change. This bleak view of the effects of traditional political participation is not merely the result of a cynical outlook. Americans have good reason to doubt their ability to effect national politics. Political scientists have shown that government responsiveness is stratified by socioeconomic status. Is it any wonder, then, that political participation is stratified in the same way, with the wealthy and educated much more likely to contribute their “money, skills, and time” in the political arena than those who have fewer resources, but need more responsiveness. For black Americans, the reality of stratified representation is even more severe. Though the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s opened pathways for more African Americans to participate in the political process and elect some members of the group as political representatives, “the price of the ticket” has been electoral capture by one, increasingly unresponsive party, and the decline of a politics dedicated to confronting racial inequality head on. Given these realities, the breadth of the crisis we now face is profound.
A series of pointed and urgent questions arise from these facts: what helps members of the polity to recover from the cynicism wrought by insufficiently responsive governance? What reminds us of the power of the public sphere? What causes governing officials to be responsive to new or neglected constituencies and attentive to their causes? What helps us to feel that our opinions and political actions matter –that “we the people” have power? What makes a citizenry both believe and act on behalf of the belief that “another world is possible?”
The answer is social movements. And the Movement for Black Lives is a powerful case that shows what organized members of the polity can do. The politics of despair need not persist. Indeed, if democracy is to survive as a form of governance, it cannot persist. The answer is social movements. And the Movement for Black Lives is a powerful case that shows what organized members of the polity can do. Social movements can repoliticize public life because they remind people both of what active citizenship can look like and what it can accomplish. As such, social movements repoliticize public life by serving the following critical democratic functions. First, they stimulate pragmatic imagination. That is, because social movements seek to raise questions and seek remedies for ills that have gone overlooked they cause us to look at the world with new eyes and imagine how it can and should be improved. Second, social movements remind us of the necessity for democratic experimentation. Democratic experimentation is a concept that I take from John Dewey. It refers to the “reconstruction” and “reorganization” of experience based on the conviction that we should avoid repeating past mistakes by seeking to advance our understanding of and experience in the world by changing our approach to acknowledged problems. Third, social movements model a politically useful democratic intelligence. “The office of intelligence in every problem,” Dewey writes, “is to effect a working connection between old habits, customs, institutions, beliefs and new conditions.” This is what social movements do. They take up the responsibility to “make democracy a living reality” by first, bringing new issues (or ways of looking at issues) to light. Second, interrupting our old habits, while making connections between problems and possible solutions. And third, by organizing, which means causing people to demonstrably commit themselves to political action. Finally, social movements teach participants political efficacy while also modeling it for the general polity.
 Recorded in the documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (1981)
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