Deva Woodly: The resonance of public discourse in social movements

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.

For example, with marriage equality, activists were able to re-focus the public conversation on love and family, and away from a debate about the morality of sex acts. They did this, while consistently losing in the policy and legal arenas. The living wage, on the other hand, has overwhelming support in public opinion and living wage advocates have had amazing success passing discrete policies. However, the living wage movement has not done as well with using consistent and resonant discourse to re-focus the conversation around wages in a way that will allow them to have long-term success – reconfiguring the way we think about what people deserve for an honest day’s work.

NSSR: To what extent do ideology and the political spectrum impact the durability of social movements?

I don’t think ideology is the deciding factor in whether a movement is politically accepted. I say that with a sort of an asterisk. One kind of ideology really matters and that’s the political ethos of the place you’re talking about. But in terms of political labels like Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative, what really matters for the sustainability of the conversation is the ability of the movement actors, the people outside the political system, to frame their issue in resonant terms.

In order for an argument to be resonant, it has to start where the people are. It has to take something from the endoxa, which are the underlying beliefs prevalent in a society at a particular time. For instance, in the marriage equality movement, the emphasis is on the importance of love and the constitution of the family—on its own a discursive invention. Go back two centuries and that’s not what family meant, but that’s what it means now according to our underlying beliefs, the American endoxa of this moment.

The third thing is natality, or a newness to the argument— and I take that from Hannah Arendt. If families are constituted by loving relationships, then according to our notions of fairness, all families should be treated in the same way. It also means we need to treat these new categories of people who are creating families in the same way.

On differences in discourse between the two movements

On the marriage equality movement
With marriage equality, you see a shift in the discourse between 1994-2004 through the efforts of people who are fighting for marriage equality and re-framing it. It shifts from a focus on the definitional factor — meaning, marriage just is the union between a man and a woman to talking about equality, and about love and what love is.

The second most dominant argument by 2004 was the equality argument. But the most dominant argument was about love being love, and all families deserving the same respect because they’re loving entities. This was a huge discursive shift. In 1994 there was no such thing as gay families. This notion didn’t exist. But for people, it wasn’t about definitions. It became about equality.

On the living wage movement
The living wage is pegged to bringing a family of four out of poverty. It’s not just about raising the dollar amount of the wage. It’s about calculating the income at which a family of four could live above the poverty line.

The living wage movement tends to function in discrete battles of highly skilled organizers doing very important work, but not building momentum. They’re not talking about the ways in which minimum wages should always be a living wage. They’re not talking about its significance in a way that penetrates the popular consciousness.

And yet, the wage movement keeps winning policy battles! Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York City, all have $15 dollar minimum wages because of the efforts of the latest iteration of the living wage movement, called Fight for $15. However, when the public discourse about the living wage is pegged to this dollar amount, instead of the fact that people who work full time should not live in poverty whether they are fast food workers or childcare workers or hotel workers – then you are losing some of the traction and potential of the public conversation.

Organizers for the movement might say, ‘well, we’ve said that, but that doesn’t help us win.’ However, it’s a question of what counts as winning, what counts as success – if you don’t win this ordinance, but you are changing the way people think about the relationship between work and wages, maybe you let this policy win go and aim to change the broader public conversation and the broader public meaning so that, down the road, you can have a national minimum wage pegged to inflation, because people have come to understand that ‘minimum wage’ should always mean ‘living wage’ – rather than having won specific dollar amounts in specific cities, which are quickly overtaken by the actual cost of living.

It’s hard to give up those immediate wins, though. Because people could really use higher wages now! Even so, broadening the public conversation and changing the ‘common sense’ around work and wages ought to be a major goal of the wage movements.

NSSR: What underlying beliefs would have to be present to support the living wage movement?

DV: Public opinion already supports the living wage movement. We just don’t talk about it much, and it’s not a policy priority for people.

The definition of the living wage is effectively a framing of the living wage in endoxic terms, and the definition of the living wage is a wage on which full time workers should be able to survive with dignity. Most Americans already believe that if you work full time for a living, you should be able to support yourself. What gets in the way is an economic orthodoxy and anxiety about what that will do. The challenge of the living wage movement is not endoxa.

It’s about creating a common sense linkage point and a policy solution. It’s about creating a new common sense that can batter down that anxiety. It’s also about connecting the notion of a living wage in a way that’s not only about minimum wage workers. It’s also about the fact that wages haven’t risen for any workers in almost 30 years. That is terrifying and unconscionable.

It’s about saying again and again, in consistent rhetoric, that people who work for a living, full time should be able to support themselves without needing government assistance; it’s about not subsidizing people who don’t need to be subsidized like giant corporations. The economic orthodoxy that says that if raising the minimum wage will result in a loss of jobs—well that’s not true. We’ve raised wages several times at the state and federal levels, and we see very little evidence that there’s any job loss.

I should say, these arguments are all out there in the living wage movement – but they are not made consistently – over and over again by different advocates up and down the media chain. Different activists lead with different arguments, and now that we have the Fight for $15, some don’t make arguments at all, beyond the desire for the dollar amount. When you’re making a resonant argument that embeds an idea in how we talk about an issue, you have to use the same terms constantly for years.

The rhetoric alone doesn’t get you there, but neither does organizing alone. The living wage movement, and labor movements in general, organize really well but also very discreetly – as in, limited and under the radar of most people. Movements have to overcome that discretion in order to have lasting impact.

NSSR: Opponents of the living wage describe its detrimental effects on the economy at large. What about the impact of marriage equality? Is there something to the notion that if a movement doesn’t negatively impact others’ lives, it is more likely to succeed?

DV: This notion that gay marriage or marriage equality is “unthreatening” is a recent notion and a bit ridiculous. A lot of people feel deeply threatened by what they see as an attack on their religious views and their religious freedom. The whole saga that we have witnessed this year with the Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who refused to sign the marriage licenses of same sex couples although gay marriage is now legal, and she was directed by several different courts to comply with the law. She refused to do so, even going to jail for contempt of court! And she was not alone. An entire counter-movement was mobilized by her protest – a protest rooted in the notion that same sex marriage threatens the conscience and freedom of certain kinds of religious people.

About 40% of Americans do not think same sex marriage ought to be allowed. That’s a large plurality! And many of them find the notion of marriage equality framed as “equality and tolerance” very threatening. In fact, they say it is persecution of their religious beliefs. We have to realize that the notion of threat is discursively created.

To learn more about Deva Woodly’s work:

1 Recent Publications

The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Seeing Collectivity: Structural Relation Through the Lens of Youngian Seriality” (Contemporary Political Theory, 2014)
New competencies in democratic communication? Blogs, agenda setting and political participation” (Public Choice, 2008).

2 Event: The New Author’s Symposium
The New Author’s Symposium (Monday, December 7, 2015),  presented by the Department of Politics, showcases four new books written recently by Politics faculty, and brings faculty and students across the New School in interdisciplinary conversation.