I recently read Doing Democracy by Bill Moyers, which is about the universal stages every political or social movement goes through. This book is to political movements what Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is to story.
These stages are critical for anyone interested in social change to understand. Often activists believe they have failed or are failing, when they are simply at an earlier stage. Each stage has clear goals needed to move on to the next stage, and knowing where you are will allow you to take right action and move the movement forward.
Key to this model is the premise that power comes from the people. Even in dictatorships, powerholders only govern with the consent of the people. The aim of the first SIX stages is simply getting a majority of the public on your side.
Below are the eight universal stages of all political movements.
Stage 1: Normal Times
Social movements begin when actual practices violate universally held values. For example, Americans have a shared value of fairness and the idea that every citizen has the right to vote, but Southern states in the 1960s frequently prevented black Americans from voting. These conditions made the area ripe for the civil rights movement to occur.
At stage one, things are politically quiet. The majority of the public does not know social problems exist or supports practices that reinforce the problem. The goal at this stage is simply to document the problem, begin to organize, and believe that social change is possible.
Stage 2: Prove Failure Of Official Institutions
Once you have low-level opposition. the goal is to prove the problem exists. At this stage, activists need to become experts, and begin building new organizations. Begin using normal channels for change and document the attempts of powerholders to thwart the process, to show the normal function of the present system violates public trust.
Yes that’s right. The goal of this stage is to continually get shot down by the man. And document it.
Stage 3: Ripening Conditions
Before the social movement takes off, conditions must be right. For example, in the 1960s the United States was postitioning itself as the champion of freedom and democracy against communism, while mistreating it’s black citizens, making it ripe for the civil rights movement.
To create the right conditions, the movement needs to put faces on the problem, and recruit a new generation of activists. Concerned about the stage two failure of change through mainstream methods, grassroots organizations spring up. At this stage it may seem like the problem is getting worse, since normal channels of change failed, but this worsening is what inspires the need for change.
Stage 4: Take Off
Stage four begins with a trigger event – a highly publicized public event that kicks off protest.
An example of a trigger event would be Rosa Parks refusing to leave her bus seat, triggering the civil rights movement, or the recent revelations of Edward Snowden, triggering privacy movements to end domestic spying.
Stage four is what most people think of when they think of social movements – protests, drama, seeing activists on the nightly news – not realizing the groundwork for this event was laid in the first three stages. At this stage, thousands begin taking spontaneous action to form new organizations and large protests occur.
The goal at this stage is to put the problem and the systems that allow it in the spotlight – and keep it there.
Stage 5: Perception of Failure
While the take off stage is exciting, it typically only lasts four months to two years. After this stage, it’s easy for activists to believe they have failed, when in reality social change just takes a long time, sometimes even decades.
An example of this would be Russell Brand stating he doesn’t think voting will change anything, despite the stage four trigger events of the economic collapse and Occupy Wall Street convincing many Americans that the influence of money on the political process needs reform.
At this stage, activists become aware of the enormity of the problem, and many burnout, unable to switch to the skills required for stage six. Others believe non-violent methods have failed, and attempt actions damaging to the image of the movement.
Faced with the enormity of the problem, activists become aware of the need for a paradigm shift – that the old ways of thinking about the problem no longer work and a new system or way of thinking must be put in it’s place.
Activists can skip this stage and move directly to stage six by training themselves with the skills required and acknowledging the massive successes they’ve already achieved.
Stage 6: Majority Public Opinion
Now that a majority of the public agrees with the movement, the movement needs a grand strategy. At this stage, political action committee’s and non-profit organizations become more important.
In order to accomplish this, activists have to learn new skills. Each movement requires different roles. Early on, rebels are important, but at this stage change agents become important. The movement needs people who know how accomplish their goals within the system.
Many rebels don’t make it out of stage five and move on to other movements. Those that do have to learn new skills. Re-trigger events may occur, creating stage four style protests, but they will be short-lived as the movement shifts from rebels to change agents.
At this stage, activists don’t just promote political goals but a paradigm shift – a different way of seeing the problem. Feminism, environmentalism, fascism, gay rights, abolitionism, and the American Revolution all created a different way of seeing the world in response to the problems they faced.
Stage 7: Success
Stage seven occurs when using the majority public opinion and the tide turns against the powerholders. This stage often begins with a dramatic event leading to a showdown, like when brutal attacks on civil rights activists forced President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Stage seven has three possible end games. The first is that powerholders have a dramatic last stand, fighting right up until the last moment. Think the governor of Alabama blocking the doorway of integrated schools in the face of national law.
The other is a victorious retreat, where powerholders lose on an issue, but reverse their policies and say that they won. Don’t expect anyone in the government to admit they lost the war on drugs, as the marijuana legalization movement sweeps across the country.
The third is attrition, where powerholders hold out until one of the two above outcomes occurs. Success is often slow and quite at this stage, as state by state, law by law, the movement gets it’s goals met.
Stage 8: Continuing The Struggle
At this stage, the movement needs to guard against backlash. The movements success could be a wakeup call for opposing elements in society. For example, Roe v. Wade led to the pro-life movement against it.
Backlash is inevitable. The rise of Nazi movement lead to the backlash of the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel. The Zionist movement has led to the backlash of the Palestinian movement. In many ways, the manosphere is a backlash movement against feminism. History is continual change, and each movement gives rise to new ones.
At this stage the movement also has the capacity for real social change and promoting other issues. With the new paradigm other movements can come from it. The civil rights movement has created large lasting organizations constantly bringing new issues that concern black Americans to powerholders to affect change.
At every stage the major pitfall is feeling powerless and believing social change is not possible. The key refrain in this book is that you have the power, and the people can change. It just takes time, and being aware where you are in the process.
Many have said the manosphere has failed and the men’s rights movement has failed. Both movements are at stage three. Normal channels of change have failed, and new organizations are being formed. Arguably, the book Men On Strike, ABC 20/20 debacle and recent viral articles from this site are trigger events, putting us in stage four or five, but conditions are still ripening.
If you are interested in taking a leadership role in the manosphere I HIGHLY recommend reading this book. There is a lot I have not covered. The book leans left, but the lessons are useful for anyone interested in change.
If I have one criticism of the book it’s that the book failed to explore negative movements like the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, the Communism in Russia, or the Ayatollah in Iran.
As Jack Donovan might say, just because they aren’t “good activists” doesn’t mean the members of these movements aren’t good at being activists. Studying them as movements would allow us to understand them and see how attempts for social change can be used for evil.
Knowing the eight stages allows you to know where you are, and what the next action is. Next week, I’ll be posting examples of movements that have gone through the eight stages on my blog. Good luck, and let’s move forward.