Over the course of this last year, I worked on a paper titled “Elites, Policy and Social Movements” now published in Research in Political Sociology. In short, the paper is about how challengers, over the long run, develop ties to political elites and political entrepreneurs and how the networks they create shape policy change. Like some of my other work, I focus on the insider-outsider relationship among actors working on similar social change projects.
I started writing this paper during the heated Democratic primaries when Hillary Clinton was fighting to secure her place with Democratic voters and seeking to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters. A particular exchange between Clinton and a BlackLivesMatter activist left a lasting impression. Clinton proclaimed:
“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”
As I noted in the paper, Clinton’s views on social change highlight contemporary debates in political sociology and social movement studies and I used this as a basis for organizing the manuscript.
Frankly, I thought this short essay for Mobilizing Ideas would be about the availability of new resources and political opportunities for various social movement groups to further develop ties with sympathetic elites and political entrepreneurs following a Clinton win; how movement leaders and activists would work with elites to build on and expand their policy efforts. But, in light of the recent election outcome and the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Trump, the focus should now be about how social movements will matter under a different set of circumstances come January.
It’s important to point out that while Trump ran a campaign based on bluster and conflicting and ambiguous policy positions, the uncertainty surrounding policy directions is now quickly giving way to more certainty which is, to say the least, disconcerting to many. Anxieties that were once based on Trump’s unpredictability are now fueled by his recent cabinet picks.
Trump is drawing from and reinforcing a class of “power elites” whose members transcend divisions between the economic, political and military elite structure. Take his choice for secretary of state, CEO of Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator, Betsy DeVos for education secretary and Mike Pompeo and James Mattis for CIA Director and defense secretary respectively. This would also be the wealthiest cabinet in American history.
Then, there is his recent appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general that raised red flags given Sessions’ racist comments made in the late 1980s. Additionally, as I wrote in a piece for The Hill, Sessions in 2000 described important disability rights education policy as “accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.” And, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick for budget chief, signals the incoming administration’s willingness to cut Medicare and social security.
Shortly after the election results, when there was still a lot of uncertainty around a Trump presidency, I was asked by my policy school students on their radio show about what we can expect. In my response, I emphasized in part paying attention to the emergence of policy consensus between Trump, the GOP establishment, and the people Trump will surround himself within government. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump’s recent cabinet choices reflect a willingness to undermine public education and labor market regulations, a weak position on civil rights and antidiscrimination efforts, and a general retrenchment in social policy.
I was also asked what opponents could do to curb, mitigate or prevent these potential policy trajectories. The answer I give is, mobilize! In an article that appeared on Roar and Occupy.com, Hardt and Mezzadra discussed the power of movements in the years to come. But, they also pointed to “one of the pitfalls for social movements;” that protest on its own “is never enough to create lasting transformation.” There is truth to that.
With these threats to existing social policy and with the Democrats out of power, it is absolutely critical that movement activists, leaders, policy elites and other sympathetic policy stakeholders forge alliances that transcend state/non-state boundaries to influence the political process. The kind of mobilization necessary now is one that unites factions on the left, that uses a multi-pronged, long- term and short-term strategy, targeting different branches and levels of government as well as non-state targets, and is capable of preventing efforts in retrenchment while advancing reforms.
To return to Clinton’s quote about social change, effective mobilization will require close policy monitoring and “pragmatic” efforts to defend policy but, it will also depend on the ability of challengers and elites to change the culture in American politics – to shape hearts and minds – because under these institutional circumstances, inspiring a very broad coalition of support is the only way for meaningful social change to come about.