The Humanitarian Disarmament Movement, Grassroots versus Grasstops versus States?

Social movements drive policy change by targeting one or more levels of decision-makers.  Grassroots activities seek to drive change by bringing large numbers of people to bear through voting, letter-writing campaigns and mass action.  Grasstops activities seek to identify thought leaders whose viewpoints are believed to represent those commonly held and then mobilize those thought leaders through actions like public statements or op-ed letters.  State-level movements focus directly on the policy-makers themselves and use direct action like lobbying to support or introduce legislation.  The most effective social movements use a combination of all three strategies to create policy changes that have broad support, well-articulated messages and defining legislation.  In the United States, the Civil Rights movement is often presented as an example of a successful movement that was comprehensive in terms of audience, methods and impacts.  It is worth pointing out that even a half century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, more work needs to be done to preserve and promote civil rights in the United States.

A report out this week by the political scientist, Theda Skocpol (Scholar Strategy Network, pdf), looked at the environmental movement in the United States and analyzed why, despite seeming agreement between the Obama Administration and the environmental movement on the need for domestic legislation, there had been no legislative efforts to combat climate change.  Skocpol lays the blame squarely on the environmental movement, absolving the Obama Administration, saying that the environment movement focused too much on the policymakers in Congress and the White House and did not mobilize a grassroots or even grasstops movement behind the state-level actions.  The environmentalists did not realize the depth of opposition to climate change legislation that had been built up as a grassroots movement, the “Tea Party” movement, which was routinely tapped by grasstops opposed to any such legislation.  The voting threat posed by the Tea Party to legislators made them loath to even consider compromise on climate change legislation for fear of being thrown out at the ballot box in the next election.   Collectively, the Tea Party and its associated grasstops and policymakers, prevented any climate change legislation being considered by the Obama Administration or Congress (The Guardian).  This failure is worrying to the environmental movement as negotiations around a global climate change treaty is facing its “last chance” according to the Obama Administration’s lead negotiator (Reuters).  Without popular support in the United States, the likelihood of the US supporting a strong treaty (or any treaty at all) are very small and there is little time to develop the grassroots movement needed to complement the state-level strategy adopted by many environmental organizations involved in the treaty negotiations.

Skocpol’s paper is an important reminder for the US as the Obama Administration seeks to enact new gun control legislation.  Already firmly in the opposition is the National Rifle Association (NRA) with its 4 million members (grassroots), a network of conservative commentators, thinktanks and donors (grasstops) and conservative legislators (policymakers).  While the Obama Administration can call on grasstops support (including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Brady Campaign and Gabby Giffords’s new organization) and policymaker support from Democratic Senators and Congressmen, the absence of a grassroots movement in support of gun control will make passing legislation difficult.  There is purportedly broad support within the American electorate for gun control, but without an organizational framework like the NRA to mobilize that support, it cannot be called a movement (Guardian; Washington Post; Washington Post).

An organizational framework can sustain a grassroots movement during dormant periods.  Carrying the metaphor further, a grassroots movement needs deep roots to survive and without the root system, mobilization when necessary is difficult.  It can happen, look at Tahrir Square in Egypt: a mass grassroots movement that seemingly sprung from nothing, but those are rare cases.  The Million Mom March tried to establish an anti-violence organization, but after the initial mass action, there was nothing to sustain it.  Instead, gun control activists moved to a grasstops and state-level approach, similar to that of the environmental community.  The introduction of Michael Bloomberg to the equation may provide the financial muscle to establish a lasting movement, but that will take time to coalesce and mobilize.  Obama occupies the bully pulpit from which to work on gun control, but he needs his congregation to follow.

Taking these last two points into consideration, it’s worth noting that the humanitarian disarmament movement uses a state-level approach, supported by grasstops activists, to negotiate treaties that ban weapons that cause undue and unnecessary injury (ICBL).  There is little or no grassroots support for this movement, but there could be.  I’ve seen several internet petitions calling on the US government to ban landmines, some of which have gotten several thousand signatures.  Beyond simple “clicktivism,” Massoud Hassani, an Afghan designer working in the Netherlands designed the Mine Kafon which in less than thirty days raised almost US $200,000 from more than 4,000 individuals through a Kickstarter project (Kickstarter) despite (very valid) concerns about the effectiveness of the Mine Kafon (Hathaway Communications).  In the 1980s the Nuclear Freeze movement generated mass action and even the great Cold Warrior himself, Ronald Reagan, considered banning all nuclear weapons, so there is precedent for building a movement for disarmament.  As the United Nations looks to host the next round of negotiations for the Arms Trade Treaty, the lack of a grassroots movement in the United States will likely hinder the negotiating position of the activists, especially in the teeth of determined opposition from the NRA already challenged by the Obama Administration’s actions on gun control.

There may not be a need to build a grassroots movement on behalf of disarmament, but the weakness of a grasstops and state-level strategy needs to be recognized and mitigated.  If the United States is to sign onto disarmament treaties, there may need to be the threat of mass action to overcome resistance on the part of US negotiators.  Just as with climate change negotiation, the absence of a grassroots movement in support of action and the presence of grassroots activism in opposition provides political cover to the negotiators for inaction.  Disarmament activists are considering their next major push, a global ban on autonomous weapons and grassroots support may be necessary to overcome any perceived military utility.  As more and more militaries use (or covet) drones, that perceived utility will increase making grassroots support imperative.

Michael P. Moore

January 18, 2013

One Comment on “The Humanitarian Disarmament Movement, Grassroots versus Grasstops versus States?”

  1. NumberJ says:

    There are many concerns about the Mine Kafon. This blog discusses the problems with the project.

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