Grassroots movements are a dime a dozen these days. Energized by the dynamic capabilities of social media, civilian activism is proliferating throughout the modern world. It has never been easier to effectively deliver ideology, views and personal opinions to a large and diverse audience. Although, at its core, activism still relies heavily upon the traditional mechanisms of face to face interaction, canvassing, and good ol’ fashioned protest. Grassroots movements utilize the aforementioned strategies to facilitate favorable government initiatives and effect social change. However, should the influence of these movements subsequently be viewed as a positive political force? Do they truly serve the greater good, or secretly harbor selfish personal agendas? Bottom line: does contemporary activism ultimately improve or detract from American democracy?
I wanted to find out. So, on Wednesday, February 28th, I attended the annual Central Ohio Planned Parenthood Action Forum. To be perfectly honest, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. My exposure to activism has been rather minimal, and I also felt somewhat uneducated about Planned Parenthood’s various programs and objectives. I entered the forum feeling uncertain and somewhat skeptical. I left with a revolutionized perspective and newfound respect for activism. Through this event, I gained a deeper appreciation for Planned Parenthood and its mission, but also observed fascinating presentations from numerous associated activist organizations also in attendance. I was surprised, as I previously assumed that the meeting would be devoted solely to Planned Parenthood and the issue of reproductive rights. Instead, various local leaders discussed a range of key social issues, including infant mortality rates, criminal justice reform, and environmental racism. This gathering displayed a complex chain of interlocking advocacy groups, collectively unified by the desire to promote public welfare and tackle major societal issues.
Notably, the various problems addressed by each group all seemed closely related to the preserving the function of democracy. Planned Parenthood fought against discriminatory legislation, and relentlessly hounded legislators to ensure clear accountability for political actors. Columbus People’s Partnership sought to diminish systematic racism and disenfranchisement, detailing a ballot initiative designed to free 10,000 criminals convicted of minor drug offenses and transfer $100 million into restoring families and communities. Sistersong emphasized the dangers of reproductive oppression and advocated to ensure that women and other minorities remained free of unjust exploitation. Furthermore, each respective group effectively pursued their objectives through long-term, disciplined, non-violent strategies, embodying the political dissent framework recently published by Erica Chenoweth.
So that pretty much answers the question right? This network of activist groups fights for social justice and functions to enhance our countries democratic efficacy, capturing grassroots movements positive contribution to American democracy. Of course, that depends on your definition of democracy. As I observed the forum, I couldn’t help but think about how some of my more conservative peers might have reacted to the ideas on display. Nearly every speaker made negative comments about Republican politicians, lamenting the GOP’s dominance in Ohio’s state congress, and expressing frustration at the red parties perceived attempts to derail their social agenda. So I wondered, what does the other side of the story look like? There must be plenty of Republican grassroots movements too, right?
Well, there’s at least one. Over the past decade, a far-right conservative faction has emerged as a national force to be reckoned with. Bolstered by massive donations and high profile endorsements, said movement continues to grow despite opposition from the mainstream media and the Republican establishment itself. It’s called the Tea Party. The Tea Party advocates for numerous policy points, including reduction of national debt, lowering of taxes, and deregulation. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild surmises this movement succinctly, quoting a Tea Party supporter who claimed: “I’m pro-life, pro-gun, pro-freedom, and anti-big government.” Hochschild conducted a vast field study of Tea Party members, (the basis for the book “Strangers In Their Own Land”) and issued a variety of conclusions regarding said movement. Notably, she sought to understand the world from their perspective. Hochschild found that for a group of individuals who feel marginalized and ridiculed by sectors of society, the Tea Party represents their own personal brand of enhanced democracy. Amidst vanishing jobs and growing poverty, many members feel overlooked and abandoned by the system. This movement provides the opportunity to reclaim their democratic rights.
So which movement truly champions democracy? Both of them? Neither? Timur Kuran provides an interesting perspective to this end through his article “Founts of Democratic Erosion: Intolerant Communities.” Kuran argues that there are two primary societal groups: Nativists and Identitarians. Nativists prioritize economic freedom and are suspicious of globalization and cultural change. Identitarians represent groups that define themselves according to identity (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation) and view identity-based matters as central to quality of life. I’ll let you figure out which group is which. However, Kuran further asserts that each group is characterized by particular intolerances, (identitarians criticize lack of political correctness, nativists criticize anti-Americanism/corruption/too much political correctness). Said intolerances are mutually reinforcing, feeding off of each other’s prevalence. For example, identitarians feel that nativists are reacting angrily to their privileges slipping away, while nativists see identitarians as seeking to strip their rights, etc. This vicious accusatory cycle actually serves to ensure the vitality of each group, providing a clear opponent to blame and overcome. Subsequently, the gap between groups spreads further, establishing deep ideological fissures and political disunity. Such a fractured political environment might represent the perfect atmosphere for oh let’s say, a populist leader to swoop in, exploit ideological fissures and seize control. Sound familiar?
Grassroot organizations contribute substantially to the development of said divisive atmosphere. These movements might reinforce individual personal preferences at the expense of the perceived “enemy”, and thus pose the potentiality to widen the divide across political ideologies. Truly, activism represents the ground zero for Nativist and Identitarian development. So where does that leave us? Each of the activist movements analyzed profess devotion to the ideals of the democratic process and the pursuit of the greater good. Yet both express apparent disdain for the opposite party and blame them for a majority of social issues, mutually reinforcing intolerance. These grass-roots movements arguably played a major role regarding the development of the divisive environment which allowed Donald Trump to ascend to the presidency. Does that mean that either of these movements are doing bad work? Of course not. Both Planned Parenthood and the Tea Party are comprised of hardworking, devoted, and dedicated Americans. Each group truly desires to improve the social welfare of its constituents and enhance our democracies ability to assist its citizens. So where’s the disconnect?
While discussing her experience with Tea party affiliates, Hochschild coined the term “Empathy wall.” This characterization represents an obstacle to obtaining a deep understanding of another person, something that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile towards different beliefs. I assert that the empathy wall stands tall in modern America. Between activist groups, between Republicans and Democrats, between citizens all across the country, a tangible separation exists. Engaging in intolerance, insulting and disparaging the other side, refusing to consider alternative perspectives; this behavior simply builds the wall higher. If grass-roots movements actually seek to improve the American democratic process, it starts here: seek to understand each other’s perspective, exercise tolerance, and tear down the wall.
Featured image: Photo by Renee C. Byer, Creative Commons zero license.