The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not happen overnight; Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders fought for over 10 years before they could celebrate the legislative achievement, and the signing of the legislation on July 2nd, 1964 was the culmination of a decade-long movement. Since the civil rights movement, there have been many social movements in the United States, with some celebrating massive wins and others failing entirely. But what does it take for a social movement to succeed? Why did the civil rights movement manage to garner such high levels of national support both socially and legislatively while many other social movements have barely managed to get off the ground?

In the last two decades, we have seen a plethora of movements arise- Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Climate Strikes to name a few- but each movement was unique in its approach, its cause, and ultimately, its outcome. If you are a supporter of a particular social movement, you might ask yourself: Is there a secret sauce? Is there something that successful social movements do that failed ones do not? As it turns out, there is! By looking at the major social movements of the last two decades, we can observe that there are three steps your social movement needs to accomplish in order to ensure legislative and/or cultural success:

  1. Ensure the national buzz for your movement comes at the right time for the right reasons. Momentum for your movement needs to come at the right time, and when your movement does get national attention, it better be in a way that makes the average observer sympathetic to your cause.
  2. When national momentum is not in your favor, use local and state levels of government to overcome partisanship through gradual change. Many major social movements often hit a wall where support simply is not growing and a divide around the issue begins to emerge. If this is the case with your movement, start with small legislative wins in parts of the country that already are leaning in your direction and expand from there.
  3. Get at least 50% of the country on your side. The numbers don’t lie; You don’t need to win over everybody, but the key final piece to getting a major legislative win for your social movement is garnering the support of at least half the country.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller “The Tipping Point” referenced the importance of stickiness and contagiousness for the successful spreading of an idea, and social movements are no exception. For the skeptics who claim these steps are an oversimplification of the nuances required to achieve a successful social movement, let’s take a look at how some of the successful and unsuccessful social movements of the last 2 decades applied the three key steps above.

The Winners

Marijuana Legalization

While the issue of legalization of recreational marijuana has been around for a long time, the movement did not begin to have any sort of momentum as a serious possibility until the early 2000s.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

Google Searches, a strong indicator of national attention, for the term “Marijuana Legalization” went through a series of spikes and falls between 2006 and 2010, and ultimately dropped off after California voted against recreational marijuana in November 2010.

Source: Gallup Polling Data

At the time of California’s legal rejection of marijuana, only 46% of Americans were in favor of marijuana legalization. The movement died down until November 2012 when Colorado and Washington- two states where most of the population were in favor of legalization- both legalized recreational marijuana. This blasted new life into the movement, and search interest for marijuana legalization peaked. At the time of legalization in Colorado and Washington, only 48% of Americans supported legalization. By October the next year, polling numbers jumped 10% and over the key 50% overall mark.

While recreational marijuana is still illegal on a national scale, the spike in national buzz and support pushed by the state initiatives have propelled this movement with momentum that has not slowed down. Since Colorado and Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana, 9 more states and Washington DC have passed legislation allowing recreational marijuana, and 47 states now allow some form of medical marijuana. Additionally, two-thirds of Americans are now pro-legalized marijuana- a jump of 22% in 10 years. The movement has seen overwhelming success, and it is only a matter of time before the national restriction of recreational marijuana is lifted.

Gay Marriage

The slow-moving traction for gay marriage support could be seen as early as 2004 when the mayor of San Francisco supported gay marriages in his city. At that point, less than a third of Americans supported gay marriage.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

Massachusetts became the first US state to legalize same-sex marriage in mid-2004, and while it did not create as much search traffic as one would anticipate, it started a long trend of state-level gay marriage support. Several more states would legalize gay marriage over the next few years, with many spikes in search interest arising as a result, particularly between 2011 and 2013

Source: Pew Research Data

As of January 2013, slow, consistent growth of support for same-sex marriage continued as more and more states followed in Massachusetts’ footsteps. As of January 2013, the movement finally reached the key 50% support mark, and in June the same year, the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act- which restricted same-sex marriage on a federal level- unconstitutional. By January the next year, support increased to 52% nationally.

With over 50% support and the most buzz around the issue to date, it was only a matter of time before gay marriage was recognized as a right on the federal level. In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that all states must grant same-sex marriage, and the social movement officially succeeded. As of 2019, over 60% of Americans support same-sex marriage, and that trend indicates continued growth of support.

 

The Losers

Occupy Wall St.

The short-lived Occupy movement was a protest movement against economic inequality that began in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, in September 2011. Specifically, the movement aimed to reduce the influence of corporations in politics.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

Search interest for the movement peaked within a month of the beginning of the protests, and almost dropped off by the end of October before getting one last boost of Google searches when the protesters were evicted by authorities from Zuccotti Park. According to the rules stated in this article, for the movement to have been able to survive, it would have had to maintain national buzz during this critical point. Unfortunately for supporters, search interest dropped off immediately after the eviction.

Source: Guardian News

The Occupy Movement also never managed to get anywhere close to 50% support, and after the key turning point of being evicted from Zuccotti Park, support actually went down for the movement instead of seeing an increase. With no momentum, the support of less than 30% of Americans and dropping, and no local or state-level organized initiatives, the Occupy Movement was completely dead by January 2012 with no major legislative accomplishments under its belt.

Keystone Pipeline Protests

The Keystone Pipeline protests were grassroots movements that began in early 2016 in reaction to the approved construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline in the northern United States. There were two primary concerns protesters had against the oil pipeline project: a) the creation of the pipeline constituted a serious threat to the region’s drinking water, and b) the construction was seen as a threat to ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of Native American communities.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

The most national attention the Keystone Pipeline got was when the House and Senate passed a bill granting the continuation of the project in late 2014 and early 2015, and the noise dropped off quickly after President Obama vetoed the bill allowing for the continuation.

Because the project had stalled, buzz dropped off until Trump won the Presidency and the pipeline had life. The protests in South Dakota began in August 2016 and ended through police enforcement in February 2017. These months would be the make or break period of the movement, and in January 2017- while these protests were still ongoing- President Trump took actions to permit the pipeline’s completion. Despite several major events in a short period of time, the pipeline received less than half as much search traffic as it did back in 2014. The protests were not able to generate enough national buzz.

Source: Pew Research Data

The issue also had a particularly partisan divide, and despite consistently increasing Democrat support, a higher percentage of Republicans were in favor of the pipeline than percentage of Democrats opposed. With significantly less national attention than in 2014, not enough Americans opposed to the project, and no successful attempt to create resistance at the local or state levels of government, the movement was dead in the water and out of the national discussion entirely by 2018.

Still Up in the Air- Predictions for Active Social Movements

Gun Control

Up until this point, advocates for greater restrictions on the purchase of firearms in the United States have failed to get meaningful national legislation passed during the last couple of decades despite several mass shootings causing national uproar.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

Google search traffic for gun control seemed to spike every time a major shooting hit the headlines of the last 20 years, but no shooting garnered more national attention for gun control than Sandy Hook in late 2012. Prior to the Sandy Hook shooting, the term “Gun Control” had not seen even a fifth of the search traffic generated by this horrific event since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, the most search traffic for “gun control” came in 2018 after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which resulted in a massive pro-gun control national campaign.

Source: Gallup Polling Data

Prior to Sandy Hook, 25% of Americans wanted stricter gun laws. The national attention that Sandy Hook generated produced a bump in gun control favorability to 38%, but it was still 12% shy of the crucial 50% favorability mark, and by 2014, that number had dropped back down to 31%. The movement still had a lot of ground to cover.

As a result of a series of mass shootings between 2015 and 2018, popular opinion has creeped at an upward trajectory over the last few years with the peak hitting 46% in 2018 after Stoneman Douglas. As of 2020, the percentage of those in favor of stricter gun control regulations is at 42%.

The future of gun control regulation is still up in the air, but gun control advocates have been getting closer and closer to achieving the three key steps necessary to have legislative success. Past mass shootings have consistently generated news cycles debating gun control issues, gradual change has already begun at the state and local levels of government all over the country, and support for gun control has seen significant growth over the last 5 years.

The Prediction- Unfortunately for gun control advocates, legislative success at the federal level in the coming years will only be achieved if mass shootings continue to occur, but if the country experiences an extended period of time where mass shootings drop off or do not make national news cycles, gun control advocates will lose ground once again in terms of national support.

Climate Change

Climate change has become an issue that has increasingly dominated politics not just in the United States, but throughout the entire world. Supporters of the climate strikes are concerned with the increasing impact of human beings on the Earth’s climate, and the current and future negative consequences of that impact.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

While minor legislative victories in favor of environmental regulations have occurred over the last two decades in the US, supporters of the movement point to scientific data suggesting our increasing carbon footprint as an indicator that not nearly enough has been done. While climate concerns have been an issue for decades, the release of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” really created momentum for the national discussion and doubled the average national search interest for “climate change”. In late 2009, the movement hit a setback when over 1,000 hacked emails were leaked from climate scientists during the Copenhagen Global Climate Summit. Global warming skeptics at the time claimed the emails prove that scientists manipulated key evidence that debunked climate change. As a result of this negative press for the environmental protection movement, search interest dropped to below pre-An Inconvenient Truth levels of search interest until 2014.

In 2017, climate change experienced a new peak of search interest when Trump excluded the United States from signing the Paris Climate Agreement, which included signatures from 179 other countries. Search interest once again dropped as time went by until 15-year old Greta Thunberg came onto the scene in August 2018. Thunberg’s climate strikes and public speeches gradually increased international attention to climate change, with her movement- along with search interest for climate change- reaching its peak in September 2019 during the global climate strikes known as the “Global Week of Future.”

Source: Gallup Polling Data

The leaked email scandal in 2009 had major negative consequences in terms of the movement’s national perception, and as of 2010, only 1 in 4 Americans thought the seriousness of global warming was generally underestimated. Since then, the movement has slowly built up national support, with the United States’ absence in the Paris Climate Agreement as well as the world climate strikes providing important contributions. As of 2019, the polling numbers slowly crept up to 42%, with the movement still requiring a little more national support.

As of 2020, 32 states have released a climate action plan or are in the process of revising or developing one. With national attention reaching all-time highs in 2019 and the effective utilization of state and local levels of government to implement policy, there is no reason to doubt national support for the environmental protection movement will hit 50% within the coming years.

The Prediction- Barring any major scandals or controversies coming from the climate science community, the United States federal government will pass major environmental protection legislation within the next 5 years no matter who is in the White House.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is unique in that it is essentially two separate attempts of the same movement within a few years of one another. At its very roots, BLM is a decentralized movement protesting against police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.

Google Search Interest Ratings represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for a given timespan. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. The data visualized above measures Google Search Interest in the United States.

The term “Black Lives Matter” was first coined in mid-2014 after the video of Eric Garner getting slowly choked to death by the police while pleading “I can’t breathe” became a national headline. A series of similarly appalling videos would be released in the years to follow, with the white supremacist shooting up a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina leading to the movement’s highest search interest to date at that time. Yet despite all of the headlines in that period further exemplifying the purpose behind the movement, Google searches for the movement were not a fraction of the amount of searches the movement would get in July 2016 as a result of a sniper killing five police officers in Dallas, Texas. This moment that generated negative publicity for the BLM movement sparked almost 5 times more search interest for “Black Lives Matter” than the Charleston shooting, and BLM was struggling to create national buzz for the movement in the ways that it wanted. By 2018, the movement had almost entirely dropped off without any major national legislative wins.

Then in late May 2020, another particularly heart-wrenching video emerged when a police officer wrongfully killed George Floyd on camera. Searches for “Black Lives Matter” immediately shot up to an all-time high, and June 2020 had about 5 times more searches than the previous peak in 2016. The Black Lives Matter movement generated more searches in June and July 2020 than it had generated in the previous five years combined, and this times things felt a little different.

Source: CBS News & Monmouth University Polling Data

Between 2014 and 2016, polling data suggested there was only a 5% bump in public opinion about the disproportionate use of deadly force against black people by the police. Despite its efforts, the most noise BLM had generated was negative publicity related to the Dallas sniper, and the movement had not gotten 50% of Americans to believe black people were being treated unfairly by the police.

When the polling was continued in June 2020, the 50% mark had been shattered; 58% of Americans now believed police were more likely to use deadly force against black people. Since the death of George Floyd, dozens of local and state governments have begun implementing police reforms ranging from bans on chokeholds to defunding police departments outright. At the time of this article, more and more local and state reforms are being introduced by the week.

With all-time highs in national support, national attention, and localized police reformation, this second wave of BLM seems like an entirely different movement. But despite the temptation to treat the two waves of BLM as two separate movements, it is important to remember that the first wave of BLM paved the way for the second. Without the first wave of BLM beginning back in 2014, it is very possible that the groundwork of national awareness and support that led to the strength of the second wave would not be there. With all three necessary steps laid out in this article having been successfully achieved by BLM, all indications are that BLM is on the brink of success in the form of national police reform.

The Prediction- The United States federal government will pass major police reformation legislation within the next 3 years no matter who is in the White House.

Conclusion

While all social movements are deemed extremely important by those who support them, not all social movements are treated equally in the eyes of the American people. Some movements fail, and others succeed; some drop off everyone’s radar, and others resonate for years at a time. If you have a social movement for which you care deeply, follow the steps laid out in this article and maybe one day your movement will be a “winner”.