Monday’s Mtg: What Makes Grass Roots Movements Succeed or Fail?

Zelekha suggested this one, and I think it really fits with all of Civilized Conversation’s major themes:  Politics, history, culture, etc.  Of course, all politics in a democracy is grass roots politics.  Anybody that wants to affect real change needs to generate enthusiasm among regular people, and not just for voting.  Movements that do not organize with an eye to building an infrastructure for the long haul seldom achieve much in the here and now or live to see the long haul,.  Organizing of both activists and the semi-engaged is what the grass roots is really about, no matter how many zillionaires write you big checks. This doesn’t mean that elites can’t be involved in grass roots movements.  Getting them on board is kind of the point, ultimately.

But, to me, true grass roots movements at least start off as movements of regular people.  This is because grass roots campaigns are most likely to spring up when the political system and political elites are ignoring something – or someone – that a lot of t regular people believe is important.  They are bottom-up efforts to persuade voters and the political class to pay attention and do something about a problem they don’t want to do anything about.

A lot of examples of successful American grass roots movements come to mind. Most easily can be categorized as right-wing or left-wing.

  • Old:   Abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights,.
  • New:  environmentalism , Christian Right,
  • Newer:  Gay rights, tea party.

A few failed ones come to mind, too.

  • Anarchist movement (late 18th, early 20th century)
  • Communist party.
  • Occupy Wall Street (or, is it too soon to write them off?)
  • Pro-life movement (well, in that it’s still legal)
  • Scottish independence?

Our topic is, what makes these movements succeed?  What conditions make a fertile breeding ground for grass roots causes and what do the successful ones do that the failed ones do not do? I had a terrible time finding good readings for you guys this week.  There is a ton  of scholarship on this stuff, but I could not (figure out how to??) access it.  I’ll see if  I can give some of the background knowledge I know in a brief opening, then I hope some of you who  have participated as activists can help the rest of us out.


  1. WHAT:  What is a “grass roots” political movement?  How does it differ from regular old politics in a democracy?  Name some successful and unsuccessful grass roots movements, both in the past and recently.
  2. WHY:  What causes the need for a grass roots movement?  Are there a set of conditions in politics or society that make the rise of a grass roots movement likely?
  3. HOW:  How do successful grass roots movements help themselves to succeed?  What are their secrets?  What did failed movements do wrong?
  4. WORLD:  Any lessons from other countries’ experiences, especially lately?
  5. FUTURE:  What’s the future of mass political movements in the United States?  How will a wired and social networked world affect the grass roots?

LINKS –  Good ones were really hard to find for this topic! General

Right-Wing Versus Left Wing Movements

Future/New Movements –

Next Week:  After Ferguson, MO: Racism, militarization, and the police.


One response

  1. The Tea Party will endure–as a right wing fringe party financed by billionaires.
    That’s my hope anyway.

    Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend.

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