Blurring the lines: the evolution of social movements and political parties

First published: March 14, 2005

In McLuhan’s Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media, author Stephen Dale sets out a fundamental tension between the demands of media, as exemplified in the quintessential sound bite, and its effective use by Greenpeace to capture public attention and empathy, and the desire to move the organization toward resolving deeper issues within the environmental movement.

In the reading, Mike Affleck, a former Notre Dame theology professor and anti-nuclear activist and a Greenpeace International member since 1990, says the organization is trapped by the conventions of its own publicity strategy of waging a public relations war based on short, focused slogans, material suitable for bumper stickers, for gaining mass support for initiatives. Greenpeace was able to pierce the numbing mindset of a public swamped by information and television, mobilizing them to support campaigns. Yet, as Dale shows, Greenpeace knows the roots of the environmental crisis are beyond this simplistic debate, involving more intricate tensions between economic interests and damaging environmental consequences. The result of this conundrum is the group’s continuous skirting of the central issues and never getting to the heart of the problem, Dale writes.

This moves the discussion of social movement to the heart of a central problem. Social movements are often born out of a straightforward objective, allowing them to focus energy, leadership and resources, while creating a clear identity for participants and the public that mobilizes interested parties. But over time, these become tangled in a web of social, cultural, economic, historic and institutional factors, as Dale describes them, that are not limited to the environmental movement.

This can be found in Politics As if Women Mattered: A Political Analysis of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women reading by Jill Vickers et al. In describing the evolution of the women’s movement from a focus of equality, as the central issue of the second wave of feminism, to a parliament of women, an objective of the third wave, the struggle to become more inclusive of women with disabilities, aboriginal women and francophone women is a formidable challenge, yet an important aspect in recognizing some of the inherent complexities of women’s issues. And while a healthy exercise for feminists in Canada, it means the organization must move away from the simplistic message of equality, which is well suited to media and the public, to a more sophisticated public discourse about women.

It can also be seen in Resisting Discrimination: Women from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and the Women’s Movement in Canada, by Vijay Agnew, in describing domestic worker’s issues and the tension between the government’s policies, women and the demand for domestic workers in Canada. While community groups and some organizations attempt to aid domestic workers, the bind created by the current system is based on larger economic factors that require this exploitation to exist. To resolve the punitive conditions of domestic workers would challenge fundamental assumptions of white, working class women, two-income families and larger cultural, societal and market forces that are highly sensitive. It would be extremely difficult to summarize this struggle for a bumper sticker and hence, one of the key issues facing this group, among countless others.

Yet in dealing with the more substantive complex issues, do social movement lose a key feature? Once the struggle to mobilize participants moves away from its simplistic identity around clear-cut issues, the organizations are left facing many of the problems political parties face. Suddenly, the differences between the two melt away as seen above with the environmental and women’s movements having to brokerage grassroots concerns of the various participants with the complex nature of dealing with the more substantive issues. It is no surprise that many social movements such as environmentalists and farmers create political parties as a means to move their agenda forward, although with mixed success. For purists, this may mean a social movement no longer exists, once it reaches this stage. However, there is one quality that may define them as distinct. A social movement looks to influence political structures and society, while a political party seeks to hold power. Once a social movement stops seeking to influence social forces within a society and only seeks to obtain and hold power over governments, institutions and citizens, then it is no different than a political party that work to win elections and govern. This is why certain organizations, which do not have participatory memberships, cannot be classified as social movement, since these groups are locked in a struggle to obtain power. It may also be a defining factor with interest groups, who are only interested in wrestling gains away from governments. Still, the lines between mature social movements, who struggle to deal with the underlying structural challenges of reaching their objectives, and Canadian political parties are more blurry than clear.

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