Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign has opened up a debate about how social change happens in our society. The official version of how progress is won—currently voiced by mainstream pundits and members of a spooked Democratic Party establishment—goes something like this: politics is a tricky business, gains coming through the work of pragmatic insiders who know how to maneuver within the system. In order to get things done, you have to play the game, be realistic, and accept the established limits of debate in Washington, DC.
A recent article in The Atlantic summed up this perspective with the tagline, “At this polarized moment, it’s incremental change or nothing.” This view, however, leaves out a critical driver of social transformation. It fails to account for what might be the most important engine of progress: grassroots movements by citizens demanding change.
Social change is seldom either as incremental or as predictable as many insiders suggest. Every once in a while, an outburst of resistance seems to break open a world of possibility, creating unforeseen opportunities for transformation. Indeed, according to that leading theorist of disruptive power, Frances Fox Piven, the “great moments of equalizing reform in American political history”—securing labor rights, expanding the vote, or creating a social safety net—have been directly related to surges of widespread defiance.
Unlike elected officials who preoccupy themselves with policies considered practical and attainable within the political climate of the moment, social movements change the political weather. They turn issues and demands considered both unrealistic and politically inconvenient into matters that can no longer be ignored; they succeed, that is, by championing the impractical.
Such movements, of course, face immense barriers, but that shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging their importance and highlighting the key role played by moments of mass defiance in shaping our world. Outbreaks of hope and determined impracticality provide an important rebuttal to the politics of accommodation, to the idea that the minor tweaking of the status quo is the best we can expect in our lifetimes.
Here, then, are three moments when the world broke open—and two when it still might.
Civil Rights: An “Unwise and Untimely” Movement
In hindsight, it’s easy enough for people today to imagine that progress on civil rights was preordained. But that’s hardly how things looked as the 1960s began. Six years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared “separate educational facilities…inherently unequal,” defiance of the law had become a badge of honor for officials throughout the South. White Citizens’ Councils had come to dominate local politics in much of the region, and ever more vocally racist politicians were winning elections to Congress over more genteel (if still bigoted) Southern politicians of a previous generation.