How can citizens strive to bring about significant social change?
So many of the changes we have witnessed in the past forty years have happened to us, not by us. Supreme Court decisions have changed the rules of voting and university admissions, blind economic forces have created new patterns of inequality and new distributions of opportunities, inner cities have gradually deteriorated as places to live and develop. Some of these changes have represented the efforts of a few powerful actors — Supreme Court justices, the Koch brothers, or CEOs of major companies. But few of these seem to be the product of social movements for change, where ordinary people have a common goal and succeed in bringing about a change in the conditions that they object to. So we are forced to ask the question: can social advocacy and mobilization bring about progressive social change?
We do have a few examples of enduring changes brought about by purposive social mobilization. Arguably it was activism and advocacy about gay rights that brought about the gradual changes of social values that have created new configurations of marriages and families in America and a few other countries. The demise of the Jim Crow system of the South resulted from the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of activists and ordinary people for racial justice. The Vietnam War probably came to an earlier end than it otherwise might have because of the militancy and activism of many college-age students.
But it is worth posing the question today: are there opportunities for social groups and mobilizations to help craft a better and more democratic society in our current circumstances?
Take Detroit, the metro region where I live. We face massive social ills: school systems that fail more than half the students they serve, large gaps in health status by race, persistent segregation, crushing levels of youth unemployment, and high rates of violence. And we have activist organizations that mobilize many strong people who are committed to helping the region progress in these areas. I think of ACCESS, Southwest Solutions, New Detroit, the NAACP, Focus:Hope, the Detroit Urban League, City Year Detroit, Youthville, and literally hundreds of other social justice organizations that are wholly committed to making a difference. These organizations want to attack the structural forms of injustice and inequality we face, and they want to improve the quality of life for the disadvantaged groups of the region, including especially children and young people. But let’s pose the question, how much effect can these organizations really have? And what are the strategies that can have the greatest effect?
What is most evident in examining these groups and their strategies is that they aim at gradual, incremental change at a local or regional level. And it is credible that each group may be somewhat successful in achieving its progressive goals. More kids will stay in high school, more adults will get job training, there will be a degree of improvement in the availability of free health clinics. The harder question is this: do these effects succeed in bending the arc of our city’s progress? Do they actually lay the ground for higher quality of life for the majority of our population? Or are they simply small successes in an overall worsening social reality?
It is possible that the social problems we face break into a couple of fairly different kinds of challenges that are more or less amenable to amelioration through citizen mobilization. There are social problems that are essentially the effect of entropy and neglect. A neighborhood may slowly slide into decline for a few random reasons, and its decline may be halted by a concerted effort by a group of concerned citizens. So the concerned citizens can push off the brownian motion of slow urban decay. But other social problems derive from something more intentional: a structural and strategic use of power by one group that disadvantages another group.
Perhaps fracking is a good example of the kind of process where powerful interests oppose change: energy companies have the resources needed to reach agreements with vulnerable land holders in an area, and before you know it, the county is fundamentally changed by polluted water, heavy trucks, small earthquakes, and irreversible property rights that make it impossible for others to limit the practice. Here again mobilization is possible. But the opponent has a great deal of power in politics, law, and media, and the challenge is a difficult one. The table is tilted towards the energy company.
So let’s consider a really hard problem: mobilizing a largescale social movement to reinstate the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights organizations around the country believe that the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act when it invalidated Section 5 of the act that lists specific jurisdictions with a prior history of discrimination in voting regulations and requires them to gain approval from the courts in advance of any changes in their voting rules. The Congress is free to reestablish such a clause based on contemporary facts. But it is generally believed to be impossible to get such a bill through Congress. So what would it take to create a mass-based social movement that pressured the House and Senate to do so? And how decisive do we imagine the power of a few wealthy and conservative political foundations would be in blocking such an effort?
The obstacles facing largescale collective action by ordinary people are quite high: the difficulty and cost of creating national or state organizations to coordinate mobilization, the power possessed by elite interests committed to the status quo, and the tendency of social movements to fracture over goals and tactics, to name a few. And yet it would appear that only mass collective action will suffice to begin to change some of the structures of our society that are most damaging for the most disadvantaged groups in our society.