When Mobilization was launched in 1996, I had just returned to the U.S. and academia after six years with the United Nations University’s WIDER Institute, as the sole non-economist and only sociologist working on international development. My years at UNU/WIDER had given me the space and time to engage in solo and collaborative research on new forms of social movements – not “new social movements” per se, but rather the growing trend of Islamist movements and its opposite, the growing worldwide movement of women’s rights and feminist advocacy. I had always been engaged in research (and activism) on Iran, but the UNU/WIDER years had enabled me to conduct research in North African countries, among others, which resulted – many years later – in a co-authored piece in Mobilization, entitled “Political Opportunities and Strategic Choices: Comparing Feminist Campaigns in Morocco and Iran”(vol. 15, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 267-88).
Mobilization has published a number of important articles over its 25 year lifespan, but one contribution that I have found particularly useful is the 2006 Hess and Martin article on when repressive events may backfire. The starting point of their analysis is the simple observation that repression of dissent in some cases leads to greater mobilization when repression generates public outrage against the repressor. Repression may in this sense “backfire” and undermine the state, thus marking a transformative event for social movements. Hess and Martin argue that in order for repression to backfire information about the event must be revealed or be accessible to the relevant audience, and the repressive events must be perceived as unjust, as for example when peaceful protest is met by disproportionate violent repression. Hess and Martin illustrate their argument by detailed analysis of three case where repression backfired, including how support for independence in India increase following efforts to repress the 1930 Salt March.
Last month, the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University hosted a two-day conference titled The Green New Deal and the Future of Work in America. The conference was organized by Craig Calhoun (University Professor of Social Sciences, ASU) and Benjamin Fong (Lecturer, Barrett Honors College, ASU) and included a keynote address by Frances Fox Piven (Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center). The conference gathered leading scholars on labor, the environment, and social movements to “discuss the Green New Deal and its potential to both respond to the climate crisis and plot a path forward to a more just and fair nation.”
I interviewed Dr. Todd E. Vachon, a postdoctoral associate at Rutgers University in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and conference attendee, about what social movement scholars can take away from the conference. Todd is currently working on a book manuscript about the emerging movement of climate activists within the U.S. labor movement. The findings in the book are based on four years of participant observation with three labor-climate movement organizations and builds upon Todd’s 20+ years of participation in the labor movement as a carpenter, organizer, and a union leader. The manuscript, which explores the collective action framing processes around the contested concept of a “just transition” for workers, is currently under review at an academic press. He has also published research examining the environmental attitudes and behaviors of U.S. workers and the political-economic predictors of greenhouse gas emissions cross nationally.
What are a few of the “big ideas” you’re taking away from the conference?
Well, for starters, the Green New Deal (GND) has inspired a new wave of organizing and movement building to confront the climate crisis. It’s not just a plan to address climate change though. It’s also a roadmap to a democracy revival movement. The shared understanding among most attendees of the conference was that merely electing the right president, while certainly a worthy goal, is not alone going to prevent climate catastrophe. Stopping the worst of climate change is going to require collective action. And that action is going to have to demand more than just greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it’s going to have to center social and economic justice for workers, Tribal communities, and people of color if it’s going to have any chance of succeeding. Anything less will pit workers against the environment and against frontline communities—as has so often been the case in the past—rather than uniting these groups in shared purpose against their common foes, the real purveyors of social, economic and environmental injustice.
Why should sociologists, and social movement scholars in particular, be interested in the topic of the conference?
As with the original New Deal, a major reorientation of society like that envisioned by the GND is going to involve massive amounts of civic engagement and collective action at levels not seen in decades. Such periods of widespread and continuous social action typically invite experimentation and innovation on the part of activists. These periods also create a great opportunity for social science research to address questions related to social movement formation, tactical repertoire development and deployment, movement outcomes, and more. For example: how is it that people come to realize that their individual wellbeing is wrapped up in the collective wellbeing of everyone? Under what circumstances does this realization foster concerted action? How then are movement targets selected? How and when do climate movement organizations win or lose? And what types of coalitions are able to build the broad base of support required to successfully challenge the hegemony of the fossil fuel industry and it’s supporting neoliberal governing ideology?
The youth Climate Strikes and the direct actions by groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement already represent a new wave in climate activism; one that embraces many of the demands of the environmental justice movement but also some demands of the mainstream environmental movement as well as the labor movement. This new wave of climate activism is inherently cross-class in nature. Activists are targeting states, producers, and consumers alike and are making demands that are simultaneously material, non-material, and cultural in nature. These developments challenge some long-held beliefs among scholars regarding the nature of movements, their targets, and their goals, and thus warrant new streams of research. Further, these events are unfolding in real time and provide a tremendous opportunity for qualitatively rich, empirically rigorous research that not only improves our understanding of social movements but may also contribute to saving humankind from its own worst tendencies.
Is there any work you came across at the conference that you think should be “required reading”?
I think everyone who has not already done so should take 10 minutes and read H.Res 109, the Green New Deal resolution submitted to congress by Representative Ocasio-Cortez-Cortez and Senator Markey. Unlike previous proposals to address the climate crisis, this resolution explicitly acknowledges the social and economic disruptions that will ensue as a result of decarbonizing our economy and it lays out a broad vision for some of the ways we can create a sustainable society with justice and equity for all.
Beyond that, hearing Francis Fox Piven discuss some of the ways in which the climate movement might succeed or fail in its efforts to win a GND reminded me that it is never a bad time to re-read Poor People’s Movements. The crucial role that structural crises in social and economic institutions played in the formation of the movements studied in that book can offer much insight into our contemporary climate conundrum and the resulting movement growing to address it. Other required reading will be the edited volume based upon conference participants presentation which should be available sometime in 2020 or 2021.
Finally, I would also recommend that interested readers check out the websites for two movement organizations, the Labor Network for Sustainability and the Climate Justice Alliance, if they would like to learn more. These organizations both offer lots of insights from the perspectives of activists, scholars, and practitioners into the real challenges involved with forging durable alliances and building a movement for a climate safe and just society for workers and frontline communities.
A wave of popular uprisings has swept over Latin America in the past few months. While “taking it to the streets” is not uncommon in the region, what seems unique to these recent uprisings is both their scope and intensity. In Chile, for example, what started as discontent over an increase in the price of public transport quickly turned into the largest protests in the country since the revolts against Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s.
The ongoing Chilean protests quickly came to symbolize opposition against wider injustices related to steep and rising inequality, cost of living, and lack of economic opportunity. While these large-scale protests have no central leadership or single union, group or organization behind them, the country’s indigenous populations, namely the Mapuche, have played a particularly visible role in the uprisings. In the following piece, Patricia Rodriguez, Associate Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, draws on her research with Christian Martínez Neira and David Carruthers to give an insightful account of the role that indigenous movements and resistance play in these recent popular mobilizations and the territorial, political and cultural claims they articulate.
Last month, a new Pew report confirmed what many of us suspected: that the rise of the nones is not abating; that religious disaffiliation is continuing or even accelerating. Besides disaffiliation, we also have a situation of deep religious polarization: as Robert Wuthnow first argued a long time ago, religion’s influence on people today comes less through denominations and pastors than through its affinity with competing systems of meaning – orthodox, or conservative; and modernist, or progressive. These trends are amplified by a third: internal secularization, wherein people who are still in a church often ascribe less authority to that church and its institutional guidance than they might have in prior generations. Disaffiliation, polarization, and internal secularization – all of these trends would seem to point toward a diminished role for religion in the public sphere.
And yet it’s clear that’s not happening. Amid these signs of declining institutional religious authority, there is plenty of evidence that religion as a system of public cultural authority is not receding at all. Rather, there is a set of strong cultural claims about belonging, citizen competence, leadership, and social order which have religious roots, but have diffused out from their denominational and institutional moorings and continue to shape the political and civic preferences of a wide variety of social actors – not only religious people. In previous work, co-authors and I called this a secularized evangelical discourse. Other, more parsimonious authors label it Christian Nationalism. Whatever we call it, it’s real, it’s powerful, and it’s persistent.
It’s also something that scholars of social movements need to account for. Christian Nationalism is a key driver of contemporary conservative movements in the US. It predicts conservative attitudes about race, gun control, gender, sexuality, and more. But theoretically, Christian Nationalism is also something more: a culturally derived response to changing structural conditions (namely the ongoing diversification of the US population and the perception that white, Christian culture is under threat). In these terms, it’s not the only way that religion motivates responses to social change – it surely has to be a case of something. And what I think it is a case of is a desire among people to anchor their political and cultural identities in a narrativized sense of belonging that has connection to sacred values. Christian nationalism is one such narrativized sense of belonging, as Phil Gorski shows so well in his analysis of evangelicals’ voting for Trump. But there might be others too. What they are, who they appeal to, and how they manifest in politics are questions that social movement scholars need to think about going forward.
The reason this is so important is that many researchers, not only in sociology, but also in political science and psychology, are satisfied with throwing a few measures of private religious behavior into their analyses and saying that they have considered religion’s effects. Even in the sociology of religion, where people are aware of the complexities of measuring and analyzing religion, measures have not yet caught up to the empirical reality that cultural authority is where the action is. The key question is, why are religious claims persistently powerful in public life in contexts where fewer people are religious?
A new working paper by Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry identifies four responses to Christian Nationalism in the United States. There are rejecters, resisters, accommodators, and ambassadors, but the demographic composition of the groups is a little surprising. By looking granularly at who exhibits different levels of support for Christian nationalism, they make some important findings. I will highlight two. First, 1/5th of ambassadors are Democrats! This is something one would never find if looking only at the news media or even at most studies of conservative Christianity. And yet there it is, suggesting that that even among political progressives there is appetite for belonging to something that is both sacred and farther-reaching than a congregation.
Second, and related, nearly half of African-Americans are accommodators, but few are ambassadors. This, combined with the previous finding, makes a key point about the Democratic party coalition – the ethnic and racial minority groups that comprise almost half of it have a much stronger appetite for religious claims in public life than do its white components. We need to recognize that these racial minority Democrats favor some religious language in the public sphere. This should be obvious to anyone who listens to the way Black leaders talk. Even those who don’t mention God specifically often tap into the prophetic discourse of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. William Barber. They imbue these values into the way they talk about politics; both the politics of national belonging, as Barack Obama did, and the politics of everyday life, as they mobilize on issues related to incarceration, debt, voting, education, and access to health care. But too many people don’t recognize this kind of talk as religious, because, as Penny Edgell has written, when it comes from people who aren’t white, we tend to assume it is about interests, not values. Here’s a strong example of why we need to think about religion as a system of cultural authority, more than a system of private beliefs. When we think about who makes up the Democratic coalition, distilling that coalition down to just interests, and ignoring the appetite for sacred values, isn’t only empirically wrong, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes that make us even more wrong the more we do it.
For anyone still thinking that religion is simple, consider a paradox pointed out recently by Sam Perry: Christian nationalism and private religious practice almost always have opposite effects when included together in multivariate models. Christian nationalism drives people toward opposition to redistributive social programs and support for immigrants, while private religious practice is associated with stronger support for these things. How could this be? Well, one interpretation that interests me is that both Christian nationalism and religious practice are organized around religious authority, but the objects of that authority are different. Christian nationalism looks toward strict security, strong social boundaries, and militarism as core values to which fidelity is owed, while religious practice is more closely associated with charity and stewardship. This seems to align with the moral schemas theory posited by George Lakoff, which points to opposing family metaphors – strict father and nurturant mother – to explain political differences. It seems possible that Christian Nationalism is essentially tapping, or is at least highly correlated with, this strong father sense of morality, and that we in fact lack equivalent measures of how nurturant mother morality, if we accept Lakoff’s term, is projected into questions of public life.
Let me give an example. In late October I was at a gathering of community organizers, and somehow it came up that I was doing research on this topic. I described how I saw the difference between private religiosity and public religious authority, and one of the organizers said, but what about people like me? I’m a Jew, but my Judaism is almost entirely about social justice. I believe in God a little bit, but really what I believe in, and why I am in a community of believers, is pursuit of the common good. So I have strong conceptions of public religious authority, and weak private belief, but I’m not a religious nationalist.
This community organizer is a person that sociologists’ models of the intersection of religion and politics can’t explain very well right now. He would likely show up in Whitehead’s model as a rejecter (nearly half of Jews do). And he does reject Christian Nationalism, but he also has a keen sense of public religious authority that our measures don’t pick up on, and this drives his social activism in a community organization. One reason we don’t notice this kind of public religious practice is that it’s not tied to a strict racial identity and it doesn’t share in the history of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right, so it’s much less institutionalized and not as heavily politicized. But it’s there, and it’s real, and we’re missing it.
I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of questions to prompt reflection on how social movements research can build on this emerging research agenda on public religious authority. First, what is religious nationalism really a case of, in both empirical and theoretical terms? And what other authority systems might fit into whatever it is a case of, and how might we measure those?
Second, what are we missing when we limit our analysis of religion and public authority to white conservatives, as most of the research has done so far? Are we missing something really important about other racial-religious traditions? Omar McRoberts has a chapter about Black civil religion in a forthcoming book by Penny Edgell and Grace Yukich that would suggest we are. I think he’s right, and I can’t wait to see his remarks about this in print.
Third, what implications might this way of thinking about religion have outside of the world of politics that we have mostly been discussing today? Practically all of the work on public religious authority to date has involved attitudinal studies. What about its civic effects? Its behavioral effects? How it drives movement formation or dissolution, or inform what movements can and can’t do in different contexts? The possibilities seem vast, but I’ll stop here.