Leadership in Movements
What is a movement?
- Americans have always been organizers of movements. De Toqueville
commented in the 1830s that Americans were joiners who seemed to found voluntary
associations to accomplish things as easily as they breath.
- When people see problems and concerns as public concerns, they seek others
that share their concern. As they address those concerns rhetorically, they often find themselves organizing those
people toward action.
- Movements form as people begin working in coordination with other
people toward an end. As people begin taking note of what unites them with
others, they begin to interact with those others. As they talk, their energies
begin complementing each other and they begin working together. This is the
emergence of a movement.
- In their initial stages, movements are non-institutional, that is,
there is no formal organization, no "offices," no history or existence
beyond those working together. Mature movements may, in fact, develop
formal institutions such as organizations with history and even an income
tax exemption number.
- Thus, communication is at the very essence of movements. They are
formed in communication interaction, they continue to exist only as long as
those in the movement communicate with each other to energize and direct their
Types of Movements
- There are four different types of movement characterized by their
- The Identity Movement. Identity movements provide a place for those
who share a particular characteristic -- ethnic origin, sex, race, religion,
creed -- to have public voice. Movements provide a context for the discourse
that declares discontents to be more than private pain and for isolation
of experience to be artificial. Identity movements provide people who had
seen themselves as separated and isolated to embrace others and join with
them to declare their identity.
- The Integrative Movement. Integrative movements seek to provide
groups access to dominant structures of power. They seek to reorient the
distribution of societal power to drain more power into the protesting groups.
- Cultural Movements. Cultural movements actively seek to bring about
change in the culture through the organizing powers of the movement. They
seek to do so through non-institutional means. Their objective is to change
the attitudes of the people in the culture and with that change of attitudes
- Political Movements. Like cultural movements, political movements
seek change. Unlike cultural movements, political movements seek to gain
access to the power of political institutions as the vehicles of their change.
- Because they are so loosely organized, movements may change their objectives
and even shift from one type of movement to another. Similarly, movements
may splinter in arguments about what kind of a movement they want to be and
what sorts of objectives they should be seeking.
How does leadership in movements differ from other leadership we have studied?
- Like all public leadership, movements:
- work in the public sphere
- seek or oppose change
- try to persuade a broader audience
- are driven by public purpose
- But the problem of movements is always human energy
- attracting energy
- directing energy
- Thus, their rhetorical problem is establishing and sustaining motivation for participation.
Tasks for rhetoric in movements
- Attracting energy.
- New energy comes to a movement through bringing in new members or by increasing the energy of current members.
- The rhetorical problem is to achieve this attraction of energy. Without it, entropy will destroy the movement.
- But there is a dilemma in such appeal: attracting new members requires broadening the movement's appeal by reaching out beyond the current members, yet such reaching out often costs movements the energy of the zealots or "true believers" who have a narrow view of the movement.
- The rhetorical appeal of movements that attract energy is both
- moral: "We are in the right!"
- and pragmatic: "We will succeed!"
- Attracting energy is more difficult because movements have a tendency toward:
- splintering over purity. See below.
- a cycle of arousal and quiescence. The natural tendency of a movement is toward a principle we call "entropy." This means that the natural tendency of a movement is toward disintegration unless energy is expended to counter it (a process we call "negative entropy"). One of the reasons for entropy is because as most movements are motivated by a purpose, and as the movement achieves its purpose, people become less likely to devote energy to maintaining it. They become more satisfied and less motivated. This is called "quiescence." Thus, there is a cycle in which people are aroused, devote energy to the movement, the movement succeeds, then begins to fall apart as people pass into quiescience.
- Directing Energy
A movement must ask: What tactics will succeed?
- Direct action: Members of the movement need to be persuaded to engage in direct action if this is the right answer.
- Politics: If the movement has a government or lobbying focus, then members need to be persuaded to engage their representatives.
How can the movement to get everyone to coordinate their commitment to tactics?
Leadership in Movements
- The centrality of communication and the need for continual organization
in a social movement makes their leaders particulary imporant.
- Leaders speak in movements to:
- develop the sense of joining with others in shared concern;
- motivate that concern into an active collective approach to addressing
- direct the action so it can be focused toward accomplishment of the movement's
- Because of the threat of "entropy" (movements disintegrate over time if energy is not expended to keep them together and
active), leadership must be constant in a movement, always again
uniting it, motivating it, and directing it.
Patterns of American Social Change
- Political Action in America is basically conservative. Rhetoric
focuses action in the face of a concern. But that focus may seek to achieve
change by finding the root of the problem in individuals, in institutions,
or in the broader cultures and social orders. The efforts toward change follow
the scope of the targeting. American politics normally focuses action on individuals
so there is no institutional change. Even in times of more dramatic political
activity, the focus is on institutions. More dramatic forms of social change,
therefore, must rely on non-governmental and non-institutional sources. Social
movements are such a strategy.
- American social change has been intensively linked with public voice. The founding discourse of the United States stresses the voice of people.
In addition, the United States is a nation of new groups, most notably the
immigrants but also nativist groups such as new religions and utopians of
various kinds. "Founding" is thus the great American activity. Movements are such groups founded for particular purposes.
- Thus, major social change in America has tended to be non-institutional.
Even when change comes through the political system, it normally starts non-institutionally.
Rhetoric of Non-institutional Change
- The rhetoric of non-institutional change is more moralistic than
practical. Where political rhetoric tends to emphasize pragmatism,
social movements tend to emphasize idealistic rhetoric. The favorite strategy
of American social movements is to ground the ideal in the American Declaration
of Independence. This document founds the nation in idealism and commits
the national community to the pursuit of ideals. Another favorite of movements
is the use of the ideograph of <dream>. Americans dream dreams and
then go on to accomplish them. A rhetoric of moral condemnation develops
that compares experience with ideal.
- Rhetoric in American movements tends to follow a standard
pattern of rhetorical evolution:
- Stage 1: Develops a language to articulate discontent. This
language uses narratives, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices to capture
the morality of the discontent. It is a language that identifies people
together from their common sense of discontent. Movements will succeed
in growing as they are able to articulate the discontent.
- Stage 2: Identifies responsibility for the discontent. That
is, the rhetoric develops a target for action. The scope of responsibility
is a key to this move: class, society, system, or whatever. It brings a
focus to responsibility. The rhetoric is often polemic, exaggerating the
differences between the movement and its target. The rhetoric "perfects" this target, or creates the target's responsibility for the discontent.
- Stage 3: Focuses and directs the energy of the movement toward the
target. In this mature stage the movement celebrates its successes.
It is a rhetoric rich in the experience of being in the movement, the satisfactions,
the dreams of success, and the accomplishments of the movement's work.
This is the rhetoric that motivates continued action toward the idealistic
- Successful movements have certain characteristics in their
- They have diverse networks that allow diffusion of information.
The mass media and other normal diffusion networks in a society usually
isolate social movements. Movements must, therefore, develop their own media
for diffusing their messages.
- They lodge authority in leaders, identifiable by members of the movement. More successful movements tend to have a single, emergent leader granted
authority by members of the movement. Such a leader provides a single voice
of coordination. Some movements have a diverse leadership, usually arranged
in a hierarchy. Some movements in the past have attempted to distribute
leadership so broadly as to be "leaderless." The difficulties
with coordination in such circumstances makes such movements vulnerable
- They successfully convert "a mob" into an organized collectivity. Established institutions typically oppose movements by charging that
they are a "mob." Converting a disorganized cabal of individuals
into a collectivity capable of joint action and coordinated response undermines
the institution's strategy of opposition. But more importantly, it takes
the combined energy of movement members and transforms it into energy available
for the purposes of the movement.
- They provide an ongoing rhetoric of affirmation. Movements
are confronted daily with their failures. An effective movement rhetoric
must provide strategies to affirm allegiance to the movement in the face
of such failure. The rhetoric may celebrate successes, rededicate to the
ideal, use the resistance of the institutions, or find nobility in loss,
but somehow the energy devoted to the movement must be affirmed.
Tensions that shape American movements
American movements must handle a fairly standard set of tensions
that threaten to divide the movement and destroy its concentration of energy.
- Between Words and Actions. Some movements are built around leaders who have the gift for rhetoric. Indeed the power of words is required for movements, to attach the morality at the heart of the movement and to motivate participation. Other movements are built around action, confronting the establishment power. Direct action forces moral dilemma. Direct action tends to elicit the power structures opposed to respond with violence or economic sanction. Movement members sense this danger, thus direct action can create entropy. But without direct action, the words may not have as much power to motivate.
- Between Political and Cultural Objectives. In the nineteenth century,
some women believed that the energies of their movement should focus on
achieving the vote and changing women's legal status -- political objectives.
Others believed that the energies should focus toward changing the cultural
possibilities for women including relationships in marriage, responsibilities
in child-rearing, access to education, building their connections beyond
the home -- cultural objectives. This split eventually led to a split in
the movement. Most American movements face some version of this tension.
Should the movement seek to gain access to the political system? Or, should
the effort be to change cultural values? A firm choice one way or the other
is not a necessity, but trying to do both creates strains that can eventually
place the movement at odds with itself. Managing this tension is a normal
need for rhetorical strategy in the movement
- Between Adaptation or Confrontation as Strategies. The choice between
a political route and a cultural route is not simply a matter of objective,
but of strategy as well. Sometime in the life of a successful social movement,
the political establishment will offer compromise that will ensure achievement
of some objectives, but at the price of giving up other objectives. Once
the political structure is embraced, energy drains more easily out of the
movement. Should the movement reach out to the hated establishment and
embrace its power to achieve a limited set of the movement's goals? Or
should it continue to confront the movement and risk defeat in suppression?
- Between Intensity or Extension as a way of enhancing Energy. Movements have a
sort of layered "onion" structure. At the center are dedicated,
often obsessive members totally immersed in the ideology of the movement.
Several layers beyond are boundary members who are held loosely to the
movement, perhaps even held occasionally. They drift in and out with their
agreements and disagreements, their sense of success or failure. A focus
on the purity of ideology will tend to draw ever more of the dedicated
center's energy into the work of the movement. But that purity will tend
to drive some of the marginal members away. Less confrontational and less
ideological rhetoric will attract the energy of new members, but will cause
consternation among the zealots. Which brings more energy into the movement's
work? Rhetoric must manage this difficult tension.
- Between Iconistic or Distributed Leadership. There are advantages
to a movement to having a single authority figure who becomes the symbol
of the movement. Martin Luther King's relationship to civil rights would
be an example. The iconistic leader attracts the energy of admiring followers
and can more easily weld them into a disciplined source of energy. But
single leaders cannot always provide for leadership in diverse localities.
Drawing authority to the single leader diminishes the authority of a more
widespread leadership structure. In addition, the iconistic leader can
die -- King is an example -- and the movement loose all momentum as no
other leader can acquire the same focused power. Distributed leadership
(think of the tea party) prepares movements to diffuse their power throughout the society, but no
single source of authority for rhetoric is available. Providing coordination,
speaking with one voice, becomes more difficult.
The rhetoric of movements always must work within the conflicting pressures
of these tensions. Sometimes they manage the tension successfully and are able to do both. Sometimes these tensions present true dilemmas
and choices must be made. Rhetoric may be able to carve out positions within
the pressure. But always, these pressures provide coordinates to understand
a movement's efforts to achieve social change.
How does social order respond to movements?
Established cultural and political power can respond to a movement
in three basic ways:
- Ignore it. Movements must generate energy of their own to maintain
themselves. The natural tendency of movements is toward disintegration. So
one strategy to counter movements is simply to ignore them, thus doing nothing
that would encourage resistance to your power or would prove the critique
that constitutes the rhetoric of the movement. The strategy will fail if movements
become successful in maintain themselves and even expanding their base.
- Co-optation. Established cultural and political power can embrace
some of the objectives of a movement and use its power to implement
them. The result will be to draw the boundary layers away from the movement,
thus sapping its energy. Too much loss of energy may destroy the movement.
A classic example: the progressive wing of the Democratic Party saw the energy
gathered by the Farmers movement of the 1890s. To attract that energy, the
Party embraced many of the reforms demanded by the movement. Many working
in the movement began to work for the same objectives within the Democratic
Party. The loss of energy effectively ended the power of the movement. Murray
Edelman calls the essence of this strategy "arousal and quiescence." Movements will tend to arouse the public to a level of energy that attracts
political structure. Political structure then responds to that energy and
absorbs it. This absorption leads to increased satisfaction and the energy
falls dormant -- quiescence. Thus, Edelman argues, movements seldom obtain
all of their objectives because a savvy political structure saps its energy
by granting some demands, thus thwarting a more radical agenda.
- Suppression. Established cultural and political power may respond
with the power available to it to crush the movement. Physical violence is
always a possibility. Legal means are used at other times. The danger of this
strategy is that the moral rhetoric of American movements often denounce the
suppression as evidence of the need for action.