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How Successful Movements Inspire Lasting Change

2016 December 4
by Greg Satell

The declaration of surrender was touted as a triumph. Microsoft Loves Linux, the headline read, but just a decade earlier, the firm’s then CEO, Steve Ballmer had called Linux a cancer. The all-powerful tech giant had lost and lost badly — to a ragtag band of revolutionaries, no less — but still seemed strangely upbeat.

Overthrows like these are becoming increasingly common and not just in business. As Moisés Naím observed in his book, The End of Power, institutions of all types, from corporations and governments to traditional churches, charities and militaries, are being disrupted. “Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep,” he writes.

The truth is that it’s no longer enough to capture the trappings of power, because movements made up of small groups can synchronize their actions through networks. So if you want to effect lasting change today, it’s no longer enough to merely command resources, you have to inspire opponents to join your cause. History shows these movements follow a clear pattern.

Clarity of Purpose

In a previous article about why some movements succeed and others fail, I compared the Occupy and Otpor movements. Occupy, as many know, was a band of young activists that took over Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to protest against social and economic inequality. Otpor was a similar group in Serbia that sought to overthrow the Milošević regime.

Yet despite their similarities, the results they achieved couldn’t have been more different. In the case of Occupy, the protesters were back home in a few short months, achieving little. Otpor, on the other hand, not only toppled Milošević, it went on to train activists in the Georgian Rose Revolution, the Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, just to name a few.

One reason for the disparity is that while Otpor had one clear goal, to overthrow Milošević, it was hard to tell what Occupy wanted to be done. As Joe Nocera noted in a New York Times column, the group “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive” power of corporations,’ but “never got beyond their own slogans.”

Clarity of purpose is a common theme in successful movements. For example, Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus of the Indian independence movement, because they favored a plan for comprehensive change, but he saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.

Shared Purpose And Shared Values

In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal argued that building a shared purpose is essential to distributed action. “An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness,” he observed.

Here again, we see a stark contrast between Occupy and Otpor. While both took a non-hierarchical approach, distributing power broadly, Otpor was far more organized and disciplined, creating a training curriculum and holding bootcamps to indoctrinate new members in the principles of nonviolent struggle.

Like clarity of purpose, emphasis on training is a common attribute of successful movements. In John Lewis’s memoir of his role in the civil rights movement, Walking With The Wind, he continually underlines the importance of training activists. Protests are incredibly stressful and often meet with fierce opposition. Training helps activists maintain discipline.

If you look at pictures or film of the sit-ins and marches of the 1960’s, you’ll see nicely dressed young men and women keeping their composure in the face of snarling dogs and police batons. Now compare that to the unkempt protesters at Occupy events. That’s the difference that creating and instilling values makes.

Scalable Networks Of Small Groups

In the 1950’s, the prominent psychologist Solomon Asch undertook a pathbreaking series of conformity studies. What he found was that in small groups, people will conform to a majority opinion. More recent research suggests that the effect applies not only to people we know well, but that we are also influenced even by second and third degree relationships.

So while we usually notice successful movements after they have begun to attract large crowds and hold massive demonstrations, those are effects, not causes, of successful mobilization. It is when small groups connect — which has become exponentially easier in the digital age — that they gain their power.

In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson observed that the movement was largely based in a wide ranging assortment of groups that met in local cafes and coffee shops. “There is not, therefore, a single Tea Party organization or even a well coordinated network,” they wrote.

That’s why founders of Otpor warn in their training manuals about the dangers of holding large demonstrations too early. Rather, they suggest that protesters focus on building capacity and strategically sequencing their actions to gain support. If you can do that successfully, eventually the large crowds will take care of themselves.

Overcoming Increasing Thresholds Of Resistance

While focusing on building a shared purpose among a network of small groups is an effective way to build ideological continuity, it also presents a danger. Tightknit groups of likeminded people often forget that many others do not hold the same views. Often, as in the case of the Bernie Bro phenomenon last summer, they come to regard dissent as illegitimate.

That’s a real problem, because for any movement to spread and effect change, it needs to overcome steadily increasing thresholds of resistance. If only the views held inside the movement are seen as legitimate, then outsiders come to be seen as targets for attack. That’s why so many movements never create change that lasts, they create enemies that undermine their cause.

Consider, on the other hand, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It spoke not just to the problems of African Americans, but to the founding principles of the nation. It was that approach that grew the movement beyond its core constituency of southern blacks and made inroads to the larger public.

The truth is that movements rarely, if ever create change themselves, but inspire change through influencing outsiders. After all, it wasn’t Martin Luther King that signed the Civil Rights Act, but Lyndon Johnson, a southern white man from Texas.

Change In The Era Of Obama And Trump

Eight years ago, Barack Obama created a powerful movement that swept him to a stunning electoral victory, but inspired such fierce resistance that he had trouble enacting his agenda. Donald Trump now aims to lead a nation that seems, if possible, even more divided. We seem doomed to stay stuck in a cycle of recrimination.

While it is easy to place the blame solely on the politicians — and certainly some blame is deserved — we must also realize that they also reflect the movements that brought them to power. The Tea Party, made up largely of rural whites, failed to make inroads with Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant.” At the same time, as Joan Williams explains in her recent article, Democratic oriented movements have alienated the white working class.

Rhetoric rarely persuades. As Solomon Asch so effectively showed in his conformity studies, and President Obama alluded to in his recent remarks, minds are changed through face-to-face engagement. We can only truly form a national consensus by internalizing the concerns of our fellow citizens and form a common cause.

It is no accident that progress on LGBT rights in America has not been made through eloquent arguments or militant advocacy, but because of all the many personal interactions between straight Americans and their gay friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Make no mistake, there can be no legitimacy without consensus and there can be no consensus that inspires so much fear. And so, as each side prepares to rev up their base, we seemed doomed to repeat the cycle of recrimination and ephemeral change that will soon be reversed by a future election. As long as some feel victimized and others feel demonized, we will remain a country divided.

Yet there is a clear path forward and successful movements throughout history have shown us the way. Lasting change does not come when one side delivers a knockout blow and disenfranchises tens of millions of fellow citizens, but when, much like in the case of Microsoft and Linux, both sides are able to claim the victory as their own.

– Greg

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kuldip Singh permalink
    December 5, 2016

    I think with respect to Barrack Obama, the problem was the inability of certain Caucasians to accept the fact that an Afro-American was in the White House.
    When I asked my Spiritual Master, ” Why was Obama made President?”
    The Master replied, ” So that the white skin peoples would become humble.”
    I think, in the not too distant future, you might be seeing more non-whites in a leadership role.

  2. December 5, 2016

    I think there is some truth to that, but it is also a bit too facile. Many people who voted for Trump previously voted for Obama. Also, many Obama voters simply stayed home or voted for third parties.

    So I think we have to be careful about attributing the result of the election to race.

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