The most common source of trouble when a social movement succeeds in entering the collective conversation of politics is the lack of any constructive plan... [upon gaining] access to the halls of power, [the movement] lowers its sights to target only that set of goals it can reach consensus on, and thinks it can get from whichever subset of the political class is currently in charge.
That’s a fatal mistake, in two mutually reinforcing ways. First, it allows the... political class that’s currently in charge to turn the movement into a wholly owned subsidiary, by giving just enough scraps to the movement to keep it hankering for more, while dangling the whole package just out of reach before the movement’s eager eyes.
That’s how the Democrats turned the environmental movement (among others) into one of their captive constituencies, for example, and it’s also how the Republicans turned gun owners (among others) into one of their captive constituencies – and you’ll notice that neither movement, nor any of the other movements thus co-opted, have ever managed to get more than a few token scraps of its shopping list out of the process.
The second difficulty is the natural result of the first. Once a movement is turned into a wholly owned subsidiary of one end of the political class, it can count on losing any chance of getting anything once the other end of the political class gets into power, as will inevitably happen.
The result is an elegant good cop-bad cop routine; each party can reliably panic its captive constituencies every four years by saying, in effect, “Well, granted, we haven’t done a thing for you in years, but think of how much worse it will be if those awful (fill in the blank)s get into power!”
Those who swallow this line can count on watching their movement sink into a kind of political zombiehood in which, whatever its official goals, the only real function remaining to it is to get out the vote for one or the other set of mutually interchangeable candidates come Election Day.
Combine these two difficulties and you get the graveyard that’s swallowed most movements for change in America in the last half century.I think this nails the examples of movements that are cited, but what about movements that are more successful and less successful? To wit,
- Equal rights for African Americans (starting with ending slavery under the Republicans and ending (for the sake of discussion) with the Civil Rights acts passed by Democrats)
- Equal rights for women
- Equal rights for homosexuals
- Social justice for the poor
- The anti-war movement (w/r/t Iraq and Afghanistan)
In different ways for each, the proposed explanation doesn't add up.