BSKing over at Graph Paper Diaries referenced an interesting study in her What I’m Reading September 2018 post, concerning tipping points in social conventions. I could link to the study directly, but I want you to see her discussion, plus her answer to my question in the comments. You can get distracted and read her other stuff there if you want. I’ll wait.
Her caveats are important. It was an artificial situation, and the 25% may not hold on something people cared about more deeply. The intensity of either the minority or the majority about something like gay marriage, going to war, or toppling statues might move the number up or down considerably. Also, the tested subjects were WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic – as social-science test subjects usually are. (They are usually college students, and so young, non-military, and single with no children as well.)
Yet let us pretend, just for the moment that something like this is true. A determined minority of only 25% can flip the group opinion. Consider something like the TEA Party. It seems to have approached that number and had influence but didn’t quite flip the GOP everywhere. It did flip it in some places (and Trump may have been more beholden to that than we have credited). The Tea Party rose up to the tipping point and then receded slightly. They might have been doomed to just fade out, election by election. Until…Donald Trump’s supporters may have been very much this 25% phenomenon. A lot of people who eventually voted for The Donald didn’t like him much at first. They were okay with a Jeb or a Rubio, though not excited. They may have relished the thought of watching Carly Fiorina debate Hillary Clinton, or wanted to go to a more-conservative, don’t-care-if-he’s-annoying Ted Cruz. But almost no one was sold out for any of those. Trump’s supporters, though few, were sold out. It simmered for a while, with Trump getting something in the neighborhood of that 25% in various primaries, enough to win, though a majority still opposed him. Eventually the 25% moved the other 75%. Bernie almost did the same thing with the Democrats. He would have, actually, if they weren’t so corrupt and had their thumb on the scale for Clinton. The sold-out-for-Bernie crew was over 25% of the Dems, I think.
I’ll wait again while you chew over that and think whether it’s right so far. Does the committed 25% move the majority? Does it work even at high levels when everyone cares more? I submit that something like this happened with gay marriage and other social changes. The few cared deeply on either side, but neither hit 25%. Many Americans were opposed, but not so deeply that they put it top of their list. Eventually the highly committed change side hit 25%., and the flip happened fast.
I think the most effective of activists have a sense of when their committed minority might hit 25%, and know when to push their chips to the center of the table. Martin Luther King Jr comes to mind. He was persuasive, but others were as well. There were instances of injustice ripe for protest, but they were there five years before, ten years before. He was the one who knew it was time. Similar things might be said of Lenin, of Patrick Henry or Sam Adams, of Hitler. Maybe they were just lucky, yet I think they had a sense of sudden urgency, recognising the times. From my list one can see that this can be used for good or ill.
An important side note: those true believers are usually not corrupt. They might become so later, but they burn with a purer fire. You don’t have to pay them, they show up for free. Some Nazis looted art treasures and even the gold fillings of the teeth of Jews. Others would scrupulously account for every pfennig, not to take anything not authorised.
So…what is happening with the Democrats right now? The minority – I think a near-insane group – are rising up as if they think they may be the 25%. They don’t consciously think of it that way, certainly. They have been there simmering for as long as I can remember. The 1960’s left included the Weather Underground and the Chicago Seven, but they didn’t reach 25% of any party. The other liberals, who were not like that but welcomed the more radical brethren and kept their criticism mild, decided to go mainstream instead, and slowly take over one political party and some institutions. The 1960’s split into two groups, the lesser one just simmering, hoping for a break.
The social liberalism of the high-tech crowd may have caught the Chuck Schumers and Bill Clintons by surprise. They were still hunkered down for the long battle. But Obama was a transitional figure. While he was mostly from the mainstream left, the descendant of JFK, Mayor Daley, Al Gore, there were also roots reaching more deeply into radicalism, to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. He disavowed them with a nod and a wink. Now the whirlwind is upon us, with the left eating its own. After all the table-pounding and posturing, they always came back into the fold for the votes, and listened to the politicos who said “We won’t die on this hill, because we can take the next one and live.” I think that is disappearing.
Republicans exult, hoping that this spells the final dissolution of the unstable alliances that have been the Democratic Party since 1958 – if not in 2018, then soon, very soon. I am not so encouraged. I think insane people taking over a major party is frightening. To counter that this has already happened with Trump and the Republicans is to completely miss the point of what Trump is. Do not listen to what he says. Look at what he does. He speaks like a radical, but acts within the mainstream. He is something like a mirror of Bill Clinton, who won elections by (brilliantly) trashing conservatives but whose actions were center-left. The radical minority arising among the Democrats has been 10% of them for five decades. If they reach 25% of the party it will not be good for America, whatever happens in elections.
Cross-posted at Assistant Village Idiot