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Cole Wardell

Political identity paradox

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In Sum

Group identity offers embattled activists a cohesive community, but also tends to foster a subculture that can be alienating to the public at large. Balancing these two tendencies is crucial to sustaining the work of an effective group, organization or movement.

Origins:

Formulated by Jonathan Matthew Smucker, influenced by Robert Putnam on bonding and bridging, Antonio Gramsci on hegemonic strategy and Frederick D. Miller on encapsulation.

Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.

The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.

This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.

The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who meet the kind of brutal resistance that the civil rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization — beneath the rational arguments that leaders were slinging at each other — was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity and grown more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and inclination to relate to their broader membership — a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion — let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action.

This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to forge broad alliances.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group see PRINCIPLE: Escalate strategically for ideas on how to strike this balance.


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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