I want you to think about a horror movie for a moment. People jump at scary movies because they’re shocked. Nobody in the theater jumps back in their seat if they expect that the villain is going to shoot on screen any moment.
I ask you to consider this because it’s my attempt at making an analogy to how movements explode. I spoke with my friend Al Haber recently. We talked about the opening line to the Port Huron Statement, the vision presented by Students for a Democratic Society which set the tone for the activity of 1960’s. The statement opened saying that the “people of this generation look uncomfortably at the world we are about to inherit.” Alan commented that if the document were to be written today we’d have to use the word “terrified” instead of “uncomfortably.”
Terrified implies that we never saw this coming; that we expect something different. Just like a person is terrified by the axe brandishing villain jumping on screen, our generation is terrified by mounting debt, endless war and the prospect of an uninhabitable planet.
We were promised more than that. Everything we knew growing up taught us to expect differently. Our generation was ushered in by the “end of history,” when the Soviet Union collapsed and communism had been defeated. This optimism was accompanied with the growth of the 90s and the Clinton years, the internet boom and the promises of the 21st century. Our generation was raised to expect anything and everything.
Here in lies one of the most necessary elements a movement needs to be born. Movements explode when there is a gap between what people expect, and what people get. If people expect nothing, and get nothing, than it’s difficult for a movement to grow. However, when people expect the world and get poverty, war and pollution, the political moment is favorable to movement builders.
Brian Kelly posted something about this recently. He shared the great example of African-American soliders who returned from World War II after conquering fascism in Europe, only to find segregation and Jim Crow racism at home. Many of these soldiers went on to be leaders and builders of the civil rights movement.
Alan shared another example of this with me when he explained the opening line of the Port Huron Statement with me. The generation that led the 60s youth movement was raised to have high expectations through 50s prosperity, JFK’s optimism and message of racial harmony and the Great Society of LBJ. All these expectations were squelched with the War in Vietnam, images of civil rights protestors being beaten and the draft.
We’re in a moment right now where there is a gap between what folks in our generation expect and what we’re getting, and this moment will certainly be amplified by the coming elections. This is definitely a moment we need to strategize to take advantage of.
These elections are serving as a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for many people, especially young folks who are horrified by the regression of the Bush era. This theme is being enhanced by the hopeful messaging of Obama’s campaign, and the harkening back to the reputation of the Clinton era by Hillary.
The expectations for a liberal administration winning in 2009 are high, fueling the growing activity of our generation. We are being promised so much, and movement builders should make sure to recognize this as a profoundly strategic opportunity.
The problems we face are systemic and a liberal administration can only do so much. We should use these elections to open a critical dialogue about how change is made and what kind of change we need to be asking for. We each should also personally consider which of the candidates we think are most strategic for movement building, coming from a long haul perspective.