Treating Elite Support as an Empirical Question

I want to offer my thanks again to Danielle Citron for organizing such a lively symposium.  And I want to thank Jack Balkin for elaborating some of the themes taken up in the blog posts and connecting them to his wonderful book.  I want to offer some final thoughts on the new directions that Jack suggests in his post — understanding and measuring how “nodes of influence and authority . . . shape constitutional culture and move claims from off-the-wall to on-the-wall.”  Jack suggests an interdisciplinary research agenda.  Here I want to map more specifically merely some of the ways in which such a project would impact social movement work in sociology and political science.

For purposes of this post, what Jack refers to as “nodes of influence and authority,” I will refer to as the potentially more narrow “elite support” and include within the term state and non-state elites (e.g., elected officials, judges, policy elites, media commentators, government lawyers, celebrities); I do not mean to include here social movement advocates themselves, who in many senses are in fact elites and whom we have been discussing within the broader category of elites.

The conventional account in social movement work argues that elite support produces a deradicalizing and narrowing impact on movement politics and organizing.  As elites buy into the movement’s claims, the movement is slowly coopted.  Elite support, which is necessarily correlated with institutional, non-confrontational tactics, narrows the movement’s goals.  More recent social movement work questions this generally pessimistic account and instead acknowledges the more complicated effects of elite support.  For instance, Suzanne Staggenborg’s work on the pro-choice movement acknowledges that while elite support produced a narrowing effect on the movement’s agenda, it also contributed to the movement’s longevity and organizational strength.

While social movement theory has stressed the moderating effects of elite support, legal mobilization work in law and social movements has furnished a more optimistic account of elite support.  Through the legal mobilization lens, elite support is a key indirect effect generated by court-centered strategies (and resort to constitutional frames).  Once elites buy in to the movement’s claims, the movement advances; elsewhere I have labeled this the “elite support progress narrative.”

Yet closer attention to elite support suggests a more nuanced and complicated dynamic.  Elite support may aid a movement’s goals, as legal mobilization scholars claim, or it may hinder a movement’s progress.  Elite support may manifest itself in institutional tactics that narrow the movement’s objectives, as social movement scholars suggest, or it may appear in confrontational acts of defiance that electrify the movement.  Accordingly, we must, as Jack suggests in his post, treat elite support as an empirical question.  Social movement work in political science, sociology, and law will benefit just as much from Jack’s suggestion as constitutional theory will.

I want to add two qualifications or additional points, suggested by social movement and legal mobilization scholarship, to Jack’s agenda for research on this topic.  First, we should make room for the demobilizing potential of elite support.  How might supportive elites negatively impact the trajectory of constitutional arguments?  (How) might elite support alter the trajectory of an argument in a way that actually takes that argument off-course in its journey from off-the-wall to on-the-wall?  Second, we should attempt to understand the limiting effects of elite buy-in, particularly when mediated through constitutional frames.  How does take-up by elites limit the broader social movement agenda?  How might “nodes of influence and power” narrow the constitutional, political, and moral vision advanced by the movement, and what are the effects of such limiting functions on the social movement and on constitutional culture?  How might constitutional argumentation itself relate to political moderation?  Jack pushes us to address elite support as an empirical question; the scholarly reach of this project should not be underestimated.  A more empirically grounded and multidimensional analysis of the “nodes of power and influence” would, at a minimum, advance work in law, sociology, and political science.

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