Is A Change Going to Come?

by Conor Friedersdorf

In his classic book The True Believer, author Eric Hoffer writes:

When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a tossup whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Czarist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism. In the same family, one member would join the revolutionaries and the other the Zionists... This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts--even the most zealous--shifting their allegiances from one to the other. A Saul turning into a Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing mass movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonists as its own political converts.

It seems to me that America is ripe for a mass movement that upends our political landscape. I don't mean anything as radical or nefarious as what happened in turn of the century Russia or pre-war Germany. I'm imagining something like The New Deal or The Reagan Revolution -- a movement that has a new and identifiable constituency, that strongly challenges the elite consensus, and that transforms or even replaces one of our political parties. I say this not because I can identify any present mass movement that I regard as a plausible success, but because there are several factions in American life that each resemble mass movements in their own way, though their leadership meditates against their ever fully realizing their potential.

I'd specifically cite the folks who rallied around Ron Paul during the last presidential election; the subset of Obama supporters who misidentified him as a transformative president rather than an ambitious, politically cautious establishmentarian; devoutly religious evangelicals who have a fraught relationship with the Republican Party (and even the orthodox Catholics encouraged by Ross Douthat to reconsider their political alliances); the Sarah Palin coalition, especially if she broadens it to include Hillary Clinton primary voters; and the folks who fit into the framework Jack Hitt lays out in his wonderful Harper's essay on environmentalism as religion.

Obviously a lot separates these groups, and it is hard to imagine a single movement that encompassed them all. Even so, given the structural changes in American politics over the last decade -- I am mostly thinking about the ease of organizing people and soliciting money on the Internet -- it seems as though some coalition, perhaps a surprising one, could assemble greater support than Ross Perot managed to garner during his first presidential bid, particularly if America's current economic woes (or unexpectedly quick climate change or radically increased economic competition from abroad) breeds increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo in coming decades. It isn't as though many people have great affection for our two political parties as currently constructed.