[UPDATED] In India the once mighty anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare has fizzled out. Following national elections, the energy of Mexico‘s #YoSoy132 student movement has also lost momentum. Many have written about the challenge of Egypt‘s people power movement in shifting from disrupting a dictatorial state to nudging a semi-democratic one. The Wikipedia timeline of the 15M protests of the indignados in Spain is thick with events throughout the summer of 2011, yet there is only one event in 2012: an attempt to revive the movement on its anniversary. In the US, Occupy in out of the spotlight and plans for a major protest at the Republican Conventionnext weekwill be litmus test of their continuing ability to mobilize.
All these movements experienced dramatic early moments of success demonstrated through unexpected mass street protests. All of these movements have so far been unable to continue that energy to achieve their (admittedly, extremely ambitious) goals of improving democracy and decreasing various form of corruption and elite misbehavior in their respective countries.
2011 was a tremendous year for global mass movements, but in 2012 these movements are abating. While the hard core of Occupy, Mexican student activists, and Egyptian democracy activists are still hard at work, the citizens that temporarily joined them appear to have returned to their daily lives.
Are new, digitally-enabled movements having greater difficulty maintaining momentum that past activist organizations? Or are we simply more aware of this problem because of improved coverage of these movements by citizen journalists and organizers themselves?
I tend to think it’s the latter, though I’d welcome alternative arguments. In the past, who would have reported on a citizen movement that wasn’t making news? Now citizen journalists fill the void and organizers can self-broadcast about their movements, even when not much is happening on the public stage.
The important point here is that thewax and wain of a movement’s ability to mobilize is normal. As Doug McAdam of Stanford University has explained in his theory of opportunity structures, factors outside the movement, like the political party in power, national economic stability, and even international relations, can affect the ability of a movement to make headway.
In the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, which even skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell hold up as a model of a successful movement, there were many periods of ebb and flow. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and enshrined the rights of citizenship for former slaves after the Civil War. This historic progress was followed by many brutal decades of voter intimidation, economic marginalization, lynching, and legalsegregation. 1875 was the year of both the federalCivil Rights Act of 1875and theMississippi Planto intimidate blacks and suppress black voter registration and voting.
While elite activism continued (the NAACP was founded in 1909, a number of favorable Supreme Court decisions were made in the early 1950’s), it was not until the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955 that the civil rights movement became a mass movement again. The brutal and racially-motivated murder of a black child inspired an outrage greater than the fear that had been carefully instilled in black Americans over the preceding decades. The Montgomery bus boycott, which most American schoolchildren are taught was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, began a few months later.
So let me preempt suggestions that this loss of momentum proves that digital movements are weaker than their pre-digital brethren. They may be, but we don’t know yet. Let’s wait and watch without prejudice.
Note: The images of the US and Mexico above show the Tea Party and Javier Sicilia, respectively, not Occupy and #YoSoy132.