Evie Bowden 

Lady Eleanor Holles School, United Kingdom 

 

To what extent have emerging social movements caused politicians to respond with  effective social change?  

‘Effective social change’ is difficult to define. Should social change be measured in  statues toppled, in flags changed, in buildings renamed? Should social change be  measured in diversity officers appointed, in hours of equality training undertaken, in  progressive leaders celebrated? Or should social change be measured in reviews  commissioned, power granted, funding generated? There is little agreement on this  debate, which was reignited by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the  wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Yet almost everything  mentioned above has happened: protestors in Bristol toppled a statue of Edward  Colston, a 17th century merchant with strong ties to the Atlantic slave trade2, the  number of diversity officers appointed at major companies has exploded,3 and Boris  Johnson commissioned a report into ‘Race and Ethnic Disparities’ in the United  Kingdom. Yet politicians themselves have done very little, and while the Black Lives  Matter movement has received unparalleled exposure, catapulting race relations to  the top of the political agenda, little concrete change has occurred.

An obvious question to ask is ‘what are politicians supposed to do?’. While almost  every politician in Western democracies has, when asked directly, affirmed a  commitment against racism, many have found their hands tied. Politicians are  fundamentally representative. In democracies with regular election cycles politicians  are bound to act in accordance with the will of voters, or face being removed the next  time their seat is up for election. In fragmented societies with two dominant parties and  clear political divides, such as the USA and to a lesser extend the UK, this discourages  politicians from making radical social changes in response to emerging movements. If  politicians go too far in any direction, they risk alienating swing, and even core, voters,  and thus harming their own political careers. The rate of change is constrained and  can only be accelerated through the election of politicians on a strong mandate to  affect this change. Change must therefore be incremental and come from people  rather than legislators. In his article ‘Is There a Culture War?’4 William Jacoby terms  political culture as “the general framework of values that characterizes the orientations  of a nation’s citizens” Attempts by legislators to enforce social progress beyond what  the culture currently accepts– “top-down change” – is ineffective and risky,

their political changes electoral issues and succeeded in getting politicians elected,  such movements can hardly still be called ‘emerging’.

Indeed, in Britain, the report produced by the government’s Commission on Race and  Ethnic Disparities went further, arguing that it ultimately was not governments  responsibility to cause social change and shift attitudes. According to the report, the  Commissioners “increasingly felt that an unexplored approach to closing disparity  gaps was to examine the extent individuals and their communities could help  themselves through their own agency, rather than wait for invisible external forces to  assemble to do the job.”5 Such a statement calls into question the very premise of this  question: politicians may not have responded to emerging social movements with  effective social change, but they might not even need to do so. While such a report  might be seen as a government absolving itself of social responsibility, it raises  important questions about not only the government’s ability to create social change in  response to emerging social movements, but also its incentives and duty to do so.

Increased government involvement in rapid social progress risks alienating ordinary people, in a way that is both damaging to the government and the movements  themselves. Indeed, backlash groups already exist, for example Counterweight,  described in a recent Atlantic article6 as a “support group for the unwoke”: “a support  group for people who feel that they are being pressured to endorse what she calls  ‘critical social justice’ […] or [are] being forced to affirm beliefs that they don’t have  about race or about gender.” About two-thirds of Counterweight’s clients are  Americans, and the rest are a mix of Brits, Canadians, and Australians.” The existence  of such groups highlights the danger of rapid social change: in a world where some

people already feel pushed to endorse values that they do not fully subscribe to,  government intervention only exacerbates such issues. Returning to Jacoby’s idea of  political culture, there is a real risk of the government acting beyond what the culture  will allow if it responds forcefully in alignment with emerging social movements.

The socially effective emerging social movements are almost oxymorons: by the time  social movements have established themselves enough to create lasting social change, they can no longer be termed ‘emerging’. And attempts to rush this process  rarely create the broad cultural change they seek. Mature social movements cause  social change, emerging social movements do not.

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