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Escalate strategically

Contributed by

In Sum

If dissident political groups tend to become more extreme over time, then good leaders should help define that ‘extreme’ in constructive ways.

There is a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to turn up the heat. It seems to be written into the social DNA of oppositional political groups: when group members’ level of commitment increases, they want to go further. They want to be a little more hardcore. This tendency toward escalation and increased militancy can be a good thing — but not inevitably. It all depends on how hardcore is defined within the culture of the group. It can either move a cause forward — or send it into a dangerous or dysfunctional downward spiral.

Compare the trajectories of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — two of the most important radical youth organizations of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society imploded in 1969 and the Weather Underground was born because some leaders succeeded in defining hardcore to mean immediate armed guerrilla struggle against the U.S. government — an absurd prospect for their context. In the case of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on the other hand, some very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean acts such as going into the most segregated areas in the south and organizing some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country. SNCC engaged in other more visible “hardcore” tactics as well.

In both cases, hardcore really was HARDCORE. (You can’t satiate the desire for hardcore with anything less!) Members of both groups demonstrated overwhelming levels of commitment to the values of the groups they belonged to. Members of both groups risked their lives, were imprisoned and brutalized, and some lost their lives. But hardcore was defined strategically in the case of SNCC, and tragically in the case of the Weather Underground.

Good leaders anticipate the emergent desire for hardcore—for escalation—and they own it. They model it themselves. And they make sure that the expression of hardcore is designed to strengthen bonds between the group’s core members and its broader political base. It should feel hardcore to the participants, and it should look like moral leadership to the political base and to a broader public.


Jonathan Matthew Smucker served as the first Training Director for Beautiful Trouble. A long-time participant, organizer, trainer, and theorist in grassroots movements for social, economic and ecological justice, Smucker has trained thousands of change agents in campaign strategy, framing and messaging, direct action, and other grassroots organizing skills. He is co-founder and Director of Beyond the Choir, a strategy and training organization. He is also a doctoral student of sociology at UC Berkeley.


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