Institutionalization of Social Movements15 Mar 2020
If a social movement succeeds in cracking open the political system, it must then learn to play by the rules of the institution it has worked to crack.
If a social movement succeeds in cracking open the political system, it must then learn to play by the rules of the institution it has worked to crack. Movements rearrange some of the pieces of the power structure that supported policies at the root of their grievance, forcing back older, more entrenched interests by making them accept the legitimacy of the movement’s demands. They add their interest to the array of interests deemed worthy of government support, expanding the range of policy problems receiving government redress. This success is significant, but victory comes with costs, which may not be immediately apparent to the organizers of the social movement, who are now looking at careers as lobbyists. They must play by the rules and norms of the game they have struggled to join. The movement changed the beneficiaries of public policy and the values it enshrines, but not the way it is made. Activists-turned-lobbyists are now expected to work with lawmakers through the regular, institutionalized procedures of the political system. Bills will be introduced, other members of Congress will be lobbied, information packets developed, email campaigns launched—all with a united message that benefits their new legislative allies as much as their members. Other interest groups must be recruited as allies or bargained with as opponents. Because operating on the inside is much cheaper than staging protests, the groups staff are usually happy to oblige.
Passionate, dedicated movement members may not understand this transformation. They may not understand that further pursuing their interests now requires compromises with competing interests and paying attention to the needs of lawmakers. They may not understand the growing gulf between themselves and their leaders as the latter become part of the Washington social scene. While in many cases this simply leads to the loss of dispirited, disillusioned members, political scientist Anne Costain (1981) describes a much more dramatic result. At the 1975 national convention of the National Organization of Women (NOW), members forced out much of NOW’s Washington staff for the crime of playing by Washington’s rules, even though the professional activists had learned how to use them to the members advantage.
Social movements are therefore embryonic interest groups, though not all interest groups start as social movements. The trade and professional associations representing businesses and white-collar professions certainly did not start out as street protests. Citizen groups, on the other hand, often started out as some kind of social movement, their origins grounded in passionate political activism. Sometimes they still try to keep the trappings of it and fire up large numbers of members just to keep them involved in the group. Of course the real difference between the two is that social movements represent interests truly excluded from regular politics but who have the opportunity and resources to break in, whereas interest groups are already on the inside.