Social movement politics IS coalition politics

By David S. Meyer

The call for some thoughts on social movements and coalitions came across my screen just as my course on Sociological Theory was starting, and just before the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives exercised sufficient muscle to stall the departure of one of its enemies. Somehow, I see the pedagogic and political events of the moment fitting together and speaking to the questions that the Mobilizing Ideas community cares about. Let me try to explain, and then to suggest some issues that we still need to figure out.

To begin: The challenges of coalitions are baked into the cake of American politics, and indeed, into all kinds of democratic politics. James Madison identified the dangers of democracy and the difficulties of coalitions long before Marx, let alone Marxism, was conceived. Like the other American founders, Madison was keenly aware that democratic politics would allow the mob (the masses?, the people?), unwashed, uneducated, and unpropertied, to promote policies that did not serve the, uh, “national interest.” The real danger: majorities could vote to take away the stuff of minorities, like the well-educated and wealthy folks meeting behind closed doors in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. In Federalist #10, Madison touted a double-edged strategy to mitigate the dangers of democracy. The first edge was including and promoting a diversity of interests and factions that would prevent the development of a strong and stable majority for anything; this meant a large republic and the freedom to organize. The second edge was building multiple obstacles into the system of government that would make it almost impossible for anyone to get anything done—which worked best for the people who needed least from government. I can’t say which edge was sharper, but both continue to cut.

Marx couldn’t imagine that would last. He thought that all the petty differences of language, industry, region, to say nothing of race or religion, would fall away as workers recognized an overriding need to unify behind their class interests. Really. It’s hard to think that a revivified Madison wouldn’t chuckle about such a prediction when viewing the contemporary political scene. Organizers continue to struggle to get large groups of people who think they have different interests to unite behind one—at least for a while. And it’s hard work.

Marx’s contemporary, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw a solution in America: the notion of self-interest, rightly understood. Americans, the reluctant democrat observed, are rigorously pragmatic. Recognizing their own interests, and the range of interests of those around them, activists would cultivate shifting alliances, always aware that today’s opponents could become tomorrow’s partners. The resulting politics and culture, he argued, would be non-ideological, instrumental, and civil. (Now Marx gets to laugh).

What Tocqueville got right was that effective organizers realized that their success was contingent on working with people who disagreed with them on at least some issues. While he framed the issue in terms of individual agreements, in contemporary politics those individuals negotiate on behalf of larger groups. Ideally, they cooperate to the extent it brings political advantage, and differentiate themselves on tactics, issues, and constituencies to maintain a flow of resources sufficient to keep doing their work. The balancing, between coordinating efforts and compromising with allies while offering a distinctive line of thinking and action, is dynamic, responding to political contingencies and affected by personal rivalries.

Circumstances matter, and in general, it’s far easier to get to NO than to YES. Uniting in opposition is a far less daunting task than governance. So, Catherine Corrigall-Brown and I (2005) reported on antiwar coalitions that stretched from radical pacifists to anti-imperialists to international relations realists, and including artists, musicians, and business executives. They agreed that going to war in Iraq in early 2003 was unwise, but disagreed on much else. On the eve of war, those differences didn’t matter much, but once the prospect of actually stopping the war evaporated, those coalitions started to fray as other interests and more complicated ideas came to the fore.

Similarly, the Republican Party found the Tea Party a more welcome force when its opponents controlled both houses of Congress as well as the presidency. They shared the work of opposing President Obama’s initiatives, employing diverse tactics and rhetoric in the service of common goals. That they could not agree on a common agenda or even shared incremental steps wasn’t a problem until such steps were at least notionally possible.

I think the dynamics of building cooperation among individuals—even on the right and in government–are similar to those inside social movements—among organizations, even on the left. A focus on the context, dynamics, and consequences of coalitions within movements is a critical front for important research that might matter not only in our understandings of movements, but also in their development. When I started on this area, the literature was powerful but limited, and a review always started with Zald and McCarthy (1980) and Staggenborg (1986). Over the past twenty years, however, there has been a raft of important work on a wide variety of cases displaying a range of methods and identifying key questions (start with van Dyke and McCammon 2010). I’m particularly interested in how the dynamics of coalition formation and decision-making work for different groups (Ghaziani 2008; Heaney and Rojas 2014). I suspect that the same groups that are most disadvantaged in the broader society face similar disadvantage within groups and coalitions that purport to work for them (see Strolovitch 2007).

So here’s the dilemma: deploying diversity, that is, showing a range of interests and constituencies in support of a common cause is newsworthy and suggests potential political power. But managing diversity, that is, serving the range of interests and groups within a coalition with enough fairness to maintain engagement, is a daunting and frustrating struggle that leaves no one satisfied. I think these difficult calculations and negotiations may be the key to understanding political influence over the long and short term. We have much left to know and do.

Here’s the challenge: A few months ago I received a series of calls from reporters asking about #blacklivesmatter. We’ve been looking at the demonstrations, one explained, and this time it seems different: there are white people out there. The journalist’s implication was clear: maybe if this kind of diversity is deployed, the movement may get more political traction. The disturbing paradox here is obvious: why do white bodies matter so much in a campaign to underscore the value of black lives?
Yet another good place to start: let’s rise to the challenge.


Ghaziani, Amin. 2008. The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and Gay Marches on Washington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Heaney, Michael T. and Fabio Rojas. 2014. “Hybrid Activism: Social Movement Mobilization in a Multimovement Environment.” American Journal of Sociology 119 (4): 1047-1103

Meyer, David S. and Catherine Corrigall-Brown. 2005. “Coalitions and Political Context: U.S. Movements against Wars in Iraq.” Mobilization 10 (3): 327-344.

Staggenborg, Suzanne 1986. “Coalition Work in the Pro-Choice Movement: Organizational and Environmental Opportunities and Obstacles.” Social Problems 33 (5): 374-390.

Strolovitch, Dara Z. 2007. Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Dyke, Nella and Holly J. McCammon, eds. 2010. Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Zald, Mayer N. and John D. McCarthy. 1980. “Social Movement Inidustries: Cooperation and Conflict amongst Social Movement Organizations.” Pp. 1-20 in Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change, 3, edited by Louis Kriesberg, Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press.

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Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

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