The race to seize the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has given the people what they want: off-script, entertaining political theater, complete with all the journalistic horserace twists and turns we’ve grown to love. This type of journalism doesn’t always make for the best reporting, but it has managed to capture our narrowing attention span (at least, for now). In the aftermath of Joe Biden’s comeback Super Tuesday victory over what seemed like an almost certain slam-dunk win for Bernie Sanders, the political electoral terrain has shifted once again. We read these headlines, shrug our shoulders, dismiss these as random developments, and think: “Well, that’s politics!” In reality: “That’s social movements.” If we want to make sense of our elections, we need to start thinking more like activists.
Money is critical for political campaigns and for activists. When Cory Booker and Kamala Harris announced they were dropping out of the Democratic primary race, they each noted a lack of campaign funding as the reason. Prior to Super Tuesday, it had been widely publicized that, in comparison to the flush Sanders camp, Biden’s campaign had avoided outreach in important states as a function of his dwindling war chest. But money isn’t everything.
So how does the resource-poor candidate get in the game? They tap into non-monetary resources — celebrity endorsements, politically influential allies, coveted media attention, or public opinion. This tactic is no different for the movements that transformed politics and society without an abundance of money.
For example, the success of the Civil Rights Movement, including the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guarded against the widespread voter disenfranchisement of black residents in the Jim Crow South, was largely a function of “ indigenous resources.” The black church and historically black colleges and universities, for instance, provided the safe space to gather, network, coordinate, raise funds, and build solidarity.
Campaigns, like movements, attempt to endure financial struggles by doubling-down on the acquisition of these other types of resources. Consider the importance of a political endorsement in the recent primary race. Biden’s ability to secure South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn’s endorsement in the moments before his make or break bid in that state changed the game. He decisively won South Carolina and went on to squeeze Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar out of the race — both of whom then, in turn, endorsed him; and the money started to flow.
Marketing also matters for both the activist and the political candidate. Marketing tactics, or in the language of social movement scholars, “ frames,” can be either linguistic — from the Civil Rights era: “Black Power” or “ We shall overcome” — or in the current era, the hashtag — #MeToo, #TakeAKnee, or #NeverAgain. They can also be visual symbolic markers synonymous with a movement — the rainbow flag, peace sign, or the hoodie. The iconic “ MAGA hat” remains a powerful symbol of the Trump movement, one which Andrew Yang, in turn, re-appropriated for his campaign: “Make America Think Harder” (MATH). We’ve witnessed the would-be democratic presidential nominees engage in this branding work by trying to perfect a frame, hoping one would stick: Elizabeth Warren’s “I have a plan for that” or Klobuchar’s “Let’s get to work.” Yet, often the winning candidate is also the candidate with the most resonate frame (#Winning).
But perhaps the most important rule that politicians can learn from activists is that sometimes even when you lose, you #Win. When we ask ourselves “Did the movement succeed?” we are asking the wrong question. Instead, we should ask: What does success mean to an activist? Who benefited? Who lost? What changed? What stayed the same? In the same way that we now know Warren will not be the nominee, or that Sanders’ big ideas about “Medicare for All” may never come to fruition, or that Mayor Pete made history as the first LGBTQ+ presidential hopeful and Julián Castro as the first Latino nominee, their movements still mattered, because they drew our conversation into new horizons. And this is what politicians can learn from activists — that activism is about extending our collective understanding of what is possible.
Amber Tierney is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maine and a faculty affiliate with the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated. She is a guest contributor for the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.