Frances Fox Piven on Polarization as a Tool for Social Change

May 5, 2021

The great theorist of disruptive power explains the concept of “dissensus” and how social movements prod elected officials into action by taking controversial stands.

By Mark Engler
(Published on May 5, 2021 in The Nation)

It is a common lament that American society has become polarized. Most commentators consider this a harmful development. They see polarization as a problem that should be solved by compromise, bipartisanship, and civil discourse. But polarization is not always negative. One of the key functions of social movements is to elevate controversial issues, force people to choose a side, and make politicians respond.

Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor emerita of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, is one of the thinkers who has thought most carefully about how polarization can be used as a tool for social change. In her classic 1977 book, Poor People’s Movements, written with her longtime collaborator Richard Cloward, she argues that movements of the disenfranchised are most powerful when they are unruly and disruptive, not when they bargain through the accepted channels of insider politics.

Later, in a 1999 essay with Cloward and then in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority, she makes a case for what she calls “dissensus politics.” In contrast to those who focus on creating political consensus by appealing to moderate voters, Piven contends that movements win reforms by exacerbating fault lines in the electorate and compelling politicians to offer concessions to keep coalitions together. While acknowledging that polarization can sometimes have negative consequences, she insists that it can also be a key source of power. As Piven puts it, “dissensus is the main source of movement influence on public policy.”

While Piven has often emphasized the importance of social movement disruption, she has also been attentive to voting rights and improving access to the vote—even in times when the issue was not drawing much attention. In 1983, she and Cloward founded Human SERVE, an organization that aimed to expand the electorate by making voter registration available at agencies that provide services such as unemployment, welfare, and disability benefits. This advocacy resulted in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, commonly referred to as the “motor voter bill.”

I spoke with Piven about dissensus politics today and the ways in which social justice groups can benefit from polarization during the Biden administration.

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Mark Engler: Many people have noted how polarized American politics is today. Political commentators suggest that protesters being divisive or movements pushing for controversial demands is counterproductive—that it’s not the right way to create change. You see polarization differently. Can you explain why?

Frances Fox Piven: We have to start by realizing that the dynamics of electoral politics and movement politics are very different. In particular, the sort of logic of winning in electoral politics is different from the logic of winning in movement politics.

If you have a two-party system, and you want to win elections, you need a majority. And to create a majority, you have to build coalitions and alliances between different groups. The magic of the electoral politician is the ability to bring these groups together by finding the issues, the rhetoric, and the mood that will unite them.

The dynamic of movement politics is division and polarization. In movements, agitators identify issues and raise hell over them. They drive groups into action—and some groups they will drive away. For them, that’s OK. They don’t expect to build majority coalitions by raising hell. So in that sense, movement politics and electoral politics are very different.

ME: Playing off a famous Saul Alinsky quote, you have written that organizers should “rub raw the sores of dissensus.” How does this produce movement victories?

FFP: Often when movements win, we win because politicians want to stop divisions that are being caused by the disruptive behavior of the movement. For example, let’s assume that we have massive rent strikes in the big cities of the United States, because people don’t have the money to pay the rent and there are evictions threatened. This will create divisions between landlords and tenants, obviously, but also between people who side with the tenants and people who think that the landlords have to be supported and can’t be allowed to go bankrupt. So these divisions will leave politicians to try to stop what’s going on.

Politicians don’t like divisions. They especially don’t like divisions within their coalition. To fend off the splintering of their coalition, they will try to propose reform. And that’s how movements win.

ME: What would you say to an establishment Democrat who says, “That way of doing things doesn’t get you what you want. You need to support us if you want us to help you.”

FFP: Well, that doesn’t work, does it? When people at the bottom—people who are marginalized or who are poor—when they just quietly follow along and support political leaders, they’re ignored. That’s the way it’s always been. It’s only when they make trouble that they are attended to. It’s only in the aftermath of trouble that you can have some dialogue. Otherwise, nobody wants to talk to them or listen to them.

ME: In interviews about his new book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein has made the point that, as he puts it, “the alternative to polarization in political systems often isn’t agreement or compromise or civility—it’s suppression. It’s suppression of the things the political system doesn’t want to face because if it did face them, it would break apart coalitions and polarize them.”

FFP: As an elected politician, coalitions are sort of your meat and potatoes. And if activists have the effect of straining those coalitions, then it’s difficult to treat these people as allies. But they are allies if you’re interested in addressing injustices.

If you look at the civil rights movement, there have always been politicians who are in favor of integration of this or that. But they try to address that by nourishing their own electoral base and by building alliances. Now, if activists—they could be Black Lives Matter, or they could be civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s—if they are raising hell through demonstrations and protests and blockades and strikes, those carefully nourished alliances are either pushed to the side or may even be destroyed. Elected politicians do things differently; they have different sources of power than movement activists. And because politicians want to avoid the effects of militant, disruptive, noisy, rowdy action on their coalitions, maybe they’ll work for a bill to create more low-income housing. Maybe they’ll get that bill out of committee.

ME: In his much-discussed essay from the mid-1960s, “From Protest to Politics,” Bayard Rustin argued that the civil rights movement couldn’t simply be disruptive. Instead, he said it needed to have a strategy for engaging with the internal mechanisms of the Democratic Party—that it had to be attentive to building political power and realigning the party. What do you think about that?

FFP: I think that’s for somebody else to do. Movement organizers who are trying to build power among low-income people and racial minorities don’t have to work on that. There needs to be a division of labor. There are all sorts of things that have to be done in electoral politics, but movements have a distinctive contribution to make in order to create substantial democracy.

ME: You have said that movements and electoral politics are not mutually exclusive, and in fact that they need each other. How so?

FFP: People don’t join movements unless they think they can win something. What makes them think that they can win is often the electoral environment and the promises that politicians make. It’s the encouragement that they get from electoral victories—even small, low-level electoral victories. When politicians are trying to win an election, they blast off about what they’re going to do differently, and they create a good deal of hope. By doing that, they help to instigate the kind of hopefulness and ambition that fuels movement politics.

Later on, the interaction between movement and electoral politics becomes different. Ultimately, electoral politics mediates what the movement can win. Victories are earned through electoral politics when the movement threatens electoral coalitions. To avert those challenges, elected politicians make concessions to movements.

ME: How do you answer people who say that polarization hurts Democrats’ chances of winning in places that are more conservative—and therefore, that movements should be less polarizing?

FFP: Well, it may be true that it hurts their chances. In other words, not everything a movement does supports the broad agenda of reform. It’s true some disruption drives some people away. But polarization is an aspect of the dynamic that leads to concessions and victories. You have to create polarization before you get a mass strike, for example. The conditions in automobile manufacturing before the big strikes in the 1930s were polarized conditions. But that doesn’t mean that polarization isn’t also bad at certain times.

It partly depends on the issue over which polarization occurs. And it also depends on whom you’re polarizing. But when it comes to people who are marginalized, I certainly believe in the utility and the beneficial effects of conflict on democratic processes. I think that a lot of the tragedy of American democracy is the result of quiescence. Agitation and rising up from people at the bottom are good for democracy. They nourish democracy.

ME: In the 1980s and into the 1990s, you spearheaded a major effort to increase voter registration, particularly among working-class people and recipients of government social services. But your vision of that was very different from what you criticize as “Jeffersonian romanticism”—or the idea that the poor can win if they simply organize electorally. Can you talk more about that about this idea of voter registration and what it could accomplish?

FFP: I think that if a movement succeeds in building a constituency, communicating its issues, and creating sufficient disruption to be a threat, it will create a dynamic in the legislature where politicians start to respond to the movement in order to bring things back to normal. In that process, it really is good if we have voter constituencies that share common background, common economic experience, and common culture with the movement. This overlap between the electoral constituency that a politician is trying to paste together for a majority and the movement constituency is a very good thing. When there’s a large overlap, we get better reform proposals.

ME: We have seen unions and progressive political groups in the past two decades focus on mass voter registration—most recently in Georgia. How do these efforts square with the kind of registration drives you envisioned?

FFP: Usually the efforts that are successful have not been led by professional politicians. They’ve been led by insurgent politicians—if they’ve been led by politicians at all. Richard [Cloward] and I worked for 15 years on the Motor Voter Act, legislation that is supposed to require agencies that provide not only driver’s licenses, but also social services to people, to offer to register these people to vote. This was incredibly hard to get through state legislatures and through the Congress of the United States. And it was so hard to get Democratic support for it in the 1980s and early 1990s. And when we got through, it wasn’t widely implemented. It still isn’t.

Professional politicians don’t like it because it creates a new electorate—people that they don’t have experience with and that they don’t know how to manipulate. So to this day, the Motor Voter Act is the law of the land, but nobody is really pushing for vigorous implementation. The reason we thought that it was important was that we thought that a big electoral constituency of poor people and racial minorities who are trying to get registered would make it much more likely that movement politics could win legislative reform. So we always thought that movement and electoral politics went together.

ME: Within some protest movements—and certainly we saw this in Occupy Wall Street—there’s a big fear of co-optation. That there’s a real rejection of mainstream politicians trying to interact with activists and a fear that interest from political insiders would somehow weaken the movement. I wonder how you think movements should deal with that issue of co-optation?

FFP: I think that movements should focus relentlessly on what they do well, and not worry too much about being co-opted. If you’re co-opted, it means that you’re at least partially effective. There may come a time when you have to decide if you take what those in power are offering you or if you continue to raise hell. But to worry about co-optation in general, when you’re still figuring out what to do and how to do it doesn’t make sense. Nobody’s going to try to co-opt you unless you matter. So take it as a sign of at least limited success. And then figure out how to be even more successful. So that you will get even bigger offerings from those trying to co-opt you.

ME: You said earlier that the mainstream Democratic Party hasn’t been interested in mass voter registration. The Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress are currently promoting a major voter rights bill. I think they would certainly say that they’re interested in protecting the franchise and allowing more people to access the vote.

FFP: Yes, that’s true. But it’s a reaction to horrific Republican actions to disenfranchise potential Democratic constituencies. Whoever imagined that a major political party in the United States would go after the right to vote in such a bold and transparent way? Politicians are supposed to be sneaky and duplicitous. Normally, they make it hard for people to vote in ways that are not obvious: They require people to fill out tedious and threatening forms, or they station police near the polling place. Those are things that were done in the past and are still done. But that voter suppression has now become so frank, so obvious, it surprises me. And, of course, it outrages me.

If that had not happened, these Democrats would not be doing voter registration, even though voter turnout in the United States is low compared to most other democratic countries. And Democrats would benefit if voter turnout were higher, because the active electorate is tilted toward the better off.

ME: Do you have any predictions of what might happen with social movements as the Biden administration continues?

FFP: I think Biden is going to be good for the movements. Winning is always good for movements. And Biden is letting people win.

I mean, Biden has been so remarkable. Aren’t you just floored whenever you read about a new concession? Most recently, you have proposals to pour massive amounts of money into preventing climate change. This is so unpredictable. If you remember Biden as a senator, this guy was not somebody who was an innovator. He was not somebody on the left. He was not somebody I liked. He was kind of a sleazy politician. But he has become a new FDR.

ME: It’s interesting that you call the things that Biden is doing “concessions.” In what sense are they concessions to movements, and in what sense are they just his preferred policies?

FFP: I think that successful politicians craft their preferred policies through interaction with constituent groups. If that’s true of Biden, he’s crafting his policies with an awareness that there is a lot of popular discontent and that people are worse off in the United States than they have been in a long time. Now, we don’t have a cohesive movement making that case, but we have a lot of different movements each making part of the case—whether it’s Black Lives Matter, or the Fight for $15, or the environmental movement, or the community groups that are a part of the Center for Popular Democracy. Biden and his advisors may have come to the conclusion that acting as if that’s the demand will make American politics healthy again.

ME: When you say winning is good for movements, a lot of people might have an opposite sense of things. They might think that misery and suffering are what drive movements.

FFP: Well, it’s true that movements sometimes emerge out of desperation or suffering. But they may not. Sometimes people can just lay down and die. Or they lay down and suffer. That’s the history of the human race, isn’t it? Most of the time, people do not find the hope and the energy to mobilize. When they do find hope to mobilize, and when there are responses to their mobilization, then movements thrive.

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