closing remarks at the Bridge Alliance summit

(Posted by request: my remarks at the close of the 2018 Bridge Alliance Members Summit, a convening of “more than 90 respected established organizations committed to revitalizing democratic practice in America,” Washington, DC, Oct 17.)

I’ve been asked to offer some reflections on the day’s discussion.

My first reflection is gratitude to the Bridge Alliance, its whole staff, and to all the Alliance members for all the work you do every day.

My second reflection is anxiety. I admit that in meetings like this, I am filled with anxious questions:

  • Are we big enough? Are enough people and resources here? Do we have enough people with us?
  • Are we diverse enough? The answer to that is clearly no. That is a problem that belongs to the whole network, not to the Bridge Alliance alone.
  • Are we experienced, knowledgeable, talented, and smart enough?
  • Are we unified enough? Today, I was privileged to participate in one small-group discussion in which the axis of disagreement was institutionalist versus insurrectionist: should we try to defend beleaguered institutions such as journalism, science, and the US Constitution, or seek to replace them because they were never good enough? I also participated in a good discussion about ideology: should we aim to be maximally inclusive or neutral, or rather develop a distinctively pro-democratic stance that some may support more than others do? These kinds of disagreements seem to threaten our unity.

What we know about social movements may be helpful. I have in mind two kinds of movements. One is the coalition or network that works for “healthy self-government”–in other words, the organizations that are in this room. As a group of groups, we could gain more of the “fizz” of a movement. Meanwhile, we see actual movements around us: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #NeverTrump, and the Tea Party. They could operate in ways that have more collateral benefits–and do less collateral harm–to democracy.

My reading of the social movement literature suggests that social movements succeed when they have four qualities:

Size: Movements need many members, organizations, and resources. Erica Chenoweth says that no nonviolent resistance campaigns in her large database have failed if they have “achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them [have] succeeded with far less than that. … In the U.S. today, this means almost 11 million people.” If 11 million people came together for a reform, it would probably happen.

Depth: Participation must develop the members’ commitments, skills, knowledge, and tactics. No group begins smart enough to win; they must learn. In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King writes, “Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Time and action are the teachers.”

Unity: Social movements always present themselves as unified, because that is a source of strength. Hence the hashtags, armbands of a single color, protest songs, and mass demonstrations.

Plurality: Social movements need diverse perspectives, skills, and assets. They need both insiders and outsiders, both romantics and pragmatists. They should be demographically diverse, too, although that doesn’t always mean reflecting the demographics of the whole country. The Big Six leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement were all Black men. It wasn’t great that they were all men, but it was good they were all Black. The movement needed African American leadership and was rooted in the Black community. Still, their diversity of backgrounds, stances, and skills was essential. Randolph was a union leader, King a pastor and theologian, Lewis a youth leader, and so on.

Unfortunately, size conflicts with depth, and unity conflicts with plurality. It is very hard to have a large movement that also affects most of its members deeply, or a diverse movement that also achieves unity.

These four qualities spell SPUD, and we need more of it (even if it sounds like a lot of carbohydrates).

In interviews that Eric Liu and I conducted for “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders,” Scott Reed of the faith-based PICO network said that his organization “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations.” But “scale is what we are trying to figure out … because we are nowhere near where we want.” In short, PICO has U and D and some P, but no S. Meanwhile, Anna Galland of MoveOn acknowledged that her online organization has “tremendous scale and little depth.” MoveOn’s goal, she says, is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.” MoveOn has S and U but no P or D.

SPUD is in short supply in the US as a whole. But I would suggest two reasons for hope.

First, the Bridge Alliance is not just the people in this room: organizational leaders. It encompasses all the grassroots participants in your many organizations. It is appropriate to gather organizational leaders periodically. But that strategy also has limitations–for instance, it is much harder to achieve true diversity of age and socioeconomic status when you convene the leaders of 501(c)3 organization. If we can convene our many members, we can come much closer to achieving SPUD.

Second, SPUD increases the chance of victory. It pays off. Movements that draw a diverse 3.5% of the population and build their talent and unity almost always win. Therefore, it is in the interest of the powerful movements that we see around us to cultivate SPUD. The more SPUD-ly they are, the more they are likely to win–and the more they will create diverse, empowered, deliberative groups of Americans. That should have deep collateral benefits for our republic. Because many of us are experts on group dynamics, civic education, discussion, etc., we have a lot to offer to our fellow Americans who are invested in social movements with specific agendas.

I hope this makes you less anxious than I am. We have good reasons to be optimistic.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)Why Civil Resistance Worksthe power of the NRA in an age of civic desertsso, you want to strengthen democracy?; and a sketch of a theory of social movements.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.