We sat down earlier this year with Deva Woodly, Assistant Professor in Politics, to learn about her research comparing the living wage and marriage equality movements. According to Woodly, the political discourses “shared through social networks online, or spoken in the meeting houses of civic and social movement organizations … provide an empirical record of what members of the polity acknowledge as politically valuable as well as clues to the logics that people commonly use to associate their beliefs and values with the problems that they recognize in the world as they find it.”
Woodly recently published The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win (Oxford Press, 2015).
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
NSSR: What is your research about, and what are you finding?
DW: My research is about how ordinary people impact politics. I’m particularly interested in the way that people are able to articulate and implement solutions to their concerns from within or outside of the political process.
My first book, The Politics of Common Sense, is a comparison of two social movements – the living wage movement and the marriage equality movement – with a focus on their activities and progress — between 1994 and 2004. I look at the ways that we can evaluate the success of those two movements, and I’m particularly concerned with the ways that communication—the communication of movements, and the communication from the people involved—influences the acceptance of political movements, and the ability for these movements to be enduring and effective over time.
The living wage movement gets a lot of policy ordinances passed with pressure and skilled organizing, but – in contrast to the marriage equality movement – it does not focus very much energy on changing the general political discourse around wages, employment, and politics. Instead, it is focused on discrete policy fights.
My research reveals that this focus ends up yielding wins that are less durable and less effective than those that are enacted after periods of widespread public debate. I argue that it matters how movements communicate to the general public, and whether they are able to persuade the public of the importance of their issue – and not just how they put immediate pressure on decision-makers – if they want to succeed over the long term.
First, policy wins can be ephemeral if public attention was never engaged in the issue, or, if it quickly shifts from the issue. We see this with the living wage. Many of the ordinances that were hard fought and decisively won in that period also went on to be unenforced because there was no sustained public attention to incentivize local governments to create well-functioning enforcement apparatuses.
And second, with consistent and resonant framing of movement issues, activists can change the way people think about their issue. This does not necessarily mean that activists can make everyone agree with them – we see no evidence that this is the case. Certainly, the marriage movement has, until very recently, been in an opinion environment in which the majority disagrees (a large plurality still does, by the way). However, by using consistently resonant discourse, activists can influence whether people think their issue is political, whether they think it’s important for the country, and they can change what people generally think is at stake in their decision about the issue.