Pax Fauna exists to create a kinder world for animals, human and otherwise, by accelerating the emergence of a highly intelligent, collaborative, Nonviolent grassroots mass movement ecosystem to abolish the animal slaughter industry in the United States. We aim to achieve this by conducting research and developing educational, informational, and material resources to enable local advocacy communities to seize the narrative about animal agriculture using controversial mass protest and scalable community organizing.
That mission statement is quite a mouthful! (If you’re curious about what it all means, you can read more here.) For now, I want to share about how we’ll be acting out our mission in 2021.
We think of our plans for 2021 in terms of three work streams, which all flow from our overall objective of launching a new, research-based mass movement organization (MMO) dedicated to abolishing animal agriculture. To set a mass movement up for success, we’re focused on:
I’ll examine one of these in depth now to give you a flavor of Pax Fauna’s work.
The movement against animal agriculture is presented with a daunting task when it comes to communicating with the public. Modern animal agriculture is a highly complex issue, and its complexity appears only to increase year after year. Its harms include incomprehensible levels of animal suffering; decisive contribution to climate change, and separately to habitat and biodiversity loss; jeopardizing public health in several distinct ways including incubation of antibiotic-resistant zoonotic pathogens, promotion of global food scarcity, and promotion of malnutritious food, and grievous harm to air and water quality in surrounding communities (almost always impoverished and nonwhite); acute mistreatment of workers resulting in high rates of PTSD, domestic violence, and death; displacement and annihilation of sustainable bioregional agricultural practices, many of which are permanently unrecoverable; and even undermining the integrity of government through enormous subsidies paid to highly profitable multinational corporation which in turn sponsor political campaigns. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that animal agriculture presents multiple discrete existential threats to human civilization.
Yet precisely because of the multitude of harms it causes, messaging to the public about animal agriculture is profoundly challenging. Imagine a volunteer canvassing for support of a ballot measure opposing animal ag; if they merely launched into the list of harms above, listeners’ eyes would quickly glaze over and nothing from the conversation would remain in their memory. Most animal advocates especially struggle to present the issue as one of government policy rather than individual consumer choice. Research shows that even messages designed to address food system policy often inadvertently trigger personal-choice frames in recipients, which in turn activates strong opposition.
We hope to enable mass numbers of animal advocates to take on the task of persuading society to ditch animal agriculture, one conversation at a time. To do this, we need to provide them with a simple, highly memorable story which distills the most rhetorically persuasive harms into a short paragraph with a clear call to action. A well-crafted story could be even further crystallized into a powerful three-word declaration which captures the essence of our message, the way Black Lives Matter and Water Is Life have done for their respective movements. Crucially, such a slogan is powerless unless it is a stand in for a clear, memorable story being repeated constantly by a coordinated movement. It would be at its most powerful if every person in the movement was repeating that same story every chance they got, using more or less the same words.
Creating such a story may sound fanciful, but there is an entire field of research dedicated to just that purpose. We can use its methodologies to create a powerful new story for opponents of animal agriculture.
Purpose: to gain key insights into how the public conceptualizes animal agriculture, by engaging with the public directly through focus groups and surveys, in order to craft a more persuasive message capable of changing the public’s voting behavior to demand policies restricting or abolishing the animal ag industry.
The central goals of this project are:
The project would be considered a success if it gave us tangible insights into how the public conceptualizes animal agriculture in a way that would help us craft persuasive messages advocating the abolition of animal agriculture, or advocating specific policies which would move us in that direction.
Our primary model for the procedure of this project is the Race-Class Narrative Research Project conducted by Ian Haney-Lopez, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Lake Research Partners. If funding is available, we may commission LRP to conduct aspects of this research. These are the steps of our project based on LRP’s approach:
For years, mass social movements have been organized around a crucial belief: that in a functioning democracy, if you can persuade 51% of the population to support a cause, you can affect needed policy change through the democratic process. (This is related to what is called the popular theory of power: that power in a society is ultimately held by the people through their consent to be governed, which can be withheld.)
We could say that belief is true by definition, with the key phrase being functioning democracy. In 2014, however, skeptics who had argued this phrase should not be applied to the United States were vindicated. That year, Princeton University published an analysis of 20 years of data comparing public opinion on different proposed laws to the likelihood those laws would pass. The findings were bleak: the data appears to show that the opinions of the less-wealthy 90% of Americans have virtually no impact on whether or not a bill would become law. Only the economic elites in the top 10% of society (read: the donor class) have any influence over the political process. In other words, the United States is no democracy; it is an oligarchy.
While the claims of this study have been debated academically, it would be a mistake to dismiss them out of hand. At best, it may simply be the case that the U.S. political system has become so dysfunctional that no segment of the public has any influence over it, that almost no law can be passed regardless of popular support. Either way, the strategy of convincing 51% of the population to support a policy may not be sufficient on its own.
A central idea in Pax Fauna’s theory of change is distinguishing between cultural and institutional change strategies. I have written elsewhere about the difference between these and further argued that while they compliment each other at the level of movement ecology, they are generally incompatible within a single organization. However, there is one pathway to concrete policy changes which largely collapses this distinction: direct ballot initiatives.
24 states plus Washington, D.C. allow ordinary citizens to draft statutes and/or state constitutional amendments and collect signatures to have them placed before voters in a general election. A further 39 states make provision for initiatives at the municipal and county levels. Blue-leaning states with statewide initiatives include California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Michigan.
Ballot measures ought to be highly appealing to momentum-driven social movements. First, direct democracy is harmonious with the popular theory of power and the focus on winning over the hearts and minds of the public. Second, using state and local campaigns as stepping stones to build power and gain visibility is ideally suited to the cycle of momentum. Ballot campaigns even have an escalation built in, with an initial phase collecting a small number of signatures and a larger phase winning votes from a majority of the public. Third, state-level victories have been key to recent social movement victories, with both Freedom to Marry and the NRA successfully pursuing a state-by-state strategy to create a sense of inevitability around their issue. (Both movements eventually won nationally in the Supreme Court, further bypassing partisan gridlock in Congress.) Fourth, ballot initiatives bypass the House of Cards-style personal and partisan politics of institutional campaigns that rely on influencing individual decision makers, replacing it with a simple numbers game of mass popular appeal in which the cultural and policy objectives are nearly identical. For this reason, a ballot campaign which ends in defeat would still obviously be a productive use of the movement’s time, because the main efforts would be about outreaching to and persuading the public. Contrast this with a failed institutional campaign, in which the individuals or institutions you try to influence are unlikely to do anything at all for your movement the moment your attention has moved away from them. In other words, there is no sunk cost in a ballot initiative campaign. These campaigns also have the potential to bypass the oligarchic dynamics of the normal legislative process.
Fifth, state and local ballot issues have proven to be a much more promising pathway for progressive policies than electoral politics. Notably, in 2020, ambitious progressive policies succeeded in states that voted for Trump over Biden and saw Democrats shed congressional seats. Florida passed a $15 minimum wage by nearly 22 points while going for Trump by more than 3 points (following up their enfranchisement of felons in 2018, two years after voting for Trump the first time). Meanwhile Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting, while Montana and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. Even in blue states, voters behaved much more progressively on ballot initiatives than congressional elections. Oregon voters decriminalized possession of all drugs in small quantities, by 20 points, while Coloradans created a paid family leave insurance program through the state and joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
Why did voters support these policies while electing politicians who oppose them? The most obvious explanation centers on the fact that the vast majority of voters are minimally aware of politics. Most voters don’t think of policies in terms of “progressive,” “liberal,” or “conservative.” Indeed, even highly partisan voters often know relatively little about their party’s platform beyond a few key issues most important to them. One of the idiosyncrasies of American politics is that while far more voters consider themselves “conservative” than “liberal” or “progressive,” progressives enjoy far more widespread support for their actual policies, from Medicare for All (70% support) and similar economic issues like raising the minimum wage, cancelling student debt, and mandating family leave, even to more cultural issues such as drug enforcement and, yes, abortion. The disconnect can be attributed in part to a far more effective messaging strategy on the part of Republicans than their Democratic counterparts, and more generally to the ability of tribalism to override rational thinking. Psychologist Drew Westen, among others, has demonstrated the powerful effect of tribal affiliation in political decision making, showing that the rational brains of partisan voters in fMRI machines largely shut off the moment a signal of tribal affiliation is introduced into the equation. The success of progressive policies at the ballot box suggests that while Republicans have succeeded in painting Democrats as a party of out-of-touch corporatist elites (which is an entirely accurate portrayal), they have not succeeded in generating opposition to the policy agenda of the populist left, and that when filling out a ballot, voters who loyally elect candidates based on party might take a more discerning approach to deciding how they will vote on ballot measures.
In summary, ballot initiatives provide an opportunity for social movement to appeal directly to voters for change, bypassing not only the byzantine political gamesmanship of electoral politics, but also the ideological tribalism which has ground national policy making to a halt, or more accurately, driven it out of congress and into the hands of the executive and the courts. By focusing on ballot initiatives, a social movement could legitimize its struggle with a real institutional demand, and even win real institutional demands, without being caught up in dysfunctional partisan politics (and likely being co-opted by the centrist oligarchy which controls both major parties anyway).
For campaigners using the momentum theory of change, the most important immediate goal is not winning incremental policy changes, but increasing the active and passive popular support for the movement. That means winning more members of the public over to agree with the cause, and getting a smaller subset of them to actually join the movement, increasing its capacity and thus its ability to reach the public. Concrete policy changes are a tertiary goal in the immediate term. That said, winning concrete demands can be crucial to sustaining momentum, and a well-designed policy goal will also have a real, immediate positive impact on people’s lives (animals lives in this case).
Winning a ballot initiative campaign requires two subsequent victories: collecting enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and winning a majority (or sometimes a supermajority) at the polls. Clearly, both of these objectives are totally compatible with the larger goal of social and cultural change; both are examples of passive popular support. Thus anything which exists in the arsenal of momentum campaigning to influence public opinion is a useful and appropriate strategy for advancing a ballot campaign. Of course, these campaigns also demand particular attention be given to canvassing in order to collect signatures.
Collecting enough signatures to get an issue on the ballot can be enormously challenging. Indeed, this may be the more difficult step. In California, for instance, 623,212 signatures are currently required to get a statute on the ballot (an amendment requires 997,139). Campaigns have a limited window of time to collect signatures; California’s 180-day window is typical. If you got every single person in Oakland to sign the petition, you’d be less than 70% of the way there. If every volunteer canvasser collected 100 signatures on average, you’d need well over six thousand volunteers. Most campaigns hire a petition company instead. In 2018, the average cost per signature in 2018 was $6.07; the average cost just to get an issue on the ballot was thus over $2.5 million. Of the eight propositions placed on the ballot this way, five were defeated and three passed.
California requires the largest number of any state, befitting its status as the most populous state. Most states set that threshold as a percentage (typically 5% or 6% for statutes) of the total votes cast for governor or secretary of state in the previous election. In many states, the threshold for putting forward a constitutional amendment is higher than a statute. It may require more signatures or a supermajority of votes. In Colorado, signatures for amendments must be distributed across the state’s 35 senate districts, with 2% of each district signing. This is considered a tremendous hurdle, but it does not apply to statutes, only amendments. Florida, Mississippi, and Illinois only allow amendments. The rules about what laws can be proposed as amendments vs. as statues tend to be vague, and it falls to state regulators and courts to determine whether the proposal is viable.
Here you can view a table laying out the 24 states which allow voter initiatives. It tracks the number of signatures required and the percentage that number represents of registered voters, along with the window of time each state allows for collecting signatures. I’ve also included different facts about the state which may suggest states more likely to be favorable to our messaging. Animal agriculture is not currently seen as a partisan issue, so in addition to partisan tilt I’ve included measures like urban vs. rural population which may make states more or less hospitable.
The ideal state for a ballot initiative campaign would meet the following criteria:
Oregon and Colorado stand out as states with moderate signature requirements (112,020; 124,632) and favorable politics. Both have a habit of passing major, nation-leading reforms through ballot measures, especially on non-partisan issues like drug legalization. Both states have Democratic trifectas. Each state’s current signature requirement comprises just under 5% of registered voters (the average is 6.1%). Both states have prominent urban areas; Portland in particular has a strong existing activist scene which could be befriended, and which tends to be more friendly towards animal freedom than other progressive scenes. One difference stands out: Colorado hosts a large presence of two of the world’s largest slaughter corporations (Smithfield and JBS), while Oregon’s ag sector is dominated by smaller beef and dairy operations. Having a more consolidated slaughter industry as the opponent presents pros and cons. Mainly, Smithfield and JBS are less sympathetic enemies, but they have far more money for an opposition campaign. It’s likely, however, that major slaughter corporations would invest in opposition in any state regardless of whether they operate there.
The administration of municipal ballot initiatives is more heterogeneous. Each county and city publishes its own guidelines on how many signatures and votes are required. For a rough sense of the scale of municipal ballot campaigns in 2020, Portland required 37,638 signatures; Denver County required 9,788, 2% of registered voters; 2% in Boulder county was 4,908. Clearly, these numbers are much more achievable. For a different route, conservative, agrarian Weld County, CO, home of a massive JBS slaughterhouse, requires just over 4,000; Yuma County, home of a major Smithfield operation, had a total of 6,008 registered voters in 2020.
Otherwise, the process of registering a voter initiative is essentially the same at the local level as at the state level. Rather than conduct a comprehensive review of these jurisdictions now, Pax Fauna can prepare to efficiently conduct that research when mobilization reaches a significant enough level in specific geographies.
This essay is part of a series where the partners of Pax Fauna introduce themselves to the world! Each partner will share about their journey in the animal movement, their philosophy, and why they are creating Pax Fauna.
As I see it, the roots of Pax Fauna date back to 2015, the year our three current members (Eva, John, and myself) each joined Direct Action Everywhere as organizers in the Chicago and Colorado chapters. DxE at that time was a quintessential grassroots movement network: a decentralized hotbed of innovation, a place where anybody could come in and enact their ideas if they were willing to do the work. A “do-ocracy.” My memory of that time is of building a local organization from the ground up with no guidance except from peers who were in the same position in other cities. In our first two years with DxE, all of us built our chapters into something we couldn’t have imagined when we started, involving hundreds of people in the movement for the first time and starting to break into the public’s attention in a meaningful way. Then, just as it was becoming impossible to deny that our growth had plateaued, all three of us were centrally involved in an explosive conflict in 2017 which saw half of DxE’s chapters evaporate nearly overnight, including the one in Chicago where John and Eva organized. I believe that through DxE, we’ve experienced the best and worst of what grassroots organizing can look like.
I’ve seen the same extremes elsewhere. It seems they are a central feature of mass movements. On the one hand, any mass movement is a transformative experience where participants and observers inevitably catch a glimpse of a different possible world. Yet somehow, the exact vibrancy of this experience tends to bring out the authoritarian in all of us. Perhaps when it feels that a different world is within our grasp, we want to cling tightly even to the finest details of our vision of that world, and the smallest disagreements become intolerable. I remember feeling this contrast in particularly sharp relief during my time at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps in Standing Rock. Everywhere I looked, I saw people contributing to each other and to the collective without a second thought; everything was shared liberally with little concern for personal property. Yet even more stunning was the speed with which people turned on each, depicting even semantic disagreements as moral failures just hours after they had stood side-by-side facing police water hoses.
It could be because I was fresh out of my certification program as a Kingian Nonviolence trainer, but it seemed to me that the disagreements at Standing Rock boiled down to a clash over the meaning of Nonviolence which has popped up in countless movements over the last century. In this recurring pattern, one faction is agitating for more radical action that often includes property destruction or aggressive tactics, while another faction urges “peacefulness” and moderation. Followers of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on Nonviolence believe that this is a false choice, that there is a way to be fierce in our resistance without compromising our commitment to peace and compassion. This approach requires a profound level of spiritual discipline. Without a doubt, there were leaders in the Standing Rock movement who possessed that discipline and spiritual commitment, but their voices were drowned out (with the help of extensive infiltration from law enforcement). Six months later, I watched the same process tear apart my own community in DxE. (In that case, infiltration wasn’t necessary; we ate each other alive just fine by ourselves.)
In mid 2018, once we’d managed to get back on our feet, John, Eva and I started looking for opportunities to reassemble the shattered pieces of DxE’s international network into something more powerful than the previous version. Even before the conflict, DxE’s growth had ground to a halt. We had run into the limitations of the different methods we were experimenting with, and it had become clear to us that the structural foundations of DxE’s organizing model needed to be revisited if the network were to have any hope of accomplishing its stated goals. We held an intense, month-long workshop and came up with an ambitious plan to reinvent DxE’s structure.
Quickly, we encountered a problem: DxE’s leadership was not interested in our proposal. In hindsight, I understand why. It was massive, and we resisted any suggestion to break it into discrete pieces that could be tested out separately. To implement our plan in one fell swoop as we desired, DxE would have had to put many of its operations on hold for months without any guarantee that things would improve. (Looking back, I feel a bit embarrassed about how we approached this, which is always a good sign that we’ve learned something!) At the time, we chose to try to develop our ideas separately from DxE’s structure, with the goal of getting the DxE network to adopt them. Over the first half of 2019, we experimented with community organizing models on the margins of DxE’s Berkeley headquarters, and experimented with software for our vision of an online organizing platform.
At the same time, we were keeping a close eye on a new climate-focused mass movement organization (MMO) emerging in the UK. Based on what we’d heard from our friends there, it seemed like they were taking a very similar approach to mass organizing to the one we had been envisioning, down to some remarkably fine details. It became clear they were drawing on many of the same sources for inspiration. In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion put any doubts to rest with their first mass action, 6000 Brits coming seemingly out of nowhere and occupying key London intersections for more than a week. During a lull in our experiments in Berkeley, I decided to drop everything and head to London for three months, to embed in XR UK and learn how it happened. During my extraordinary time with XR, I realized that DxE was not the place to bring this kind of movement to life. A fresh start was necessary, and besides, DxE was going in its own direction, discovering its own separate purpose.
In 2020, we expanded the scope of our research to cover everything we’d need to build a brand new mass movement. Many teachers, frameworks, and mental models have guided us; one is the Ayni Institute, a profound mass movement think tank. Ayni suggests that there are four elements of “movement DNA” which must be frontloaded prior to the launch of a decentralized mass movement so that it can replicate itself and scale: story, strategy, structure, and culture. Story is the message a movement is telling to the public; strategy is how it leverages its power to make that story reach; structure is how the movement builds power internally; and culture is how people treat each other inside the movement. Before XR, our energy had been focused almost entirely on structure, but over time we’ve become more aware of the way that weaknesses in story, strategy, and culture were tied into our difficulties with structure in DxE. This year, we’ve received extensive training in Nonviolent Communication and begun to develop frameworks for MMO culture and conflict management based on it; extensively researched the cutting edge of progressive political messaging and outlined a plan for a prolonged public opinion research project on animal freedom; and completed the broad strokes of a grand strategy for the MMO.
Also in 2020, we’ve completed a necessary transition by making ourselves an organization. Over the previous years, all this work was being conducted ad hoc and in between other ongoing responsibilities. To take us over the finish line in launching an MMO, we need to enter a much more concentrated, structured phase. Pax Fauna is not the organization which will become the MMO; it exists to incubate the MMO then continue to provide infrastructural support behind the scenes. In 2020, Pax Fauna incorporated and gained 501(c)(3) status so that we can accept donations, some of which we will use to put a few people on research grants to dedicate their full attention to this work beginning in 2021.
I’m hugely excited for this next phase of Pax Fauna’s evolution. I feel electrified when I think about everything our team has learned over years in the animal movement, and having the opportunity to apply those lessons to a fresh canvas. That’s not to say that I think everything will be perfect, but I do believe we are exceptionally well prepared to usher in the next chapter of grassroots animal freedom organizing.
Nothing is more closely associated with social movements than the image of a protest. Even for community organizers like me who know that protests are just the tip of the iceberg, the term social movement conjures images of lunch counter sit-ins and civil disobedience. Given the ubiquity of protests, it’s not surprising that there are several different reasons movement organizers employ protest tactics. All too often, however, organizers aren’t explicit even with themselves about the purpose of a protest. This exposes movements to a major strategic vulnerability.
There are two main reasons social movements use protests. One is to put pressure directly on decision makers to cause them to accept protester demands. The other uses protest to attract attention and draw in new participants. On the surface, these objectives seem perfectly compatible, and indeed, they feed into each other in important ways. However, over the long term, an organization which lacks clarity about which of these two objectives is primary will find itself adrift.
Each of these two strategies, pressure campaigning and mass movement building, serves a vital function for social movements, and a healthy social movement has plenty of room for both. But in this paper, I will demonstrate surprising ways that these strategies collide, making it unwise to combine them in a single protest or even a single movement organization. First, let’s briefly understand each strategy on its own terms.
This is the strategy that animates protest in the imagination of the public, and for good reason: pressure campaigns by a litany of NGOs (from Greenpeace and PETA to labor unions and the Breast Cancer Fund) have driven countless government bodies and corporations to adopt meaningful policy reforms.
Pressure campaigners use protest to cause such a nuisance to their targets that its cost exceeds the cost of accepting the protesters’ demands. There are several ways protesters can exert this kind of pressure. Consider an activist group trying to pressure a company to change a policy. Activists can target the company’s reputation, which over time will cause economic harm to the company. Or they can disrupt the company’s operations directly, causing immediate economic harm. This doesn’t require destructive sabotage; blocking trucks from leaving a supply center can rack up huge costs for a company without exposing activists to the legal or reputational risks associated with property damage. Activists can also disrupt decision makers directly, by protesting outside their homes or sitting in at their offices. While these actions may not cause obvious economic harm to the company, they obviously inflict a different sort of cost. Beautiful Trouble’s teaching Points of Intervention is emblematic of the pressure campaign theory of change.
Pressure campaigns are not necessarily short-sighted. Strategists often choose to launch a pressure campaign to win a small victory as an incremental step towards a larger social transformation. They can also use a pressure campaign as a way to influence public opinion. Indeed, influencing public opinion can be both a method and a goal for pressure campaigns; campaigners seek to jeopardize a company’s brand in the eyes of the public to win a concession, and they also use their campaign to reach people and win support for their larger issue. Thus pressure campaigns can be seeking both institutional and cultural change at once. However, as a strategy, pressure campaigns put institutional change before cultural change. They situate a discrete policy change as their immediate objective, operating with the knowledge that incremental policy changes across society are key to driving long-term institutional and cultural change.
Because they win tangible victories on shorter timescales, pressure campaigns are appealing to donors, both large and small. In an organization with an established donor base, a pressure campaign will bring in enough donations to pay comfortable salaries to all the staff needed to organize the campaign. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to pay every participant in the campaign; you’ll need volunteers, but you may not need very many. This is crucial: a small number of people willing to be persistent and take legal risks are sometimes enough to pressure huge corporations to change their policies. Meanwhile, organizing volunteers takes time and effort, as does recruiting and training new ones. In a pressure campaign, there’s no reason to try to recruit more volunteers than you need to win.
For all these reasons, pressure campaigns are especially popular with NGOs. An organization with an established reputation, a donor base, a modest staff, and a small base of dedicated volunteers familiar to the staff and their way of doing things is ideally suited to run a pressure campaign. An established donor pool means the org can focus on winning the campaign to impress its current donors, rather than finding news ones. Dedicated volunteers will trust the organizers with the strategy, so that organizers don’t need to worry much about making each protest a thrilling experience or even making sure participants understand how it contributes to the campaign. A more traditional organizational structure enables a high degree of strategic unity and quick decision making, helpful assets in oppositional campaigning. (There are certainly instances of major pressure campaigns run entirely by grassroots collectives, such as SHAC.)
In summary, pressure campaigns use protests to win incremental policy changes by leaving decision makers with no better option. The immediate goal is institutional victories; engaging activists and shaping public opinion are means in service of that goal.
Alongside the rich tradition of pressure campaigning, there exists a separate tradition of social change movements which essentially invert that strategy. For mass movement strategists in the vein of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., incremental policy demands are merely a tool for catalyzing dramatic cultural and political transformation by engaging large numbers of activists in dramatic confrontations with the status quo.
While pressure campaigners use protest primarily to put pressure on decision makers, mass movement organizers have different objectives in mind. Their primary objective is to rapidly transform the cultural and political imagination of the public, usually of an entire nation. Mass movements subdivide this into two core objectives: active popular support and passive popular support. Protest is crucial to both.
Passive popular support is the number of people who agree with the vision the movement is advocating for. If the movement can win over an electoral majority to support its vision, it doesn’t need incremental policy wins; it can enact its demands in one fell swoop through government action. These movements aim to drive their ideas into the political mainstream, thus opening up far greater possibilities for institutional change across the board. They use protest to force attention onto an issue which societies gatekeepers are otherwise ignoring, to start a conversation across society and gradually win people over. These protests are designed to be maximally visible to the public and the press. They happen in population centers where the greatest number of people will see them, the press will have no trouble getting there to document them, and members of the public can easily join in. Ancillary protests may take place at other points of intervention, but make no mistake, these protests are much more about building excitement among movement participants than exerting pressure on institutions.
This is where active popular support comes in. A handful of people may be sufficient to disrupt a supply chain for one company or otherwise cause a massive headache for its executives, but to force a society-wide reckoning, much larger numbers of people are needed. Active popular support is the number of people actively contributing to the campaign by coming to protests, or even by putting a sign on their lawn or talking to their friends about the issue. The mass movement theory of change believes that engaging mass numbers of activists in the movement sets off a number of chain reactions across society, and mass movements use protest to build active support. Protests are how movements attract new participants and provide them with a transformational experience which causes them to identify with the movement and begin advocating in their social networks. The attention gathered by protests on traditional and social media alerts potential new participants to the existence of the campaign. Skillful mass movement organizers work hard to promote protests, then try to contact every new person who attends and plug them into the organization's network. If the only consequence of a protest is to bring a few new people on board so that the next protest can be bigger, mass movement organizers consider it a success. Because it is central to their theory of change, these organizers are willing to compromise nearly any other objective in order to engage more activists in the movement.
Institutional policy demands have a place in mass movement organizing, but they are a tool rather than an objective. They exist to legitimize the campaign in the eyes of its supporters and the public. Mass movements select demands for their symbolic value. These movements are best understood as social theater; in a sense, a mass movement is a theatrical performance of a pressure campaign, with the whole society as an audience! The movement must present a compelling performance that the purpose of protests is to win immediate policy changes. Without credible demands, few people will be inspired to join the campaign, and the public will condemn the protests as pointless trouble-making or attention-seeking. The demands must seem achievable, but also be bold and attention grabbing. Occasional victories are even necessary to sustain the excitement of participants and the public, though skillful organizers can create a sense that a victory has been accomplished without any concession from the targeted institution.
Gandhi and King frequently justified their campaigns with modest, incremental demands which dramatized or encapsulated the larger injustice. But their true strategy had little to do with actually winning these demands, and in fact, many of the campaigns now regarded as pivotal victories in their movements did not achieve any immediate institutional change. For instance, the salt march remains Gandhi’s most famous campaign, a massive act of civil disobedience where hundreds of satyagrahis endured vicious beatings merely for trying to collect salt directly from the ocean and thus avoid paying a British tax. To many of Gandhi’s fellow strategists, this objective seemed farcical, a distraction from the essential issue of British occupation. What’s more, after a year of campaigning and extraordinary sacrifice from many thousands of Indians, Gandhi negotiated an agreement with the occupiers which didn’t even end the salt tax. Yet the campaign had a dramatic symbolic effect that Gandhi’s detractors, British and Indian alike, only recognized later. According to Gandhi biographer Geoffrey Ashe, the British officialdom “ever afterwards groaned over Irwin’s move [to negotiate with Gandhi] as the fatal blunder from which the Raj never recovered.”
Mass movement organizations tend to employ very different structures than organizations that run pressure campaigns. Because they prioritize engagement over other strategic objectives, mass movements use decentralized structures, trading in strategic unity and easy coordination in favor of a scalable structure that eliminates barriers to entry for new participants. Though they mobilize far greater numbers of people than NGOs, they almost always operate on much smaller budgets. Even with an NGO budget, however, mass movement organizations could never afford to pay all the organizers needed to engage activists at scale. These movements depend on a mass volunteer model, with perhaps a small number of paid staff taking a support role to enable volunteer organizers to do the work of the movement.
Mass movements use protest to seize the public’s attention, shifting public opinion and attracting new participants. In contrast to pressure campaigns, the immediate goal of mass movements is cultural transformation; announcing policy objectives is merely a tactic to win legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
This table summarizes some of the key differences between these two protest strategies.
|Theory of Change||Pressure Campaign||Mass Movement|
|Uses protest to...||…pressure decision makers to change policies; concrete institutional wins.||…seize the narrative, attract and transform mass numbers of participants, and catalyze dramatic cultural shifts.|
|Demands||Achievable demands which will cause immediate, short-term improvement while taking us a step closer to long-term vision. Narrowly target corporations or government.||Bold-but-credible demands (may or may not be achievable) which legitimize the campaign and dramatize the larger injustice. Typically target government to justify widespread disruption.|
|Volunteers...||Are an operational cost. Need some but a small, dedicated, experienced, familiar group is ideal. No reason to recruit more people than you need to get the job done.||Are central to the theory of change. Organizers will compromise other objectives in order to engage more activists.|
|Structure||Small, tight operation. Fast, centralized decision making. Appealing to donors, able to be run by a handful of paid staff.||Large, complicated operation with minimal funding. Decentralized decision making for inclusivity over efficiency. Volunteers organize, any paid staff only support volunteer organizers.|
|Key Distinction: Means & Ends||The goal is policy changes; activists are instrumental.||The goal is engaging large numbers of activists; policy demands are instrumental.|
Ok, so pressure campaigners and mass movement organizers each use protests to accomplish different objectives. But are these two strategies really incompatible?
At the level of movement ecology, they are certainly compatible. Each strategy understands that cultural change and institutional change are deeply entangled in a feedback loop. The concrete policies held by both public and private institutions are a reflection of the cultural mainstream, and at the same time they play a major role in shaping what the public is able to imagine. I have written elsewhere about the interplay between cultural and institutional change, but the essence is that they must proceed in lockstep, with one reinforcing the other. If cultural change is not codified into laws and policies, the change is almost certain to regress, due to the constant feedback that existing social structures exert on social ideology. But institutional change can’t get out ahead of cultural change, either: if a coalition of advocates manages to win a policy change that is too far outside of the Overton window, there will be a political backfire, and the change will be repealed.
Different strategies are able to intervene at different points on that feedback loop. That’s one way to understand the difference between the two strategies in question: pressure campaigns seek immediate institutional change, mass movements seek immediate cultural change, and both strategies are in service of greater institutional and cultural change in the long term.
There are also more specific ways that the symbiosis between these strategies manifests at the inter-organizational level. Most obviously, when mass movements are able to shift the overton window, they enable pressure campaign organizations to pursue more ambitious goals. Mass movements also attract huge numbers of new participants, many of whom gain experience and become the dependable activist base that pressure campaigners draw on. In the opposite direction, pressure campaigns institutionalize and concretize the progress made by mass movements. Critically, they also provide mass movements with a stream of victories to celebrate, helping their participants see that they are accomplishing something tangible and thus sustaining motivation.
However, an organization which is tempted to pursue both of these two strategies on equal footing will find itself in a bind. Let’s look at three reasons these strategies don’t mix well inside an organization.
Anyone who ever held any responsibility in a mass movement context knows that organizing large numbers of volunteers is the least efficient way to do literally anything. Yet getting work done with volunteers is at the heart of the mass movement theory of change. I already mentioned that movements simply will never have enough money to pay everyone contributing to mass movement organizing. More importantly, however, creating opportunities for volunteers to take ownership of meaningful work is essential for an organization to achieve exponential growth. Joining a team and becoming an organizer transforms participants in a whole new way, inspiring them to bring their friends out to protests and to generally champion the cause and the organization every chance they get. Political scientist Hahrie Han has demonstrated that movement organizations succeed in engaging far more people when they involve volunteers in the work of organizing and decision-making in a meaningful way.
Recruiting, onboarding, training, and mentoring new participants to the point that they can take on work, and eventually even assume leadership roles, requires an enormous investment of resources on the part of the organization. No sane organization would choose to do this unless it inextricably woven into their objectives and strategy. And the fact is, this kind of volunteer engagement simply is not necessary for waging effective pressure campaigns. If an organizer or team is told that their objective is to win a specific concession from a specific institution, they will quickly realize that trying to involve new activists in that work as anything more than bodies at a protest is inefficient to the point of being irresponsible. Instead, they will take the most direct route possible: doing the work themselves and turning out just enough volunteers to the protests for it to serve the campaign.
This is what I experienced as I was cutting my teeth in Direct Action Everywhere, and I think most DxE organizers would agree with that description. DxE’s flagship chapter in Berkeley has been trying for years to increase the size of its grassroots membership with no success. At the same time, organizers have gotten better and better at making do with the number of people they do have to achieve other kinds of victories. A large percentage of the group’s volunteer members have been around for years, creating a deep well of trust between activists and organizers. This enables DxE to do things that many grassroots groups its size can only dream of. For now, DxE continues to invest considerable energy and staff time into largely fruitless efforts to grow its volunteer base (it does bring in new members, but others leave at the same rate), begging the question of what else could be done with that energy that might be more productive.
Could you have one team of organizers focused on engagement and another focused on pressure? You could, at the effect of shearing the organization into two largely unrelated and inharmonious halves. If, for instance, the team planning protests is told that their objective is to win a pressure campaign, they won’t plan protests that are compatible with the goal of increasing engagement. For instance, mass movement organizers might prioritize protests in easily accessible locations on weekends or evenings so more people can come; pressure campaigns might be better served by disruptions on remote, rural points of the supply chain or in an office during business hours. While these may not seem inherently contradictory, in practice they are often at odds.
I saw this tension play out in my time with Extinction Rebellion UK. XR is a quintessential mass movement organization, using a highly decentralized structure to engage massive numbers of people in general disruption of central London with symbolic, non-specific demands. XR’s democratic nature enabled many sub-groups to emerge within it pursuing different strategies, and naturally some groups were drawn towards pressure campaigns. One such faction within XR got involved with a campaign to try to stop the construction of a new high-speed railway (HS2) which was annihilating some of the last old-growth forest in the UK, destroying hundreds of thousands of trees and likely driving several species into extinction. I tear up now thinking about the devastation caused by the construction of HS2, which continues today. Yet this created a conflict over strategy in XR. After two large rebellions in London, some organizers thought that XR’s next sustained mass mobilization should take place at the remote construction site of the railway. Other organizers argued that far fewer people, especially new activists, would participate in an action that was difficult to get to; the action would undermine XR’s growth strategy, ultimately key to changing the political landscape concerning environmental destruction. The people organizing against HS2 were free to plan protests at the construction site using XR’s name, but asking for their campaign to displace XR’s central strategy of building mass engagement would have been a step too far and sent XR off course. In the end, XR stuck with its core strategy and held another mass disruption in London.
Similar contradictions appear in the structures that support the two strategies. As I described earlier, mass movements benefit from highly decentralized structures with minimal barriers to entry, while pressure campaigns demand a fast, highly coordinated decision-making structure to respond to the rapidly evolving campaign. You could attempt to blend these by embedding a pressure campaign structure inside a mass movement structure, but again, in practice this causes friction. DxE and XR UK each attempted a structure somewhat like this, and in each case it led to a crisis of legitimacy, with volunteers in the decentralized structure growing resentful of the core leadership, who were paid.
There is always, in any organization, an appeal to do a bit of everything. But the most successful organizations instead identify their niche and focus on doing it very well.
One of the greatest challenges facing mass movement organizers is that cultural change is largely intangible while it is happening. It involves counterintuitive processes and it is virtually impossible to establish clear causal relationships between a discrete event and its impact on the culture. Often when culture change movements are at the height of their vibrancy, many participants feel frustrated that their efforts don’t appear to be accomplishing anything concrete. For instance, even a few weeks into the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, just as I and others were amazed by their cultural shockwaves, many participants started to feel the movement was failing because it hadn’t already enacted its agenda in policy. This effect goes doubly for organizations with high-dollar donors, who often want to see exactly what their money is getting.
For this reason, organizations that try to balance these two theories of change end up getting pulled further and further towards the pressure campaign approach over time. Pressure campaigns are much more likely to provide the tangible victories organizations need to justify their existence to supporters, donors, and even staff. The pressure campaign strategy crowds out the mass movement strategy like a fetus devouring its twin. The only way for an organization to resist this is to be exceedingly persistent and explicit in communicating the mass movement theory of change to its organizers and supporters, even juxtaposing it against the pressure campaign strategy so as to preempt any temptation.
Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that every protest organization needs to decide whether it is using the pressure campaign or the mass movement theory of change. I want to reiterate that I fully believe each of these strategies is whole and valuable to the movement. The most important question is not “which of these strategies is the right one?” but “which of these strategies is right for my organization?” Depending on an organization’s structure, culture, and history, it will be able to contribute more by following one strategy or the other, but not both.
I will finish, however, with a caveat. There is a point in the lifecycle of a social movement, at the zenith of its activity, in which these two strategies completely merge. For example, when civil resistance movements topple governments using weeks of sustained mass protest and noncooperation, they are making full use of both theories of change. These revolutions place enormous pressure on the most powerful individuals in a society by essentially shutting down the economy until their demands are met, ensuring that the cost of ignoring them is literally greater than the cost of acceding. And they do it by drawing absolute maximum participation into a campaign of generalized disruption, usually growing at this point into something almost completely structureless. Hypothetically, these same dynamics could occur in a reform movement, as opposed to a revolution, but to date this has not occurred; it simply hasn’t been necessary for social movements to win changes less absolute than the replacement of a regime.
So for now, let’s focus on doing what we know works: using the tremendous power of protest to advance a single, clearly defined strategy for each organization we operate, building a diverse movement ecology working towards the dramatic institutional and cultural change we so desperately need.
"*" indicates required fields