The John W. Kluge Center and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University are proud to release Social Movements and American Democracy in the 21st Century, a discussion moderated by Theda Skocpol and featuring panelists Hahrie Han, Dana Fisher, and Leah Wright Rigueur.
Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, introduced the event with an assessment of the current level of political engagement. “We’ve just come off a national election that saw the highest turnout of eligible voters in more than a century of American democracy,” she said, “and we’re clearly in a period where American citizens across the partisan spectrum and across many communities of different types and sizes are organizing social movements and civic groups, to make their voices heard, in both national and community politics and civic life.”
Asked for thoughts about what constitutes effective citizen organizing in the 21st century, Dana Fisher, Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, spoke about her work looking at electoral movements motivated by outrage at the Trump administration. These groups saw some success at the national level, Fisher said, but less so at the state and local level.
Fisher said that her work shows that there are ways in which citizens can apply pressure to political actors even when out of power. In the coming months and years, Fisher predicted “a move towards more in person types of activism and engagement” as a response to the disconnection and virtual engagement that became the norm as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.
Leah Wright Rigueur, Professor of History at Brandeis University and Associate Research Professor at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, said that her work considers the Black Lives Matter movement as well as right wing movements, both of which have grown recently. “State illegitimacy,” the idea that “we are against the government,” is a key component for both groups, Rigueur said, but is used in drastically different ways.
For Black Lives Matter, it means opposing the police and opposing “state violence against black and brown lives and bodies.” But for the right wing, the “illegitimate” government actions to be opposed might be “expansion of democracy, a more inclusive democracy,” or the certification of the 2020 election results. Despite their opposite objectives, Rigueur said, these movements “have been moving in parallel and in concert for over a decade now.”
Hahrie Han, the Inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University said that she has found many themes in organizing that hold true across groups as different as evangelical conservatives and left-leaning movements. Organizations that have been most effective, she said, “have invested in building their constituencies in ways that enable them to negotiate for power through political institutions in their domain, whatever domain that may be.”
Han said that state-based organizations often accomplish the most when negotiating with state legislatures and governor’s offices or even smaller county and municipal entities. Rather than focusing on a single election or ballot initiative, Han said, groups that are able to accomplish their goals build durable, flexible coalitions that will stick with them for a long process of negotiation, maintaining commitment through victories as well as defeats.
Watch the full event here, and find more information about each of the participants below.
Theda Skocpol (Harvard University) is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, where she has served as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and as Director of the Center for American Political Studies. She holds elective membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Skocpol serves on the Kluge Center’s Scholars Council.
Hahrie Han (Johns Hopkins University) is the Inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute, a Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Director of the P3 Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University. She studies American Politics and specializes in the study of civic and political participation, social movements, collective action, and organizing, particularly as it pertains to democratic revitalization. She is the author of “Prisms of the People,” and “How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century.”
Dana Fisher (University of Maryland) is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Program for Society and the Environment. Her research focuses on questions related to democracy, activism, and environmentalism. She is the author of “National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime”, “Activism, Inc.,” “Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement,” and “American Resistance.”
Leah Wright Rigueur (Brandeis University) is Harry S. Truman Associate Professor of American History and Associate Research Professor at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Her research expertise includes 20th Century American political and social history, modern African American history, race, politics, civil rights, contemporary social movements, political ideologies and institutions, and the American presidency. She is the author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power” and “Mourning in America: Black Men and Women in a White House.”