Claiming victory gracelessly

A win is a problem for a social movement.  Activists never get all they want, and smaller reforms can make it hard to get supported riled up and active.  At the same time, movement organizers need to show that they can be effective in order to get people to continue to ante up their time, money, and attention.

Every response from government is a chance for activists to screw up: seeking to demonstrate their power, they claim credit for policy changes far smaller than they promised; seeking to emphasize their purity and anger, they show how ineffective they’ve been.

The challenge is to find a way to claim credit for partial reforms, while emphasizing just how much more work is to be done: We are powerful, and we’ve got a long way to go.  The trick is to claim credit gracelessly.

The debt deal provides a serious test for the Tea Party.  Recall that some Tea Party leaders, in and out of Congress, railed against any increase in the debt limit, and that the deal Congress approved makes serious, but marginal, changes in spending for most programs.  (Anyone who looks at the numbers knows that reducing spending on health care–we spend roughly twice as much as any rich country per person, half government and half private.  And we don’t get better results.)

When we look at Tea Partiers and Republicans speaking about the debt deal, we get a sense of how they’re trying to walk this balance.

I think Newt Gingrich, more accomplished rhetorically than in any other endeavor, did the best from an activist view, acknowledging the inherent contradictions in what he has to say.  Speaking on O’Reilly, Speaker Gingrich said that Tea Party forced President Obama to back down from his demands for taxes on the wealthy, and that this partial victory could be the foundation for further action:

First, the Tea Party members should feel really good — the left is mad at [Obama] for the right reason —they were effective, they were successful.   We just had an extraordinary moment where a very left-wing president blinked, and that would not have happened without the tea party. Now they have a great opportunity to push to pass a balanced budget amendment by the end of the year — that could be a historic effort for the tea party to focus on.

Second, Washington has to shift and focus on the economy — we are in very grave danger of sliding into an even deeper depression — and I think there is no sign right now that Washington understands that this is a temporary moment,  Ok, we’ve all focused on the debt ceiling; we’re about to launch a big five- or six-month fight — and it’s going to be a fight. This was not the end — this was the beginning of a fight over the whole nature of what happens next.” (Newsmax)

Elected officials, like Senators John McCain and Orin Hatch, who formerly might have tried to represent a sensible center, were careful to give the Tea Party credit for shifting the debate.  Their rhetorical deference represents their ongoing efforts to avoid alienating the increasingly far right wing of their party.

On Fox, Senator McCain said, “I agree the tea party movement has had an effect in that I don’t think without the tea party we would have had an agreement.  I think the tea partiers can claim a lot of credit….the president had to back down…[and give up] “his primary position that we had to have tax hikes.” (Politico)

Outside government, however, activists were quicker to feed the outrage rather than the sense of efficacy.  Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips said the Republican leadership  “totally sold the tea party and the conservative movement out.”  (Roll Call)  “We put them in power and now we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why did we do that?’”

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots (who, unlike Phillips, can actually claim a political following) said the deal was “destroying America’s future (Chicago Sun-Times).

The elected officials want Tea Partiers to feel a sense of power and to focus on the upcoming elections.  The outside organizers want their supporters angry and distrustful of elected officials who would channel activist energies for their own purposes, and to support the cause, rather than any candidate.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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4 Responses to Claiming victory gracelessly

  1. Pat Rogers says:

    The answer is both simple and complex.

    Simple: America is a police state wit the largest prison system in the world. Very few are willing to go up against a police state. Especially one where the media are no more than cheerleaders for the oppressors. Which is the case in America.

    Complex: Protests culminate from being deprived, denied repressed. While many Americans are denied and repressed the government itself maintains a black market economy worth about $150 BILLION a year for the deprived that offers them a tax free alternative to being locked out of the economic opportunity of America. The War on Drugs creates that black market economy. In 2003 the U.N. estimated the value of the retail value of that black market in the U.S. alone at $141 billion. It is, I am sure, much higher today.

    The government floods poverty oppressed communities with tax free economic opportunity and the most aggressive actors in the market get sent to the prison industrial complex to have all of their will beaten and raped out of them.

    In a very real sense we have had a heavily armed insurrection going on in America since the 1970’s but instead of shooting at the government the armed people shoot at their black market economic competition. Police, on occasion, get caught in the cross fire.

    On the purely political aspects of dissent in America the two parties have very successfully subverted and diverted to their ends the honest efforts of dissent. In so doing they have neutralized the heart and soul of that dissent. The Republicans have bought the Tea Party. The Democrats have co-opted the These groups today organize protests ONLY when it is advantageous for the two dominance parties to put street pressure on the opposing party.

    Black social justice activism has been the most victimized by the prison industrial reprogramming enabled by high drug war incarceration rates. The oppression of poverty is challenged by the black market easy cash. The real purpose of the Drug War, to identify potential dissenters who are willing to question the authority of the drug laws (or other laws of oppression), and then ship them off for reprogramming in Drug War prisons, has been extremely successful at destroying the spirit and soul that normally incites the oppressed to stand up for their rights.

    Finally, while many point to the Internet as some wondrous means of communications among dissenters I think it has actually subverted dissent. Those who are not distracted by all of the pretty things are lulled into thinking that their online activism and endless signing of online petitions somehow is a surrogate for actual protests in the streets. And the Internet has served to compartmentalize dissent so that no real mass of people are brought together in common cause. Politicians listen to one thing and one thing only, angry faces in the streets. Today we have “moderated” anger online.

    • Your take is somewhat more pessimistic than mine. First, relatively protected people have organized in the past, sometimes effectively. The Tea Party certainly isn’t made up of the most disadvantaged!
      I don’t want to dispute your particulars, but I do know the history of American politics is replete with effective movements at the times when they are least expected.

  2. kathleen clark says:

    In the late 1970’s, I took a college poly-sci class which focused on a book predicting America’s future. The author, discussing what he called Special Interest Group Liberalism, predicted America would descend into a state of permanent receivership caused by government overspending at the behest of special interest groups. Further, that Congress and citizens would no longer advocate for the common good, but fight over the division of spoils in an increasingly small and financially encumbered pie. Every student in that class said no way that would happen. Well, here we are.

    Although the above-mentioned author’s opinion was the situation was irreversible, perhaps figuring out a Constitutional amendment which protects free speech but somehow limits the Special Interest Groups hi-jacking of our executive and legislative is where the focus needs to be. Protests and riots won’t do any good.

    • The interest group liberalism is a disturbing society, and it’s not exactly liberal. I think you’re right about the challenge of limiting large campaign expenditures by interested actors. Most of the important S.Court decisions were closely divided, going back to Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s.

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