Measuring the success of social movements: Occupy, Arab Awakening, the Tea Party, and Keystone XL
Dec 5, 2011

Measuring the success of social movements: Occupy, Arab Awakening, the Tea Party, and Keystone XL

How do we measure the success or effectiveness of a social movement? Ultimately we probably wish to change our society in some way, or perhaps to resist the changes that are occurring. Sometimes these changes can be very targeted such as implementing a specific government or corporate policy. And sometimes it can be more general such as changing the attitudes and behavior of the population. I will look generally at what it might mean for a social movement to be successful and then consider this with respect to several specific cases such as the Occupy Movement, the Arab Awakening, the Tea Party, and the Keystone XL protests.

General metrics for success:
The easiest way to see that there has been success is when a specific government policy changes or is instituted. Unfortunately, success at this level is often not easy and may be the result of literally decades of consistent activism and social change, as was the case with the civil rights movements which was a long drawn out movement before the infamous quick change in law that resulted from Brown vs. Board of Education. So the time scale can be very long before specific government policies actually change.

The change can also be quite indirect. The change in outcome may not be easily tied to a specific singular protest or movement but simply comes from the amalgamation of a graduation social change in understanding. Spreading cultural ideas and memes through society and increasing the relative prominence of certain perspectives over others does have importance, and does lead to real change in society, it just isn't direct. The combination of sometimes lengthy incubation periods for cultural change and the problems of direct causality to changing bills often mean that simply measuring the success of a movement through the lens of immediate government policy changes is far too narrow. It may even be that a protest movement doesn't make any forward momentum at all, but provides a defense against changes in the opposite direction by other social pressures.

After the government policy lens, the next lens often considered is the electoral politics lens. Namely, if a movement influences who does or does not get elected then this is a pretty significant consequence of the movement. As we saw with the Tea Party, they were very successful at getting a very large number of people elected in a short period of time. However, much more often change comes from relatively smaller shifts in what it is that the politicians actually advocate for as they attempt to appeal to the spectrum of beliefs that exist. By making one set of ideas more prominent in society, every once in a while this will result in a binary shift in elections from one party to the other, but far more frequently it will result in a more gradual shift in the policies advocated and, hopefully, implemented by politicians.

As such, the key immediate consequence of a social movement is in the way it brings certain ideas to prominence in society. Sometimes these ideas will result in differing social behavior of people such as increased acceptance of LGBT people or adopting more environmentally friendly practices. Sometimes these ideas will result in different corporate behavior as company's attempt to market to these newly prominent memes such as increased third party monitoring of third world factories. Sometimes they will cause politicians to shift positions and sometimes they will result in changes to the outcomes of elections. Sometimes they will result in pressuring sitting governments to implementing specific policies. And sometimes there will be no measurable change but the ideas are not quite forgotten and helps to keep the ideas alive for another decade when the change happens. Ultimately, the ability to result in a shift in public sentiment and prominence of certain ideas is at least a necessary outcome for a social movement to be labelled a success.

Occupy Toronto
Occupy Movement:
Given the above outline, can we say the Occupy movement is a success? There hasn't been any specific discernible policy changes, no election result has changed because of it; are we to call this a failure? I think not. There is little reason to suspect that the overwhelming majority of movements could, over just a couple of months, single-handedly result in mass changes to society. It would simply be an unreasonable metric to expect success in.

The real success of the Occupy movement has been that it has been inordinately successful at getting large amounts of attention to itself and, in so doing, really driving many of the central themes of wealth inequality and crony capitalism into greater prominence. How that will play out in the coming months and years is not yet clear, but even if the movement withers under the combined stresses of eviction, attrition and winter, it will have been an important player in the battle for ideas in our society. 

When announcing evictions for the Occupy movement in Toronto, mayor Rob Ford justified it by saying the protesters has "made their point". Many recoiled, noting that the goal was not just to win some rhetorical point but to cause significant political and social change and that has clearly not manifested itself yet. Ford is actually somewhat closer to being correct than one might initially think, for the way the movement will be able to enact change is to make their point. But it is not just making it once, as Ford seems to think, not even just for a couple months, but loudly and proudly for as long as it takes until social momentum does enact change.

Arab Awakening:
One of the most startling aspects of the Arab Awakening was that for countries like Tunisia and Egypt it happened so quickly from the start of protests until the stepping down of their corrupt dictators. I think the key point to understand about this timeline is that these protests precipitated the downfall of these governments, but that the underlying sentiment had been building for a long time. General public sentiment in Tunisia and Egypt was increasingly anti-regime, basic socioeconomic pressures such as rising food prices and unemployment were very problematic and, in Tunisia, the government of Ben Ali had been riled in scandal released by Wikileaks of its rampant corruption. So when an ashamed and desperate vendor lit himself on fire and thus sparked these massive and historic rolling revolutions, it wasn't an event that can be seen alone. It is seen in the contest of this large and growing sentiment latent within the public that was lit and only from that point could the revolution by counted as quick. In reality, it was a long time coming.

Tahir Square
Some people in the west hoped, and others feared, that the Occupy movement might have similar success and a similar time frame even if the end goal wasn't to overthrow the government but instead to get a government that pushed policies to ameliorate their chief grievances. I have never felt anything remotely close to this would occur from the Occupy movement, and I don't think this is just my inherent cynicism shining through. Polls do demonstrate that large pluralities of Americans do think taxes on the rich should be raised before almost any other form of deficit measures. However, there is a broad and deep passivity, perhaps even apathy, latent within the public that is accepting of many aspects of the status quo. Because there was not the same latent sentiment that was capable of being lit as it was in Tunisia, I don't think the Occupy movement ever had a shot of being a quick trigger of mass social change. What they can do, and have done, is to contribute to the building and shaping of latent ideas in society that, perhaps in the future, can be lit.

Keystone XL protests:
The protesters surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline project have been extraordinarily successful. Through a prolonged and targeted protest movement they managed to directly secure a major policy goal: Obama has delayed the decision on the pipeline until at least 2013 pending a new environmental review. It is only a partial victory, of course, but it is also a rare one in a larger environmental movement that often fails to get policy changes. This provides an example of the way that a protest can be successful even when seen exclusively through the lens of changing government policy.

What is additionally impressive about the Keystone protests is that they were able to do this without either widespread national attention - the way the Occupy movement did - or getting a group of representatives elected - the way the Tea Party did. Like the numerous successes of popular protests before it, this demonstrates that policy change can occur through targeted public pressure and without necessarily achieving mass national attention or major election victories.

Tea Party:
The Tea Party has enjoyed enormous success, in some ways, over a short period of time. It has had success both in terms of managing to get a large number of its members elected (often upsetting long standing establishment Republicans), as well as in shifting the framing of the national conversation to one that has resulted in very different policies being implemented. Most social movements can only dream of the success that the Tea Party has had.

That said, it shouldn't be overstated because part of the reason that the Tea Party achieved the success that it did is because a subset of its ideas were already very much latent within both society as well as coinciding with the established interests. Many of its earlier ideas, particularly those against government backed corporatism, have been put aside in favour of conventional right wing ideas. The aspects that had some value in the movement, from my perspective, largely got lost and the Tea Party was not successful at driving those ideas and resulting in social change on those issues. In many ways, it resembled the ability to rekindle a new enthusiasm in established ideas and established battlegrounds.

One thing that the Tea Party has been good at - indeed "parties" in general are good at this - is collecting various disparate sets of issues together. While the Tea Party may initially have had some of the more of the Ron Paul types and civil libertarians, it quickly managed to coalesce around the traditional right wing social issues. Today, a Tea Party advocate is very likely to oppose the traditional social issues of abortion, gay marriage, amnesty for illegals, or restrictions on guns. All of these, and many more, are in some sense quite separate form the original Tea Party reason d'être of limited government, yet the party format manages to form a coalition of these otherwise disparate issues.

Many of the protest on the left, in contrast, are specific issues protests and remain separate from each other. There are pro-choice rallies, gay rights rallies, environmental rallies, but rarely a rally that expresses a wider sentiment that includes all of these (even if there is a lot of overlap between these beliefs among people). The inability of the left to form stable coalitions that include each of our own individual favorite issues has been a significant stroke against it.

Identity and solidarity:
One important requirement for any successful social movement is that it gives its participants a sense of identity. For Occupy, this was iconified in the slogan "we are the 99%" which was fundamentally inclusive for almost everybody and people could feel either membership in or solidarity with these ideas. Likewise, the Tea Party has given a sense of identity to the millions of Americans who very proudly take its name.

However, it is on this same point of identity that is also a limitation for the Occupy movement. Namely, while many may identity with the general spirit of the people being held back by a rigged game of the top 1%, far fewer actually identity with the small fraction of a percent who physically do the occupying of parks and the like; that might well be considered unappetizing. Especially since the media has focused on telling the stories of the protests themselves, and not the ideas of the movement, the question of solidarity and identity has increasingly become, in the public's mind, a question of whether you feel aligned with the protesters opposed to feeling aligned with the ideas. The Tea Party, however, didn't make anywhere near such a fine distinction where an only mildly political person sitting at home could call themselves a member of the Tea Party without having any inclination to join those that protest or go to Sarah Palin events.

Questions remain:
I think that each of these different social movements can learn from the successes, and failures, of each other. How can, say, the Occupy movement acquire the success of the Tea Party without having to co-opt itself through the lens of electoral politics? Ought they to take a more targeted approach to implement specific policies as the environmental movement did with the Keystone XL protests? Can some form of mass transformation of our social ordering occur as it has in the Arab world? It is worth noting that success can come in different avenues and also that as long as we are transforming the set of ideas latent within society, we are making progress.  

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