History is often presented as the study of Great Men. But more often it is the study of Great Movements. How do we build one? (More)

Democratic Solidarity, Part III – Great Movements (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has explored whether solidarity is returning to the Democratic Party. Thursday we considered the media narrative of ‘special interests.’ Yesterday we looked at our common interest of challenging privilege. Today we discuss how to better organize around that common interest.

Who makes history?

The Great Man Theory of history gained traction in the 19th century through writers like Thomas Carlyle and Frederick Adams Woods, and holds that history’s “turning points” owe to the actions of individuals: political and religious leaders, inventors, industrialists, and other trailblazers. They are humankind’s Heroes: worthy of study, emulation, and exaltation. They “make history.”

Conservatives like the Great Man Theory for several reasons. Great Men are, by virtue of their greatness, beyond challenge by The Rest of Us. Quoting a Great Man should end a debate, unless someone has a better quote from a better Great Man. The exaltation of Great Men also teaches us to accept privilege, for Great Men are by definition worthy of preference … not only in history but also today.

The focus on Great Men also encourages The Rest of Us to search for a Great Man to be our Hero. The airbrushed biographies of Great Men in history make today’s would-be Heroes – with human limitations all too apparent – pale in comparison. This leaves us frustrated and cynical, and sends us in search of another Great Man to step forward and champion our causes.

But as we discussed last month, history’s great achievements and turning points are rarely individual acts. Most are the work of great organizations and coalitions, identifying or creating opportunities for change and coordinating their efforts to make change happen. You might call that the Great Movement Theory of history.

Building a Great Movement

Progressives were once a Great Movement and, as we saw yesterday, that movement was built on TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together. Indeed, trust is a key to the movement-building model Amy Shollenberger teaches in her Action Circles workshops.

Shollenberger offers ten principles for progressive organizing:

  • Respect (vs. “tolerance”)
  • Truth (vs. facts)
  • Transparency (vs. hierarchy)
  • Support (vs. education)
  • Accountability (vs. blame)
  • Democratic Decision-Making (vs. exclusion)
  • Movement Building (vs. mobilizing)
  • Sharing Power (vs. empowering)
  • Solidarity (vs. control)
  • Acting from Hope (vs. fear)

Each is about trust. In some the connection is obvious; respect, transparency, accountability, democratic decision-making, and solidarity clearly help to build and reinforce trust. In others the connection is more subtle. Validating the truth of each member’s experience, rather than throwing ‘facts’ at them, builds trust. So does offering support (“How can I help?”) rather than educating (“Do it this way”). Movement-building frames mobilizing for short-term action in a long-term pattern of cooperation. And a movement culture of hope encourages trust, while a culture of fear undermines it.

Practical steps: the Action not-quite-Circles

Shollenberger emphasizes “broader and deeper leadership.” Rather than a Great Man upon whom everything hinges – and without whom everything falls apart – she advocates developing many leaders who both take on a variety of specific tasks and also recruit others into the movement. Her organizing model encourages that through her “action circles, which aren’t really circles, but ‘action ovals’ didn’t sound right.”


The ovals represent levels of engagement in a movement. Outside the ovals you find the General Public, some of whom may be interested in the movement and its goals. The outermost oval are Interested People, who have shown interest but have taken no or very little risk. They may have attended an informative event, but haven’t yet taken action. The blue oval are Low Risk Takers, who have done a simple, low-risk activity successfully. The green oval are High Risk Takers, who have done one or more high-risk activities successfully. The yellow oval are Leaders, who have done high-risk activities and now support others to do activities.

To encourage people through those ovals toward leadership, Shollenberger teaches an Invite-Support-Feedback Loop:

  • Invite a interested person to do an activity at a comfortable risk-level;
  • Support his/her efforts, to lessen the risk and encourage success;
  • Provide feedback when the activity is completed, emphasizing the successes; and
  • Immediately invite that person to do another activity, starting the loop again.

An example might be inviting someone to stand with a group and hold campaign signs at an intersection. This is a lower-risk activity, as there is less direct interaction with passing drivers. Support might include providing the signs, organizing the group, and scheduling the date, time, and location. All the person needs to do is show up and hold a sign. Feedback might include thanks from others who participated, notes of any media coverage, and asking how such an event might go better next time. Then invite the person to participate in another activity.

Not everyone will move from to higher-risk activities and on to planning and other leadership tasks. But progressive movement-building should enable anyone who wants to move along that path. At each step, the movement should both offer and encourage trust, and recognize that each member has something to contribute and that each contribution matters.

Waiting for a Great Man to be our Hero will not yield progressive change. We need a Great Movement that embodies TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together. Then we stop being “special interests” and become …

… We the People.


Happy Saturday!