The Importance of Movement Disagreements

The need to drastically change the way political campaigns are financed is no longer a fringe issue. The private money-out-of-politics reform movement has succeeded in raising alarm bells about the damage the "pay-to-play" system inflicts on our democracy. Everyone but the willfully ignorant knows there is a problem, and there is an active discussion going on about how to solve it. The campaign finance reform movement has come a long way.

But as a movement matures, it inevitably is forced to confront internal disagreements about strategy. Such differences can easily be papered over and ignored when no one outside the movement is paying attention. But that is no longer possible when its strategic decisions might well have long-term consequences.

An op-ed in the Washington Post by Lawrence Noble, General Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, made it clear there are differences within the reform community. In the article, he called out Hillary Clinton for allowing her campaign to coordinate its efforts with her Super Pac, something that the law plainly prohibits.

Noble argued that the campaign's spurious justification for doing so "tells us much more about Clinton's attitude toward campaign finance reform than any speech or quote on her Web site." The title of his op-ed was "Clinton's campaign-finance hypocrisy."

The question that Noble's article raises is whether the movement should publicly criticize Clinton who, after all, supports a small donor publicly financed matching system for Presidential and Congressional elections, and who has described that support as one of the pillars of her campaign. In response, it can be argued that attacks such as Noble's will unnecessarily alienate the Clinton campaign, and in that way push her to abandon her commitment to reform. The thought is that the maintenance of friendly relations with Clinton and her staff is a critical mechanism to ensure, should she be elected, that she accords the reform agenda a high priority.

My own view is that Noble makes a strong case. Even though all three leading Democratic candidates have endorsed public campaign financing, it is not the top agenda item for any of them. None has emphasized that it is the critical reform necessary to reduce the political power of the wealth that distorts American policy-making. As a result it is legitimate for reformers to remain skeptical when any of them -- in this case Clinton -- countenances something that, if done by a Republican, would instantly be interpreted as signaling opposition to reform.

Lying behind the disagreement concerning this specific issue, however, is the larger problem of strategy, something that all movements must address. How closely should they attach themselves to political candidates? This issue is salient because for any movement to win, legislation is necessary. For victory, the President must push for and sign a bill that legislators pass.

To some, that means maintaining friendly relations and refraining from criticizing supportive politicians. They argue that in this way the movement will be able to maximize its influence and increase the probability of success.

The alternative perspective insists that political success is secured not by friendship but by the demonstration of political muscle. It assumes that all politicians are politically fickle, and will only be swayed by the exercise of political power, either in the streets or through the ballot box. This perspective maintains that a willingness to call out candidates on a matter of principle makes it clear that the movement's support is contingent, not to be taken for granted. Its leverage is thereby enhanced.

Both of these strategies -- insider and outsider -- are required for victory. Precisely this dualism played out during the successful Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, embodied in the person of Martin Luther King. On one hand, he stirred people to activism and was unsparingly critical of the Kennedy Administration's slow response to the crisis in the South. But at the same time he was continuously in touch with Washington officials, encouraging them to act in support of the movement.

Two conclusions follow from this. First, there is no surprise that strategic disagreements emerge in social movements. Consensus on a goal does not necessarily imply agreement on the strategy to achieve that goal. Second, for a movement to be successful, a coalition has to be constructed in which these disagreements are seen, not as divisive sources of weakness, but rather as power-enhancing complements. Both outsiders and insiders have essential roles to play. The first group is needed if political office-holders are to be put under sufficient popular pressure to support reform they might otherwise resist. The second group is important in order to ensure that the movement is as persuasive as possible in convincing politicians that reform is politically advantageous to them.

This means that if the campaign finance reform movement -- a movement that seeks to deepen democracy in the country -- is to be successful, it needs to be tolerant of contrasting strategies among its supporters.