The fourteenth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on movements and elections. The talk was given by none other than Professor Doug McAdam from Stanford University. I’m a big fan McAdam’s research and have cited his work in my dissertation research.
What is absolutely stunning in the social movement literature is the almost complete lack of reference to the role of elections. Likewise, the literature on elections virtually ignores the role of social movements. These academic silos reminded of my dissertation proposal in which I note that the nonviolent civil resistance virtually ignores the role of communication technology.
There are five dynamic links between social movements and elections:
- Elections as a social movement tactic
- Proactive electoral mobilization
- Reactive electoral mobilization
- Elections shaping the longer-term waxing and waning of movement fortunes
- Party polarization via social movement pressures
The standard explanation for social movement mobilization, known as political process theory (PPT), emphasizes the role of political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes, along with protest cycles and contentious repertoires. Movements can use an electoral strategy to manage political transitions. Social movements can also become part of important coalitions in the election process.
One of the most brilliant campaign strategies, according to McAdam, is Freedom Summer in 1964.
“This was a campaign in Mississippi launched to register as many African American voters as possible, which up to that time had almost totally excluded black voters. The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of four established civil rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with SNCC playing the lead role.”
One participant noted that at times social movements (e.g., indigenous movements in Mexico and Guatemala) explicitly boycotts elections or at the very least deliberately do not place any importance in the electoral process. I don’t think this necessarily contradicts McAdam’s point, those indigenous movements did have a strategy—one of non-engagement.
The way I see it, elections are critical processes in any case. As McAdam explains, “elections do create a moment when mobilization is more or less legitimate, they provide a cover.” More fundamentally, I would crystallize the importance of elections around the notion of predictability. In other words, elections are scheduled events and provide an anchor around which resistance movements can plan and prepare for.