How Social Movements Can Win More Victories Like Same-Sex Marriage

Engler, Mark; Engler, Paul
Date Written:  2014-07-11
Publisher:  CounterPunch
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX16538

The rapidly expanding victory around same-sex marriage defies many of our common ideas about how social change happens. This was not a win that came in measured doses, but rather a situation in which the floodgates of progress were opened after years of half-steps and seemingly devastating reversals. It came about through the efforts of a broad-based movement, pushing for increased acceptance of LGBT rights within a wide range of constituencies.



Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.

For those interested in promoting further transformation in the United States and beyond, there are few ideas more worthy of careful and sustained examination.

Holding up a Roman temple

For the tradition now known as “civil resistance,” the triumph of same-sex marriage in the United States is a remarkable example of what happens when a critical mass of people withdraws its willingness to cooperate with an existing state of affairs, and when the support of social institutions for an idea or a regime falls away.

Civil resistance has historically focused on the question of how strategic nonviolent conflict can be used to overthrow dictatorships. Ideas from the tradition are most commonly used to understand rebellions in places like Poland, Serbia, and Egypt. Nevertheless, theorists in this school of thought have introduced a number of concepts that are useful for understanding change in democratic contexts as well.

In particular, they present a theory of how groundswells of popular defiance, aimed at shifting public opinion, can create social change from outside of official channels. This process often leaves politicians, when they finally catch on, scrambling to adjust to a dramatically altered political landscape.

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