Crashing_waves_copy.jpgSocial Movements Come In Waves

People have been asking me about the big picture: when will we start winning?

Well, just to let you know, we already have, in a small way. From Chris Bowers:

I would like to point out that Republicans still haven’t won anything new on the electoral front since 2004. While we it looks like we were unable to defeat a Democrat who sucked up to Bush, over the past year we still have a pretty good streak going of defeating Republicans who suck up to Bush. . . [snip]

Netroots electoral wins may seem few and far between (Chandler, Obama, Herseth, Dean for DNC), but the only way we are going to get more of them is if we keep trying.

There’s something else you need to understand about social movements: they happen according to a predictable path of progression (this model is adapted from Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations).

They start with Innovators, who make up just 2.5% of a population. Think of a bell curve. They are waaaay out on the left side. Quirky, even flakey, they support a lot of ideas that never make it. But they are great experimenters.

Early Adopters monitor the Innovators. They pay attention to ideas that might work, but are discriminating. They general favor change, but not just any change. They make up about 13.5% of a population, and function as leading edge opinion leaders. They are a highly influential minority.

Moving across the bell curve of the general population, the next group is the Early Majority, so-called because when they adopt a change, the change has moved to the big time. They make up a fat part of the bell curve, 35%, and once you have all these three groups on your side, you have 50% of a whole population. Cut the curve in the middle; that’s where you are now. Early Majority members trust and follow the lead of the Early Adopters.

The next group, on the right hand side of the curve, is the Late Majority, or what I call in a forthcoming business book I’ve written, the Skeptical Guardians (so-called because they guard the old way of doing things or seeing the world). These people are generally change resistant. They like the tried and true, the familiar. Like the Early Majority, their mirror image, they make up 35% of a general population.

The last group on the bell curve is the Laggards, or what I call the Confirmed Traditionalists. About 15% of any population, they will never believe in the new way. They may grit their teeth and comply with a new way, or just resist and never sign on. Dead enders, as it were.

What does this have to do with politics and the progressive movement?

Everything.

Some points:

  • The most recent great wave of innovation in American politcs was the conservative "revolution," often traced to Goldwater and moving through Reagan to the present day. That movement has reached its apogee and is now moving past its peak. Evidence for a turning of the tide is all around us.
  • What evidence? Well, for the first time in the post-Viet Nam era, to the best of my knowledge, more Americans trust Democrats on national security than trust Republicans. That’s seriously revolutionary.
  • The institutional strengths of the conservative establishment mask how strong we are. That’s because the creation of conventional wisdom still lies in their hands, as they control the media. They worked hard, starting in the 1980′s, to gain that control. Now they have it. But already, it’s slipping. We are cracking it up, along with Jon Stewart and other cultural forces.
  • The conservaitive revolution took a long time to build. The funding came from the corporate side of the coalition, but the grassroots passion came from the fundamentalists, who decided to move out of their own social circles to run for small, local offices, and move stealth-like into the mainstream. That also really took off in the 1980′s.
  • As a progressive movement, we are about where their side was in the late 1970′s, before Reagan became president. And yet, the pace of our progress in the last two years has put their early progress to shame, probably because our ability to use the Internet to dissemminate information and to communicate alters the pace of social change generally.
  • As a progressive movement, on the issues, we already have the Early Majority on our side, but we have to close the sale in the midterms and consolidate it in the ’08 presidential campaign. The media will follow our progress, and not see it or give it credit in advance. That’s because the media is in the hands of pro-establishment forces.
  • To maintain strong majority governance, we don’t need to win over any more than a solid, sustainable 5% of the Skeptical Guardians. Sometimes we will have more than that, sometimes less, but if we can keep a solid average above 50%, obviously, we dominate. Forget the Confirmed Traditionalists, the flat earthers. We’ll never win them and we don’t need them.
  • Even once we win more Democratic seats in ’06, we still need to push the party to stand for progressive ideals. The fundamentalists actually kept pushing the Republican party for 20 years before becoming the party establishment, or at least its co-establishment. It won’t take us as long, I think, but it will take at least two more election cycles, I figure.
  • We win by erosion and consistency. Thats’ why I chose the graphic I chose. But I think we can cover the ground the conservative revolution covered in thirty years in much less time: more like ten years.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote a popular book caled The Tipping Point. That was all about moving a product in the market from the Early Adopters to the Early MAjority, and he said that’s the hardest part. And it is. But get this: we’ve already past that point. The electoral results will follow. Katrina was a tipping point. So is the Dubai Ports deal. The collapse of the American effort in Iraq, now apparent to a majority of Americans, is a tipping point.
  • Finally, to sustain our gains, we have to tell America a new story about what America is and what we need. Government is not the enemy. Public service with accountability serves the public interest. "Together, We Can Do Better" is not a bad branding statement, overall. The narrative, which underlies all the stories Americans tell themselves, is up for grabs now. We have to fill that void with our story. And we will.

So, in this long post, I’m saying, see the big picture, Social movements progress according to a predictable cycle, and the polling data tell us where we are. Don’t let losses like Ciro Rodriguez get to you. We pushed the edge and took a no-run candidate and made a tough race for an incumbent. In another election cycle or two, we will win those races. In the meantime, we continue pushing like the tide, reshaping the political landscape.

Photo by Derek Dobbie