A Look at Some of the Most Successful Social Movements

Throughout American history there have been many social movements, some, such as the Abolitionists movement, the AARP movement, the Judicial Review movement, and the Women’s Suffrage movement were ultimately successful, while others, such as the Pro-Life, and anti-abortion movement, have ultimately proved to be failures; regardless of their eventual status, all social movements require specific factors to occur, employ specific strategies and tactics, and, in some cases, remain viable and vital even today.

An excellent example of an American social movement that both proved successful and culminated in a lasting effect that still holds strong today is the Abolitionists movement. The Northern States were home to active abolitionists a full three decades before the outbreak of the Civil war, and it was their harsh and effective strategies that helped to end slavery in the Americas. Claiming openly that slavery was inherently evil and that all people (including colored,) were inherently good, the people who identified themselves as abolitionists used a number of different tactics. Utilizing every method from peaceful, anti-slavery public speeches to the rarely done, violent, slave-freeing and owner killing demonstrations, they first established a law proclaiming slaves free in the northern states, ended the American Slave Trade, and did everything in their power to convince government to make slavery illegal.

Unfortunately, Congress left such matters in the hands of the individual state governments and, with rising tensions between the North and the South, war broke out. Among the changes that took place at the end of the American civil war, the most important could be considered the dream of the abolitionists, an end to slavery in the United States, effectively taking a firm step toward the notion that all men, including former slaves (though not women, unfortunately,) were equal in the eyes of both government and god. This movement, like many of the other social movements in American history, was a great blow for American “democracy” but, in comparison to many other Western European Democratic countries it would seem as more of a minor, yet necessary step in the climb to the status of a ideal liberal democracy. Had it surfaced as a social movement in say, Sweden for example (speaking hypothetically, of course,) It would have immediately become established as a political party, instead of being used as a springboard for an existing political party, as is done with most, if not all American social movements.

Another such American social movement was the collective effort known as the AARP movement. This movement began in 1937 and in response to an enraged public full of starving and uninsured elderly, “forcing” Roosevelt to enact the Social Security act, though it was never meant to do much more than to quiet the most vocal of these retirees; in fact, Social Security only covered about ? of the elderly population, while the rest continued to suffer. Faced with a growing number of retirees through the process known affectionately as the “Greying of America,” and sentiment toward those retirees not covered by Social Security (especially in the era before medicare,) the majority of the elderly began looking for the power to make things better. It was ten years after the founding of a small and very select organization known as the “NRTA” (National Retired Teachers Association,) that the founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, realizing the greater need, was able to begin a high-powered movement that, upon finding support in the hands of an American political party, evolved to become what we now know as the AARP, (American Association of Retired Persons) of whom the NRTA is now a division.

The primary reasons for their success as a social movement can be summarized with a brief look at their very tactics; becoming politically organized and growing in number, the elderly were very persistent especially in the practice of lobbying, that is, trying to “influence the thinking of legislators or other public officials for or against a specific cause,” and, most importantly, they voted consistently. The ferocity of such a movement would sound a death-knell for any candidates who would not be in direct and full support of it. After the creation of the AARP, which effectively covers over half of the national population over the age of fifty, it’s members were able to bypass all of the government walls and intervening institutions and find a direct-acting representative in the form of the AARP. Today, the AARP is still running strong and membership is granted to anyone who retires and is older than fifty years of age; it’s members still carry a huge amount of weight in government, and actually represent the largest pool of American voters today. Such a movement is and would be virtually unheard of in any western European country, as they have always had such programs, presented through the use of their ideological political parties. To them, our system must seem not only backward but barbaric as well.

Noted as one of the most successful of American Social movements, John Marshall’s Judicial Review was formed to keep decisions made by political parties and the government in general within the power of the courts to be declared null and void under the grounds of being unconstitutional. Serving to promote “democracy” in the United States, it can be considered a social movement on the grounds that there was a public outcry about a lack of power in that particular facet of government which was eventually solved, furthering the kind of “democracy” we experience in the America of today. It was Chief-Justice John Marshall’s Judicial Review that gave the Supreme Court the ability to knock down and repeal laws both national and statewide and it became a high-powered watch-dog over all forms of government; a referee, if you will, to uphold (or in some cases destroy) the progress of democracy.

The tactics used by John Marshall were subtle and almost devious, but the Judicial Review became common practice after 1803 with the case of Marbury Vs. Madison. It was a landmark case, and, armed with the statements of Article III of the constitution, then Chief Justice John Marshall ushered in a new era of control and greatness for the supreme court that still stands today. As for an equivalent social movement in a Western European Democracy, you’ll find none. Those few who do have a similar function of court as our own Judicial Review, began with it written into their own constitution, and accepted completely since day one. Again, our own unique form of democracy is shown to be rather backwards when compared to our “peers.”

Another quite successful American social movement that struck a blow for American “democracy” in the same tone as the abolitionists movement comes in the form of the Women’s Suffrage movement, a powerful and yet early step toward full liberty for women that had been desired and worked for by many courageous and active women for decades, even, in some cases, for a century or more, though in the US, it is estimated that it lasted around seventy-two years. Encouraged by a general broadening of liberties across the board, especially those for white protestant males, as well as the steady increase in educated females, the Women’s Suffrage Movement exploded with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, (protection of the citizenship rights for males.) Tactics were generally limited to groups of women lecturing, marching, and lobbying for the right to vote, though they were known for utilizing strategies that would later appear in the Civil Rights Movement, such as hunger strikes, silent vigils, and parades.

With the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, women were finally given the right to vote, a right still guaranteed to them today, though they, unfortunately and as unconstitutional as it may be, were still considered to be a form of property until the 1960’s. Such a movement did appear early on in a few Western European Democracies, primarily in Britain, where women fought simultaneously for their rights as full citizens, as well as the simple, yet infinitely desired right to vote. Unfortunately, most of these European movements were part of a larger, and in proportion generally less successful series of movements known collectively as “the women’s movement.” The American Women’s suffrage movement has no direct parallels in western European democracies, as such needs are directly translated into their own social parties, which are voted for and/or elected, changing the very laws of a country and granting more liberty and democracy to the formerly oppressed.

Lastly, we come to the persistent, yet fairly unsuccessful American social movement known as the Pro-Life, anti-abortion movement, which happens to be a significant part of the larger religious fundamentalist movement. The primary goal of this particular movement is to bring an end to the legal availability of abortion in the United States, an act which could prove to be very anti-democratic. Regardless, tactics utilized by this distasteful radical religious fraction of American Society range from the usual, standard forms of protest, (I.E. Appearance in Sermon, public speeches, marches, picketing, lobbying, etc.) to the more violent forms. (I.E. Bombing clinics, gunning down doctors, harassing women, etc.) Of all the movements discussed thus far, this particular one is by far the most violent and destructive to democracy, aiming to effectively bar a woman’s right to choose. Forms of this movement have existed as long as legal abortion has, and likely will until (and I sincerely hope this heinous act does not occur,) it is made illegal. In other western European democracies, this movement has no real parallel, as it, like many American social movements, is caught early and immediately translated into its own political party in almost every single western European democracy.

So, as you can see, the United States of America, has had it’s fair share of social movements while many Western European Democracies have translated such groups directly into political parties. Regardless, the American method still proves that the people of such a unique form of democracy can band together to voice their collective opinion and stimulate great change in a variety of peaceful or destructive ways, proving successful in some instances, and bitter failures in others.

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