On the Decline of American ‘Movements’

What do we mean when we characterize advocates of a particular type of politics or ideas as a “movement”? It seems so common that any attempt to define the term risks muddying the waters. To listen to public discourse today, one might think that we live in an “age of movements”—and perhaps we do. In recent years there was the Occupy Wall Street movement, the #MeToo movement, the anti-war movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBT movement, and the “body positivity” movement.

Of course, America has a rich history of movements. No one in 2020 seriously disputes the moral clarity of the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or the civil rights movement (in its mid-century articulation). But somehow, today’s “movements” seem less weighty—less substantive—than their forebears. Why?

One fundamental characteristic of a movement is that its adherents advocate for a specific socio-political outcome. The abolition movement wanted the complete eradication of slavery in the United States. The suffrage movement wanted to secure the right to vote for women. In contrast, the movements of our political moment are very poorly defined, in part because they have not offered serious articulations of the problems they seek to rectify.

Take Black Lives Matter. The organization claims to be addressing “systemic racism” and injustice. As many commentators have observed, “systemic racism” is a nebulous concept—it can manifest itself anywhere, in virtually any way. We are told that it is sustained by “white privilege.” But the clerisy of the racial justice movement insists that white Americans cannot rid themselves of their racism or meaningfully disavow their privilege. So, if white privilege is how systemic racism is perpetuated, and white privilege can’t be eradicated, how exactly, are we to eliminate systemic racism? Black Lives Matter hasn’t offered any cogent details in this regard. 

When the movement does name specific outcomes that they are seeking (like the elimination of the nuclear family), they don’t specify how those measures would be accomplished, nor even how they would meaningfully address the problem of systemic racism.

#MeToo is another example. Presumably, the problem this movement seeks to solve is sexual harassment and violence (particularly the kind inflicted by men upon women). The acolytes of the movement suggest that this can be meaningfully addressed by doing things like educating men about the importance of consent. But is there any evidence that men are unaware of the importance of consent in sex? The problem of sexual violence is really just the problem of evil writ large—there are people in the world who want to do wrong, and no seminar in sexual ethics is going to eliminate that reality.

A generous reading of #MeToo is that their goal is “raising awareness” of these problems in order to increase men’s sensitivity to women’s concerns and decrease the tolerance for misbehavior. In fact, most “movements” in today’s America seem to revolve around “awareness-raising,” and the intangibility of that aim stands in stark contrast to the laser-focused political objectives of movements of the past. 

#MeToo’s major contribution to culture is their admonishment that we should “Believe All Women” who claim to have been harassed. The inconsistency with which #MeToo’s cheerleaders are willing to apply this maxim is well-demonstrated. But it’s important to notice that the imperative to “believe all women” doesn’t ask for any concrete action by anyone. Instead, it just demands an attitudinal change that is indicative of “awareness.” 

Everyone knows that “Believe All Women” cannot be taken seriously in a legal sense without dismantling the entire system of American justice. Even if it was practicable, too many cherished lambs (Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, etc.) would need to be sacrificed on that altar. The slogan’s vagueness and impracticality expose it as a mere platitude that can be trotted out whenever it is politically convenient for the Left.

Speaking of sloganeering, it is important to note how many of today’s movements are named after a popular slogan that defines them. “Black Lives Matter.” “Time’s Up.” “Me Too.” The reason for this is probably that the virtual space of social media is where these movements are nurtured. Of course, social media platforms are known for their ephemeral nature—users most often make fleeting, abbreviated, uninformed, and oversimplified statements and observations. The most polarizing expressions are the ones that get the most traction, ensuring that any meaningful discussion or deliberation is all but impossible. 

No one goes to Twitter for a serious, sober conversation about the future of our nation. In fact, it’s increasingly hard to believe anyone could ever visit Twitter in a state of sobriety. Today’s movements are merely an extension of the overheated, sanctimonious posturing that dominates social media.

Understanding what a movement also depends on a consideration of what it demands from its adherents in the way of action. In this sense, it is fitting that contemporary movements live primarily on social media. For the vast majority of followers of these movements, posting on social media is the primary mode of “activism.” You don’t really have to do anything to advance your cause: you just have to say something. So, you post a black square on Facebook to ensure that everyone knows you think black lives matter. You head over to Twitter to narrate yet again the details of an unwanted sexual advance from years ago. In postmodern fashion, being part of a movement is wholly achieved through saying that you are part of a movement.

One is left to wonder then: if “activism” is reduced to virtue-signaling on social media, how is it that these movements secure any real political power in our culture? 

It’s achieved by the legacy media’s ceaseless advertisement of the movement, producing “coverage” that creates the public perception that this “movement” actually exists outside of digital space. The (passive) agitation of the online activists is represented by the media as something that is mobilizing people out in the real world. 

The media then engages in active promotion masquerading as “journalism.” This serves to legitimize the movement, ensuring that it earns the attention of people in positions of power—senators, CEOs, celebrities, professors, high school principals, and the lady who decides which books the local library will purchase. Only when these people are sufficiently “aware” of the movement and the grievances that it calls upon them to address does the movement move beyond the world of social media. Only then do the people who had been confined to Facebook start to show up at the PTA meeting, or the staff meeting at your place of work, or on the physical space of a college campus. Fully legitimized in the sphere of public discourse, the next step for the movement is to take to the streets, often with the attendant violence we have seen this summer.

In essence, the mainstream media takes a group of people who are associated only in digital space, and turns them into a legitimate movement with a real presence in the life of the nation. But only when it is conducive to the policy objectives of the activist Left

If you doubt this, try to come up with just one movement that seeks to advance a conservative agenda that has been taken seriously by the media in the last decade. The closest you can probably come is the Tea Party, which was relentlessly mocked by media elites, typically making use of the sexualized smear “teabaggers.” No organization of conservative activists will ever be referred to as a “movement” by the legacy media. Since they associate the term with noble, grassroots movements of the American past, the word connotes righteousness and inevitability. That means it must be progressive in order to be a movement. 

Thus, no conservative group, however large or virtuous it may be, will be granted the status of a “movement” by elites: to do so would be to imply that the group’s goals are good and that their victory is written in the stars.

It’s clear that today’s “movements” are a lesser and distinct phenomenon than the great movements toward justice in the 19th and 20th centuries. If we are to call today’s agitators part of a movement, we probably need a new definition for what the term means. Today, a movement is nothing other than a status that an activist media grants and imposes upon groups of people who demand that we address problems to which the Left establishment is sympathetic. In short, the term movement is simply a rhetorical tool that the media deploys in public discourse, both to validate the legitimacy of particular grievances and create a common perception that their cause is morally just and inevitable.

In virtually every way, today’s movements fall short of the historical legacy of civic protest in America—in terms of ethics, politics, spirit, and aspirations they are dim rehashings of the greatness of past movements. This inauthenticity is a sign that the cultural Left is intellectually exhausted, as they represent passive inaction on social media as genuine activism. Contrary to what you read in the papers, the wind is at our backs.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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