How do we keep score? Businesspeople keep score with dollars. Candidates keep score with votes. Athletes keep score by keeping score.
How do we keep score? It's not so simple. Whatever we use to keep score - winning on issues, building organization, finding great new people - in our line of work, big scores don't come year-in and year-out. They arrive unexpectedly, all of a sudden, every few decades, in the form of a social movement.
If you listen to your teachers or to television, you'll believe that there has only been one movement in American history: the 1960's. It never happened before and it'll never happen again. Everything bad that's happened since then is because of it.
In fact, there is a regular cycle in American history. Every 28 to 36 years, there has been a major populist movement, with the peak years in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968. You can set your watch by it. If this pattern holds, we are due for another one in the next decade.
Each movement runs its course, with social upheaval, party systems turned upside down, big social changes, and then, once the potential is fulfilled and the possibilities (and participants) exhausted, daily life resumes under new conditions.
Some people have a mechanical notion that movements appear when conditions get bad enough. Those who believe this spend much of their lives waiting. As writer Carl Oglesby noticed, they circle in the sky, like carrion birds, vultures, waiting for things to get bad so they can swoop in to lead a revolt. Then, just as they descend, the economy recovers, and they resume their holding pattern in the sky.
Instead, these vultures should be examining their original premise, which is wrong. Movements are not necessarily created by collapsing conditions.
The birth of a movement is more interesting and complicated than that, and has less to do with conditions than with how people see them. One day, someone wakes up and looks at the same world as the day before, but with new eyes. They say, "This is intolerable. I'm going to do something about it." Before long, millions of people have new eyes, too.
What a movement is like
A movement is not just a trend, a cause, a protest, or routine bureaucratic dissidence. Thus, it is misleading to use phrases like 'the militia movement,' 'the born-again movement,' or 'the labor movement.'
A movement is something different. It involves widespread action by major social categories in increasing conflict, which eventually interferes with the maintenance of the social structure itself.
In some ways a movement is like Mardi Gras, or Holi, the Hindu spring festival. It is a short time in which the usual restrictions of status, sex, status, race, caste and age are suspended or even reversed.
The difference between Mardi Gras and a movement is that when Mardi Gras is over, everything returns to normal. The social structure reasserts itself. Mardi Gras is a safety valve for the system; it helps preserve it.
A movement, however, is an opportunity to make changes that will alter daily life forever. Nothing and no one is the same.
Here are a few of the ways to know when you are in a movement:
How do we make the most of a movement?
The model that dominated the thinking of activists in this century was that of the left, under various names: socialism, communism, social democracy, progressivism. It was a systematic model; it had an answer for every question. Its adherents were well-organized, they spoke with authority, and they had the credibility of running a number of countries.
People who didn't agree or had doubts mostly kept quiet.
The only problem with this model was that it didn't work. (I'll tell you why in a minute). The left collapsed and the model's gone.
So what do we do?
It makes sense to start by looking at what has worked in the past. The cause of freedom has made big strides in the last few hundred years. How? What has worked?
It turns out that the most creative and fruitful approach comes out of the tradition of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is a scrambled idea for most people because we have been told so little about it.
It calls to mind the images of two people: Gandhi, a naked guy who was a saint and got shot. And Martin Luther King, a well-dressed guy who was a saint and got shot. That's about all we're told about them.
We're taught that the motivation may be a personal creed or ethic: "This is the way I've decided to conduct my life." Or it may come from religion, as a form of bearing witness: "There is a great injustice. Maybe I can't stop it, but I can go on record before God and everyone that I oppose it."
We're taught that it somehow involves letting yourself get beat up, get arrested, or go on a hunger strike.
Now, if this is all you know about it, it is no wonder that you might conclude: "It's a nice idea, but it sounds really dangerous, and it won't work. Plus, let's grow up: we all know that history is made by manly men committing acts of violence against one another."
Maybe not. If you think that what is important in history is who controls governments and armies and who wins wars, then, of course, you will encounter manly men.
What is nonviolence?
Much of the thinking underlying it goes way back, in every religious and political tradition. And there are certainly ancient examples of nonviolent tactics used brilliantly.
It was in this century, however, that people figured out how to use it, not just as a tactic, but as the basis for history-making campaigns. This is one of the major achievements of the 20th century.
Underlying it is a compelling theory of power:
One view of power is that it flows from the top down, and is maintained by violence and the threat of violence by a few people at the top. It is durable and self-perpetuating. People�s lives depend on the quality of the government and other powerful institutions.
Another view is the opposite. Power flows from the bottom up. It is maintained by the daily cooperation of millions of people at the bottom. Thus it is fragile. This view can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Which view is correct? Both. Power has two sides.
The Soviet Union before 1989 was a classic top-down power. Brutal and permanent. A moment came in 1989 when it suddenly became fragile and collapsed in an instant. As if by magic, it became the perfect example of the bottom-up side of power. What happened? Millions of people knew that if they all stopped cooperating with the system, the system would stop. They did and it did.
In doing so, they gave the lie to the idea that they were brainwashed robots, shuffling down the cold streets, eyes down. They never were brainwashed. They were waiting for the opportune moment. When it came, they didn�t hesitate.
Remember the book, 1984, by George Orwell? It was the Soviet system as science fiction. The hero, Winston Smith, rebels against the totalitarian state, but is finally captured. The last line of the book, "He loved Big Brother," means that the state finally succeeded in brainwashing him.
Great book, influential, but wrong. The Soviet system did not depend on brainwashing. People could and did think whatever they wanted. They knew they were being lied to. It didn�t matter. What mattered was not thought, but action. People were not permitted to act freely.
The same with South Africa: Just fifteen years ago, all the experts outside South Africa were certain that it had only two possible futures: It would remain an apartheid prison forever, or it would collapse into the bloodiest civil war ever. Neither happened. South Africa is free today because the experts did not consider what millions of South Africans knew: That apartheid depended on their daily cooperation. They stopped and it stopped.
The point is: Do you want to win? If so, you work on the side of power where victories have come from, the bottom-up side.
And here is the reason why the left went out of business. The strategy of the left was to work top-down, trying to take over the apparatus of violence and coercion.
Ends and means
When you look at it this way, you don't get intimidated by people who say: "We're hard-headed realists. We think clearly. We're not misty-eyed. We know that it is a harsh world, and that, regrettably, the end justifies the means. Yes, I had to jail my political opponents, but-" and so on.
What they are really saying is that their good intentions justify the means. In the real world, however, as the teacher Ira Sandperl put it, "the means, always and everywhere, without doubt and without exception, cannot, in the very nature of things, but determine the ends. We get what we do, not what we intend."
An underground idea
Nonviolence is an underground idea. It isn't taught in schools, historians ignore it, and TV, newspapers and magazines don't report on it. Nevertheless, this underground idea keeps bouncing from person to person around the world.
This spring is the 10th anniversary of the extraordinary student revolt in China.
Do you know what song the students were singing in Tiananmen Square -- many of them in the last hours of their lives? It was "We Shall Overcome." They were putting themselves in this worldwide tradition of nonviolence.
I suggest we put ourselves in the same tradition.