Stages of a Political Movement Part II

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

In Part 1  I looked  at the five stages that movements in general and political movements in particular go through :   Origin,  Development, Struggle, Dominance, and Decline.   Currently, the conservative movement is in stage 3 struggle, hoping to move to stage 4, Dominance.  The political dominance of Liberalism was weakened by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and  broken in 1994 when the Republicans won control of Congress.   Currently neither side has dominance. Conservatives are trying to gain it, while the Liberals are trying to reverse their decline and regain it.

While this goes a long way towards explaining the current climate of partisanship, there are two  additional factors that can further explain the current battles.  The first is openness to new ideas.  In stages 1, 2, there has to be a great openness to new ideals and new ways of thinking about things if a movement is to progress. This is facilitated by the lack of any power, so there is nothing to lose. However somewhere in stage 3, as the  base of support grows, the openness to new ideas begins to decline. If, and when, a group gains dominance, the openness to new ideas greatly decreases.  Part of this is because everything begins to be cast in terms of the great leaders who brought the group to power.  New ideas are often cast as “destroying the legacy.”   As a group moves into decline, these old ways are often defend even more tediously  with calls to “return to our roots.”

Thus, for example,  Liberals are normally portrayed as the ones with the new Ideas and conservatives as defending the status quo.   Yet when it comes to issues like social security, it is the Democrat, the group who until recently was dominate, who defends the status quo, frequently by pointing to the legacy of FDR.  On the other hand, it is conservatives, who are in stage three hoping to gain dominance, who are the ones proposing the new ideas.

The second major factor is willingness to hear differing opinions and to debate issues.  Groups in the early stages have to be open to differing opinions. Since they have no power, the only way to get their position accepted is by debate.   However once in a position of dominance, stagnation sets in. Since they are in power, differing opinions do not need to be engaged, they can simply be voted down.  If the period of dominance last long enough, the current leaders may even have lost (or never developed) the ability to defend their position against serious intellectual challenges.  Thus when serious intellectual challenges do arise, there will be a strong inclination to use their dominate power to suppress opposing views, rather than to defeat them intellectually.

Both of these factors can be seen in the current political debate.  The dominance of liberalism began in the early 1930s.  While there were Republican presidents, Eisenhower, Nixon,  and Ford were not conservatives; nor was the first President Bush.  In addition,  liberalism dominated not only political power, but the news and entertainment media, and universities.   Liberalism was simply the norm, while conservatism was rare.  Conservatives, if they remained conservative, were challenged on a daily basis, and thereby had to learn to defend their beliefs, if only to themselves.   As the dominate power this was not the case with liberalism. Liberals could pretty much live their entire lives without ever being seriously challenged in their beliefs. Any differing  view they did encounter could be written off as a minority views that did not need to be taken seriously.  

When Reagan broke the dominance of Liberalism, many liberal simply could not believe it, and they did not know how to respond.  In the absence of rational arguments, irrational arguments take over, and the easiest (and thus most popular)of the irrational arguments is the ad hominem attack.  Be it Regain, Bush 41,  Dan Quayle,  Newt Gingrich,  Bush 43, Dick Cheney, or any other Republican leader, they are portrayed as dumb, a puppet, out of touch, insensitive,  uncaring,  evil, or some combination of the above.   

This also explains the great disparity in talk radio, a medium based on the discussion of ideas.  While there are some “shock jock” the vast majority of conservative talk radio  consists of taking apart liberal views. While they are often criticized for not allowing differing points of view, most spend a great deal of time debating liberal guest, playing clips of what liberals say, and love to take liberal callers, because they know, based on experience, that liberals for the most part are not very good at defending themselves intellectually and thus normally it is not very long before they resort to ad hominem attacks or other types of fallacious reasoning. 

This also explains why liberals employ a number of techniques aimed at suppressing differing points of view.  If you hold a view that the fetus is a person with right to life, and you are labeled religious and your view must be excluded from political debate because of separation of church and state.  The belief that marriage as an institution  should be between a man and a woman is homophobic and to be excluded from political debate.  The claim that affirmative action does more harm than good is racist speech and to be excluded from political debate.   And with the failure of Air America, talk radio needs to be regulated by the “Fairness Doctrine” which would effectively silence it.   Groups in the Decline stage normally seek to suppress opposition, rather than debate and defeat it.

As these tactics fail, the normal response is to simply ratchet up the attacks, however irrational.  Thus the increasing hatred on the left with attacks such as  Bush lied,  War for oil, and even that Bush knew about or in some cases even planned 9/11, all the while accusing him of causing the division.   In short when understood against the background of the stages of a political movement, much of the current political debate become understandable.

Sep 5th, 2007

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