Over the years that I’ve been blogging (which is now about eight years), I have seen the desire for a strong centrist movement come and go. Every so often, you see a blog posting or an article by a well-known columnist talking about how a centrist third party or movement is just around the corner.
Centrist Republican groups have started and up and disappeared making the pitch that the party needs moderates.
Why is that? Why hasn’t a strong centrist movement actually got off the ground in America?
Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on social media and social change, offers some clues. He starts out by talking about the decision of several African American college students to stage a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. What Gladwell shows is that this decision to make a public stand against segregation didn’t just arise out of nowhere: it came from long conversations among the college students as well as the fact that they knew each other.
So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.
Of course, one need not be good friends for this kind of social activism, but what Gladwell is getting at is that these four freshmen had strong social ties to each other. It was in his words, “high-risk activism.” Gladwell recounts the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In East Germany, what looked like spontaneous protests were actually quite organized:
…revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.
So what made a movement was knowing someone in the movement, but it also mattered that the movement itself was rather top-down and orderly. Gladwell notes the civil rights movement was incredibly military-like in its organization:
The students who joined the sit-ins across the South during the winter of 1960 described the movement as a “fever.” But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. In the late nineteen-fifties, there had been sixteen sit-ins in various cities throughout the South, fifteen of which were formally organized by civil-rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and CORE. Possible locations for activism were scouted. Plans were drawn up. Movement activists held training sessions and retreats for would-be protesters. The Greensboro Four were a product of this groundwork: all were members of the N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. They had close ties with the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. They had been briefed on the earlier wave of sit-ins in Durham, and had been part of a series of movement meetings in activist churches. When the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South, it did not spread indiscriminately. It spread to those cities which had preëxisting “movement centers”—a core of dedicated and trained activists ready to turn the “fever” into action.
The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline.
While one can look at the Civil Rights Movement as one that was dsiciplined, the same can not be said of the so-called Centrist movement. I’ve followed the Centrist and Centrist Republican movements over the years and they are not highly organized in the same way that the Civil Right movement or the opposition in East Germany was. Many a website or organization has been formed, but they have few if any followers.
The reason why is can also be found in Gladwell’s essay. The whole crux of this essay is the fact that social media is not as good in promoting social activism as face to face contact. Gladwell notes that websites like Twitter and Facebook are developed around weak-ties as opposed to the strong ties of social movements. I think this is interesting because much of the centrist movement is organized around the web with groups like the ill-fated Unity ’08, the Modern Whig Party and the new group No Labels as prime examples. Gladwell notes that these weak ties groups make for a weak social movement:
The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism…
In a new book called “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker tell the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came down with acute myelogenous leukemia. It’s a perfect illustration of social media’s strengths. Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow database. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.
But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
Bingo. This is why a centrist movement has not as of yet sprung up. It’s easy to ask someone to go to the No Labels website and sign up; nothing is being asked of you except to sign up. It’s another thing to sign up for something and then put your life on the line.
I think what this all comes down to is committment. How truly committed are we to building a real movement? Social media can help maintain the ties people have, but it won’t lead a movement for change. Yes, I can sign up on Facebook to say I support No Labels, but I can also sign up to support bacon as well.
If nothing much is asked of people, we can’t expect that much will be given.
My guess is that most centrists are not really that serious about wanting change. If they did, they would be more active in trying to make change happen. It’s one thing to create a website and get some important people supporting it, it’s another thing to work for moderate candidates and get the average joes motivated.