Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dissidents or Extremists?

When we lump together all political candidates and movements outside the "mainstream" as "extremists" of the left and right we are not only stifling a potentially valuable debate, but also using a theoretical model that has been seriously challenged in academia during the last 20 years. After World War II a number of scholars looked at the popular appeal of fascism and communism and concluded that mass movements threatened the stability of society. Shocked by the acquiescence of most Germans to the Nazi genocide of Jews and liquidation of other groups, these scholars saw warning signs in the Red Scare of the McCarthy Period, the Presidential campaign of ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr., and the Populist Party movement of the late 1800s. The scholars concluded that people swept along by social movements were psychologically-dysfunctional grumblers who couldn’t play by the rules of democracy, and instead turned to irrational behavior to make their voices heard. The idea that extremists of the left and right threatened society was a dominant frame in sociology and the other social sciences until the mid 1970s.

I was not a neutral observer. I joined the Civil Rights movement through my Presbyterian Church youth group while I was in high school in the mid 1960s. When I went to college it was clear that many young sociologists were unhappy with the idea that people who joined mass movements were psychologically dysfunctional extremists (or “wing nuts”) on the fringes of the political system. Many of us had joined these movements. An increasing number of sociologists became participant-observers of various left-wing social movements that cascaded out of the civil rights struggle: student rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, the ecology movement, farm worker rights, gay rights. In part because more academics were actively involved in these movements of dissent, a new set of social movement theories emerged in sociology that looked at participants in social movements as intelligent and rational people with shared grievances. As dissident activists they sought social change through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of mass organizing outside the boundaries of typical electoral or legislative campaigns.

Eventually I dropped out of college to be a full-time left-wing social movement participant, and spent time as a journalist in the underground/alternative media of the 1970s. I am still a progressive political activist, and it is still my job to convince you that my ideological goals are worthwhile and my policies would benefit the common good, but if I do that by unfairly labeling my opponents using stereotypes, demonization, or scapegoating, then I am cheating. These techniques are toxic to a democratic process.

As I became a serious analyst of right-wing social and political movements, I returned to scholarly analysis using sociology and social movement theory. While most of the groups and movements originally studied using this scholarly lens were on the political left, an increasing number of scholars used this lens to look at the political right. Among the early authors who studied the political right using social movement theories were Sara Diamond, Kathleen Blee, Jerome Himmelstein, and Rebecca Klatch. Now there are scores serious books on right-wing movements such as Rick Perlstein’s excellent book on the Goldwater campaign or Lisa McGirr’s illuminating study of the suburban roots of the New Right.

The picture of social movements that has emerged is complex. There are a wide range of ideologies and methodologies. Skillful leaders mobilize resources, test the political opportunities opened and closed by the state, frame ideas in ways that resonate with broader populations, and develop cultures that support and energize participants. At the same time, movement participants often ignore the proclamations of their leaders and pick and choose among various policy positions. Some movements institutionalize themselves with social movement organizations such as national headquarters, think tanks, and alternative media. Other movements never sink institutional roots and are like whirlwinds that appear suddenly in a burst of energy and dissipate leaving only memories and debris.

A central question we must ask when we look at any dissident social movement is whether it is ultimately reformist or revolutionary. We need to recognize that the First Amendment protects calls for revolution that are rhetorical and not part of an active conspiracy to overthrow the government. And we need to understand that populist reform-oriented dissident movements on the left and right are situated between revolutionary groups and mainstream electoral political movements. These are important concepts for ensuring respect for civil liberties.

All too often government agencies decide that the way to find terrorists or other protestors engaged in criminal acts is to send swarms of infiltrators and agents into dissident mass movements. This is a bad idea no matter whether the target is on the left or right. It chills free speech and disrupts constitutionally protected political activity. Labeling all dissidents as "extremists" can lead citizens into ignoring abuses of government power. Even the label "terrorist" has been overused. Vandalism is not terrorism. Non-violent civil disobedience is not terrorism. Today, if a follower of the non-violent methods used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to highlight a call for political reform by kneeling down to pray in the crosswalk of a busy intersection in Washington, D.C., they would fit one definition of terrorism circulated by the Justice Department.

Spin-doctors and political strategists use the term "extremism" as a hyperbolic rhetorical frame of reference to demonize their opposition by sticking labels on them. This shrill strategy shifts political debate away from a candidate's policies, plans, goals and vision of the future—ideas that could help form the basis of informed consent for a voter in a democratic society. It also marginalizes the type of populist political dissent and creative opposition to the status quo that makes a society flexible enough to meet the challenges the future always delivers. It is time to rehabilitate dissent and reject labels that demonize dissenters and unfairly lump together all social and political movements outside the current—and temporary—political center.

Adapted from Yale Politic magazine, February 2005.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog

1 Comments:

Blogger galiel said...

I highly recommend "Why Societies Need Dissent", by Cass R. Sunstein. The label "dissident" is one to wear with honor, as an essential contributor to the health of a free society.

1:13 PM  

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