The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes, is my friend. While we should probably be skeptical of this attitude toward friendship, it can help us understand why activists sometimes form short-term–or even seemingly paradoxical–alliances during times of threat.
It is well documented (Staggenborg 1986; McCammon and Campbell 2002; Almeida 2003) that activists form coalitions during the best of times. When things are going well, they form new relationships and strengthen the alliances they already have. The story is a little different, however, during times of threat. When facing threats, activists draw upon coalitions formed and strengthened during times of opportunity. However, I’ve found that they also build new coalitions, although these new partnerships may not be intended to last long-term (Pullum 2018). Allies pushed together by a common threat may agree only on their opposition to that immediate threat, rather than sharing a broader ideology. Once the threat has passed, allied organizations may part ways, or negotiate a longer-term partnership.
I studied this sort of intentionally limited alliance in Idaho, where teachers’ union leaders from the Idaho Education Association (IEA) partnered with the founders of a newly-formed parents’ group, Idaho Parents and Teachers Together (IPATT), to oppose a set of education reform bills. Provisions of these bills included limiting teachers’ collective bargaining agreements to one year, eliminating tenure for new teachers, basing teacher pay on students’ standardized test scores, and requiring online coursework for graduation. This was a new alliance created during a time of threat, when the Idaho legislature was seriously considering legislation that ran counter to both groups’ goals; in fact, the parents’ organization was formed specifically to oppose the bills, and its founders had not previously identified as activists. The alliance launched a successful veto referendum campaign that overturned all of the bills in question.
This intentionally limited partnership had a number of benefits. First, it helped insulate allies from attacks by one another’s opponents. One movement’s or organization’s opponents may be enticed to turn their attention to that group’s allies as well. (We might well expand on the proverb: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the friend of my enemy is my enemy.) But in this case, IPATT’s relatively loose affiliation with IEA provided a counterargument to opponents’ claims that “big unionism” was really in command.
Second, the short-term alliance kept resource pools relatively separate, lessening the costs of partnership and allowing for specialization. Alliances may bring new resources to a campaign, but they can also entail splitting resources among more organizations or actions. In Idaho, however, each organization brought specific resources to the table. IEA’s contributions included money and the human labor of its members, while the parents’ organization contributed technological skills and increased legitimacy.
Third, this intentionally short-term alliance resulted in broad frames that encompassed shared goals, while steering clear of disagreements between allies. The Idaho organizations had little in common beyond an opposition to specific pieces of legislation; in fact, lPATT leaders were largely uninterested in labor issues. Because the two organizations shared goals related to public education specifically, rather than labor itself, their public campaign largely avoided discussions of labor protections that the bills would curtail. Claims about union rights had the potential to divide both the coalition and the electorate, whereas claims about high-quality education united both movement leaders and voters alike.
Finally, it meant that disagreements had limited consequences. When allies disagree, they might be able to put their differences aside for the sake of their shared goal, but they may also pursue divergent tactics that split the coalition’s efforts, or even find themselves in drawn-out struggles that distract from the goals at hand. Because allies may not agree on much except a shared goal, dilemmas arise when an ally engages in an action that others in the coalition find questionable or unacceptable, or that is simply unpopular. In Idaho, for example, IPATT leaders opposed a potential work stoppage that some union members had proposed. This disagreement was solved when IEA leaders reassured their allies that the work stoppage would not occur. However, the short-term nature of the alliance means that this promise only needed to last as long as the alliance lasted; union members were not committing to never using a particular tactic.
I termed this alliance “foul weather friends” because they came together in the face of a threat, rather than during a time of opportunity. However, such intentionally limited partnerships also have unique drawbacks. Short-term partners, for example, can part ways after the initial threat passes, and may be uninterested in “getting the band back together” the next time a threat arises, making long-term strategic planning difficult and unpredictable. After achieving their goal, the Idaho two organizations parted amicably, and IPATT eventually disbanded. However, some provisions of the overturned laws were reintroduced in the Idaho Legislature, and IEA found itself without a strong alliance for this new fight.
Threats can inspire both cooperation with existing allies and formation of new alliances. These alliances can be crucial to campaigns, even if they are not intended to be long-term partnerships. In other words, while the enemy of my enemy may be my friend, our shared enemy may not make us lifelong companions.