Social Movements and Election Campaigns

Social Movements and Election Campaigns

Social movements can be very grand. Years ago, Richard Rorty wrote an article in Dissent describing Christianity and Marxism as prototypical social movements (“Movements and Campaigns,” Winter 1995)—they aimed to transform the world and to create “new” men and women. Rorty set himself against this kind of grandiosity. He urged us to enlist instead in what he called “campaigns,” which avoided totalizing ambition and the radical coercion that so often follows. But his campaigns were strangely like the more familiar social movements of our time. I want to continue his argument, defending those movements and asking how their militants should relate to what most of us mean when we talk about campaigns: the efforts of political parties to win elections.

The social movements I mean to focus on are driven by moral or ideological passion but also by collective self-interest. They have a purpose, often narrowly conceived—votes for women, unions for workers, civil rights for blacks. Narrow here doesn’t mean small-minded or inconsequential. In fact, these kinds of purposes are connected to larger ends: the overcoming of oppression, the achievement of equality. But they are focused, as Rorty argued they should be, on a single attainable goal or a closely connected set of goals. Here is something that needs to be done, right now. Here is a fight that can be won. Movements enlist the support of the people they mean to benefit. Not only those people, of course, but those people most crucially: we should think of movements as a form of collective self-help. Organizers and militants play a critical role, but what is most important is simply this: large numbers of men and women become active on their own behalf, on each other’s behalf, and for the sake of the larger cause.

The cause is not monolithic or exclusive; its advocates can recognize that there are other worthy causes, some of which they are ready to support. But because of their moral passion and their narrow focus, and because they pursue a collective good close to their hearts, they tend to produce among themselves a strong sense of solidarity and a commitment that doesn’t easily accept compromise. They don’t think in terms of trade-offs between one cause and another. They are radically focused on their own project, and so they can’t say, “OK, we will postpone the demand for unionization (say), if you open new opportunities for women.” Of course, they can always reduce the dimensions of their own project; they can surrender some number of its rightful beneficiaries—think of the AFL’s reluctance in the 1930s to organize black workers—but that’s the kind of compromise that is likely to look like what Avishai Margalit, in a recent book, calls a “rotten” compromise.

Given this description, Occupy Wall Street wasn’t and isn’t a movement. It was an uprising or—time will tell—perhaps only a flair-up of moral passion. If it is to ...

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