Friday, July 01, 2005

Making Distinctions - Seeing Possibilities

We have learned a few things at Political Research Associates (PRA) over the past 24 years of studying U.S. right-wing political and social movements, and we have captured our best advice in a document titled "Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right." There are three sections--Do Your Homework, Stay Cool in Public, and Keep Organizing--each with several suggestions.

When PRA staff speak in public we often expand on these recommendations, and a blog seems like a good place to enshrine these musings in written form. Over the next few months, I will pick one suggestion and write a short essay around it, with some useful links if I can find them.

To start, let’s look at the following recommendation:

Distinguish between leaders and followers in right-wing organizations.

Leaders are often “professional” right-wingers. They’ve made a career of promoting a rightist agenda and attacking progressives and progressive issues. Followers, on the other hand, may not be well-informed. They are often mobilized by fears about family and future based on information that, if true, would indeed be frightening. This so-called “education” is often skillful, deceitful, and convincing. These followers may take positions that are more extreme than those of the leaders, but on the other hand, they may not know exactly what they are supporting by attending a certain organization’s rally or conference. To critique and expose the leaders of right-wing organizations is the work of a good progressive organizer, writer or activist. In the case of the followers, however, it is important to reserve judgment and listen to their grievances. Do not assume that they are all sophisticated political agents or have access to a variety of information sources.

-- - Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right

This does not mean that we should think that followers are dimwitted, ignorant, or crazy. That was a common perception promoted by centrist academics during the 1960s, but since the late 1970s sociologists have shown that people who join social movements--left or right--are remarkably similar to the population from which they emerge. And people in social movements are not mesmerized by crafty leaders, cluelessly following the whims of charismatic demagogues. Demagogues exist, to be sure, but they primarily succeed by swaying large groups of people by developing clever ways to frame ideas and issues.

Frames are necessary but not sufficient to build a movement, but frames are an important tool.

That's good news for progressives who want to mobilize a counter-movement. We can examine the frames put forward by the Hard Right and devise alternative frames that drive wedges between specific constituencies. We can do that with topical analysis, for example exploiting the tension between Christian conservatives and libertarians on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And we can recognize that participants have different levels of commitment and loyalty to social movements.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni has produced a useful set of distinctions that explain this in her AlterNet article The Gospel On Gay Marriage

Aggressive Combatants, who mobilize their followers to go to battle against whatever they consider to be the current threat (most recently, same-sex marriage);

Loyal Followers, who consider the Combatants to be their religious authorities, buying their books, tuning in to their broadcasts, accepting their interpretations of the Bible, and responding to their fundraising pleas;

Thoughtful Questioners, who were drawn to the movement by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the importance of the Bible in their lives but are not convinced that all issues are settled or that all the answers are already in;

Hurting Strugglers, sincere believers who earnestly practiced their faith and followed the rules they had been taught, yet were faced with some circumstance that turned their well-ordered world upside down -- a divorce, a gay child, a pregnant teenager, domestic violence, mental illness, job loss, bankruptcy, a suicide in the family.

These are useful names for important distinctions. As Scanzoni observes, we should be focusing our attention of the last two categories: Thoughtful Questioners and Hurting Strugglers, because they are already in a place where new ideas and new frames have a better chance of finding fertile soil.

I happen to think that a commitment to the idea of civil society means we should be treating people with sincere spiritual belief systems with courtesy and respect--just as I think we should be treating secular ethical and moral belief systems with courtesy and respect. In this case, there are hardball pragmatic reasons to be able to talk with Christian conservatives about moral values…we just might change their minds.

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