In the second part of this article Mark and Paul Engler further explore Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan and its implications for social movements.
The perception of failure
For those encountering the MAP model for the first time, the biggest “Aha” usually comes with Moyer’s stage five. The previous stage — stage four — is when protest movements take off, holding attention-grabbing demonstrations and experiencing rapid growth. But what comes next is not a smooth stroll to success. Instead, according to Moyer, the flurry of activity is followed by “Perception of Failure.”
With this stage, Moyer highlights a paradox: activists commonly feel let down after a spike in activity subsides. Yet, it is just at this moment when they may be poised to reap significant gains. Moyer writes, “After a year or two, the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any ‘real’ victories.”
At this point many people “burn out or drop out because of the exhaustion caused by overwork and long meetings.” Moreover, the mainstream media reinforces an air of negativity by reporting that, since protests have dropped off, the movement is dead and has accomplished nothing. All of this, Moyer writes, combines to create “a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents or limits [movement] success.”
By identifying the perception of failure as a normal part of social movement cycles, Moyer hoped to blunt the negative force of this stage. He argued that activists who look to history will see that they are not alone in experiencing letdown. And they will also notice that past movements that were able to overcome despondency ended up seeing many of their once-distant demands realized. The key is to step back and prepare for the next stage — in which activists benefit from the increase of public awareness created by their past protests, and in which their proposals for alternative solutions are more likely to find receptive audiences.
Because feelings of failure within movements are so rarely acknowledged in other sources — far less considered thoughtfully — stage five invariably becomes a focal point when Moyer’s work is discussed. Waging Nonviolence editor Nathan Schneider applied the “perception of failure” in analyzing the Occupy movement on its second anniversary for The Nation. And none other than far-right guru and ex-Fox News titan Glenn Beck considered Moyer’s stage five in some detail in contemplating the future prospects of the Tea Party.
But, we might ask, are perceptions of failure necessarily irrational and misguided?
Clearly, there is a danger here. While everyone likes to be told that they are winning, blasé reassurances are no substitute for real analysis. It is possible to misinterpret Moyer’s model as a guarantee that, if you feel that your movement is faltering, you simply need to wait a little longer and things will work out. This is a comforting idea, and also a false one. The fate of some movements, Moyer acknowledges on the first page of Doing Democracy, is simply to fail miserably. Yours could be one of them.
The question, then, is: How does one determine when pessimism is misplaced — and how do you gauge genuine progress?
Hearts and minds
The answer is at once straightforward and counter-intuitive: Movements succeed when they win over ever-greater levels of public support for their cause. This is a point that Moyers repeats constantly and consistently. “Social movements involve a long-term struggle between the movement and the powerholders for the hearts, minds and support of the majority of the population,” he argues. Therefore, the job of activists is to “alert, educate, and win over an ever-increasing majority of the public.” Without a preponderance of public sympathy, a popular movement cannot prevail. “Because it is the people who ultimately hold the power,” Moyers concludes, “they will either preserve the status quo or create change.”
These proposals sound reasonable — perhaps even obvious — on their face. But in fact they present a serious challenge to the way in which most people think about political life. In conventional politics, the focus is not on winning over the majority of the public or transforming the climate of debate on an issue. Rather, negotiations take place in the realms of the possible and the expedient. Interest groups spend the great bulk of their energy pressuring power-holding elites to grant favors or make concessions. Success is measured by their ability to leverage power in order to secure incremental gains on the issues they care about. Social change, in this paradigm, comes about through the slow accumulation of these calculated, instrumental victories.
Moyer’s theory of change, based on the idea of winning majority support, rests on a different set of suppositions. In the MAP model, long stretches of time can pass where little seems to change. Even as they slowly accumulate popular sympathy, movements may lack any real traction in the halls of power. But once public opinion tips, the floodgates of change can open.
“Over the years… the weight of massive public opposition, along with the defection of many elites, takes its toll,” Moyer explains. Movement activists may have been told for as long as they could remember that their demands were naïve and politically impractical. But once majority support for their position is firmly established, this starts to change, sometimes abruptly. The limits of the possible can be redefined — as they were with civil rights in the 1960s, or with the call to phase out nuclear power in 1980s, or with gay marriage in recent years.
“The long-term impact of social movements,” Moyer contends in a sentence that would be heretical in conventional political circles, “is more important than their immediate material success.”
The idea of winning over majority public support creates a metric by which activists can judge where they stand in the MAP model — and this sets Moyer’s framework apart from other, more amorphous accounts of movement cycles. In the MAP’s early stages, during the initial ripening of conditions around an issue, less than 30 percent of the population might agree with a movement’s insistence that the status quo must change. As activists ramp up protest, greater segments of the public become aware of the problem at hand, and successful movements push levels of sympathy toward the 50 percent mark. Only after they pass this threshold does the endgame of a movement begin. At that point, change agents can shift their focus from demonstrating that a problem exists to advocating for alternatives — and they can start seeing these alternatives adopted in mainstream politics.
And then you win
A focus on “hearts and minds” provides the key to unraveling the mystery of stage five. When advocates for social change recognize that their core objective is winning over the public, they are equipped to judge whether or not pessimism about their progress is legitimate.
Perceptions of failure are warranted when movements alienate potential supporters. When periods of peak protest activity fizzle, there is a danger that some activists — a group Moyer calls the “negative rebels” — will resort to insular vanguardism. Focusing solely on building a radical core rather than on persuading the outside world, these actors advocate for increasing dramatic tactics that appeal to disgruntled activists’ militant sensibilities, but that hold little appeal for observers who are not already among the converted. When this happens, a movement becomes more and more marginal, and fears of irrelevancy are not misplaced.
On the other hand, movements that are building popular support need not worry if their initial moment in the spotlight passes and the fickle news media turns its attention elsewhere. Although they may miss the enthusiasm and energy of the earlier period, they should not accept the notion that they have become irrelevant. As long as a movement has gained a larger share of public sympathy as a result of its efforts, its activists are well positioned to push for greater change. This push will typically involve continued public education, advocacy for movement solutions, and readiness to ignite fresh waves of protest when the opportunities arise.
Moyer tells the story of when he first presented the MAP model: In February 1978, he was set to give a presentation at a strategy conference to 45 organizers from the Clamshell Alliance. This anti-nuclear group had conducted a landmark series of direct action protests against the Seabrook power plant in New England. At its peak, the previous spring, the alliance carried out an occupation of Seabrook in which 1,414 people were arrested and spent 12 days in jail. As Moyer writes, “During those two weeks, nuclear energy became a worldwide public issue as the mass media spotlight focused on the activists locked in armories throughout New Hampshire.”
In the wake of the Clamshell actions, hundreds of new grassroots groups formed around the country. The Seabrook protest would inspire further occupations in places such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California. Moreover, the organization’s methods — its affinity groups, spokescouncils, consensus process, and focus on militant, nonviolent blockades — would ultimately become an influential model for direct action in the United States.
Because of all they had accomplished, Moyer expected that the group at the conference would be upbeat and celebratory. Instead, he encountered something quite different. “I was shocked when the Clamshell activists arrived with heads bowed, dispirited and depressed, saying their efforts had been in vain,” Moyer writes. Because protests had died down and construction on the specific plant they had targeted still continued, they felt defeated.
In his presentation, a sketchy version of what would become his eight stages of social movements, Moyer scrambled to demonstrate how the activists had made considerable gains. By galvanizing national opposition to the industry, the movement already reversed the near-universal acceptance of nuclear power that prevailed during the 1960s and early 1970s. Activists were well on there way to establishing majority support for their position — and seeing tangible changes as a result.
Moyer believes that the framework he presented helped many of the activists to better understand their predicament and plan for future stages of activity. Whether or not this is the case, anti-nuclear campaigns ultimately achieved a resounding victory. By making the safety, cost and ecological impact of nuclear power into concerns shared by a majority of Americans, they created a situation in which orders for new nuclear power plants ceased, the government was forced to abandon its goal of having 1,000 facilities in operation by the end of the millennium, and the number of working plants was set on a path of steady decline — a path on which it continues to this day.