Activism: Overview

What are the key techniques used by activists? When is activism effective in influencing policy? What does the academic literature on activism suggest is important to effective work? In this document, we address these questions and present our overall take on the use of activism to influence US national climate policy. This review of the literature forms the basis of our work reviewing and recommending activist organizations.



What is activism?

Activism seeks to influence political outcomes by mobilizing citizens who are not political insiders to take actions that generate widespread or well-targeted public attention around specific issues or demands, usually through generating media coverage of events like protests, confrontations, or strikes [1]. Activism often seeks to generate a feedback loop, where initial actions and attention draw more participation, which leads to further activity and attention. While some activism emerges instantaneously without clear organization (especially with the advent of social media, as documented by Tufekci, 2017), activist activity is also often led by organized groups who plan and strategize in advance.

Activism can play an important role in accomplishing the following objectives:

  1. Shifting public attention towards specific issues and disseminating a specific strategic framing to shape how the public understands and makes sense of an issue, leading to public opinion shifts that may change individual behavior.

  2. Targeting politicians, judges, or bureaucrats currently in power to change their opinion or behavior. As some of these individuals are accountable to public opinion to some degree, this is often strongly related to point (1) above.

  3. Changing the political fortunes of those in power, to generate support for alternative candidates or fend off challengers during the electoral process.

These three aims are distinct but share a common goal, which is to change political outcomes (often legislation passed). This is usually achieved by shifting public opinion such that politicians responsive to public opinion must act differently in order to maintain electoral support. In addition, public opinion shifts can have broader impacts on society by changing how individuals and organizations behave, though our focus in this document is on activism for policy change.

To better understand how activism works, we analyzed the activity of activist organizations working on climate policy through a series of shallow-dives. This allowed us to begin to inductively build a theory of change that describes how activism works (in theory and in practice) to affect policy outcomes in the climate space. Then, we completed a systematic literature review analyzing climate activism and the evidence on the effectiveness of the specific activities we catalogued in the first stage of our research. This allowed us to further refine our general theory of change for activism and to critically examine key assumptions linking each part of the theory together. While any one activism organization has a unique theory of change resulting in a unique approach to work, the theory of change in Figure 1 captures a broad overview of common threads running through most activist work, which we identified through reviewing both academic literature and the behavior of actual activist organizations.

The Theory of Change is organized into 5 distinct stages, each of which corresponds either to inputs, actions, or outputs. We follow the broad formula of inputs + actions = outputs, which expresses the overall structure of the theory of change. The three final stages of the five are all outputs, which occur one after another according to the arrows depicted in Fig 1.

  1. The first stage of the theory of change is campaign building. This stage includes the starting points for all of the movement’s activities, including the creation of an organizational structure that allows room for the movement to grow while remaining coordinated, its strategic framing (and related content and branding) to shape public understanding of an issue, its internal policy consensus, and its alliance with powerful champions across the climate advocacy, political, and activist communities through coalition building.

  2. The second stage of the theory of change is directed action. This stage includes each of the key tactics employed on the ground like protests, participation in climate strikes, endorsement of political candidates, and participation in endorsed candidates’ campaigns. Many of these activities provide an opportunity for media content creation, by external media sources or, especially in recent times, media-savvy members of activist groups themselves who record, package, and frame key events organized by the movement for social media dissemination. Each of these activities lays the groundwork for preliminary outcomes that eventually lead to policy change.

  3. The third stage of the theory of change is initial changes. Each of these changes in public opinion, the electoral prospects of politicians, and issue prioritization are preconditions for further policy change. In order to generate commitment by candidates and issue prioritization by politicians generally, media coverage of activist’s activities must draw public attention to candidates and activists’ stance on climate issues, mobilize larger numbers of the public to join the organization or otherwise pressure politicians to take action on climate change, and shift public opinion such that politicians perceive that their continued electoral success (including in primaries) is in part dependent upon their stances and actions around climate change legislation.

  4. The fourth stage of the theory of change is legislative change, the enactment of legislation to take action on climate change and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Due to increasing pressure and the presence of politicians sympathetic to the activists’ aims of more aggressive and concerted legislative action around climate change, climate change becomes a policy priority for the government. As a result, climate change legislation is enacted that would not have been enacted otherwise.

  5. The fifth and final stage of the theory of change is reduced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is the final and most important outcome which an activist movement must cause in order for it to make a difference to the trajectory of climate change.

Figure 1: Climate Activism – Theory of Change

Below, we detail the assumptions and evidence available for each of the elements of the theory of change above.

Assessing the Activism Theory of Change

1. Organization Building

The evidence on what constitutes best-practices for aspiring social movements and activist organizations is not entirely clear and is also likely to shift as political and media realities change. However, a common theme that emerges in the literature on policy-focused activism is a need to achieve internal policy consensus and have clear organization and leadership structures that signal to politicians the existence of a well-organized public interest group that they cannot easily counteract.

Recent literature on social movements and protest movements in the age of social media critique an overall low level of organizational structure and coherence in such movements (Tufekci, 2017). This literature identifies the signalling importance of social and protest movements: in the past organizing a large-scale protest or other collective action event required a significant amount of organizational centralization and commitment. Because of this, collective action may have derived much of its power through signalling effects: a protest served as a signal of a broader non-state organizational structure that could pose a meaningful electoral threat and not easily dissolve into disagreement and infighting. Because of the ease of organizing mass events today through social-media mobilization, contemporary social movements have been hypothesized to lack effectiveness relative to historical movements due to their tendency to involve large numbers of people without a parallel organizational structure to ensure consensus and organized tactics (Tufekci, 2017). This suggests contemporary social movements that achieve success need to have a high degree of consensus and organization and clear leadership to achieve the same effect as historical movements.

2. Framing

Frame construction refers to the ways in which activist organizations structure their activities to influence how observers make sense of their activity, one of the key activities these organizations engage in (Wasow, 2020; Goffman, 1974; Gitlin, 1980; Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993).

How should climate-focused activist organizations frame climate issues? Overall, evidence suggests that frames emphasizing climate effects on one’s own environment, emphasize the gains to be had from addressing climate change, and emphasize job-creation are promising ways to frame climate change. In addition, linking climate issues to extreme weather events may also be effective in generating public support for pro-climate policy. However, framing is difficult given the highly competitive framing environment around climate policy as well as the link between political identities and beliefs about climate change policy.

Studies have found positive effects of framings that (1) emphasize the potential for climate change to impact one’s own community and home (Spence et al., 2012), which is especially effective for independents and Republicans (Wiest et al., 2015), (2) emphasize gains from climate change action and de-emphasize climate change losses (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010), and (3) and emphasize air pollution and energy independence implications of climate policy, particularly towards Republicans (Feldman & Sol Hart, 2018). Research has suggested a role for linking extreme weather events to climate change, but this has not yet been empirically tested for effectiveness (Egan & Mullin, 2017). In addition, recent experimental evidence has demonstrated that citizen support for climate policies is positively related to jobs-creation framing, negatively related to cost framings that emphasize increased energy cost, and responds to elite partisan cues (Stokes & Warshaw, 2017).

Climate change public opinion in the United States is typically believed to be elite-directed and determined by the dynamics of institutional polarization, rather than influenced by mass movements (Brulle et al. 2012). Because of the scientific nature of climate phenomena, a lack of easy attribution of events in lived experience to climate change, a perception that climate change affects other countries more than the United States, and a concerted effort by fossil-fuel interests to tie climate change opinion to polarized American politico-cultural identities, climate change is an issue area that commands relatively little public attention and is also subject to high degrees of motivated and self-confirmatory reasoning (Egan & Mullin, 2017; Weber & Stern, 2011). Polarization effects on opinion are higher among individuals with higher overall scientific literacy and sophistication (Kahan et al., 2012), and accurate beliefs about climate science are uncorrelated with belief in climate change, though accurate beliefs are correlated with a greater willingness to take constructive effort to stop climate change (Bord et al. 2000).

3. Coalition-building

Coalition-building is a feature of most activist organizations, who frequently partner and collaborate with other peer organizations as well as insider policy advocates and value-aligned politicians themselves. We found little evidence to suggest specifically how a climate organization should go about building a coalition, which is likely highly context-dependent.

Importantly, climate change public opinion and attention to the issue is highly responsive to elite partisan cues (Brulle et al., 2012; Stokes & Warshaw, 2017). For this reason, coalitions with sympathetic politicians may play an important role in amplifying and framing an issue. Politicians are highly accessible to media and receive large amounts of coverage and attention, which filters to the public and plays a role in determining public opinion and discourse on the topic. The elite-led nature of public opinion on climate change policy suggests an important role played by high-profile allies of activist movements in particular in shifting public opinion on climate. However, political allies may also turn off some potentially sympathetic individuals who would pay attention to an activist movement but decide not to because they dislike a particular politician or believe that politician’s views undermine their political identity.

4. Political endorsement and campaign involvement

Climate activist organizations often become involved in the political process through issuing endorsements and supporting campaigns through get-out-the-vote efforts (knocking on doors, phone banking, etc.). Evidence suggests endorsements can be effective in helping voters understand who to vote for. The evidence on the effectiveness of most typical get-out-the-vote activities is highly unclear.

Overall, political endorsements are likely effective, particularly in settings such as primary races where voters and politicians share similar ideologies. A 2014 poll found that 60% of Democratic Party voters reported attaching importance to endorsements in determining which candidates to support. The evidence on the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote efforts is mixed. While the evidence on the success of core campaign activities in driving votes is unclear and likely highly context-dependent (Kalla & Brookman, 2018), such activities may have a modest effect on certain races.

Our team additionally noted that a number of activist organizations pressure candidates and politicians to refuse donations from fossil-fuel linked interests. We reviewed the evidence on the effect of campaign contributions and concluded that the evidence on whether such donations influence political behavior is quite mixed.

A large literature in political science assesses the question of whether campaign contributions or other donations to politicians operate as a quid pro quo buying benefits for donors, especially corporations. Overall, the literature on this point is mostly inconclusive.

Until recently, much of the literature on campaign contributions and political donations found little evidence of systematic benefits accruing to corporations who make political donations when looking at roll call voting patterns, but more recent studies have called this into question (Powell, 2013). Kalla & Broockman (2016) find that politicians make themselves available for meetings with individuals said to be donors between 3-4 times more often than others. This may reflect the fact that much important policy work and selection of policy priorities occurs informally before roll call votes even take place (Powell, 2013). Supporting this view, Fouirnaies & Hall (2018) find that donations are allocated disproportionately to politicians who acquire procedural power, such as important committee roles.

Nonetheless, rigorous recent research finds little evidence of abnormal outsize profits accruing to firms that engage in political donations and whose chosen candidates win political office, calling into question the reasons why firms might make political donations in the first place (Fowler et al., 2017). Overall, it is difficult to determine the purpose and benefits of corporate donations and their effect on political behavior, especially since many studies focus on single politicians and issue areas while donation behavior is likely highly sophisticated, and returns to donations could differ between individual sectors and even firms. Thus, we conclude there is modest evidence that pushing candidates to commit not to take fossil-fuel linked money could affect the candidate’s political behavior once in office.

A related question is whether campaign spending, in general, is electorally effective. If otherwise pro-climate candidates are deprived of funding through signing a no-fossil-fuel-money pledge, could this affect these candidate’s electoral prospects? Overall, there is little evidence that campaign spending which occurs has electoral implications or even that most campaign activities generally have a strong effect on electoral outcomes for incumbents (Gerber, 2004). However, fundraising may have a larger impact in competitive races and for challenger candidates (Gerber, 2004). In addition, fundraising plays an important role in electability at the very initial stages when candidates consider whether to run for office (Bonica, 2016). Corporate donors overwhelmingly donate to incumbents in non-competitive races, candidates likely to win anyway (Bonica, 2016).

5, 6, 7, 8, 9: Protest action, targeted action, media content creation, attention, shifts in public opinion and candidate perception

Overall, research demonstrates that activism has in the past played a key role in shifting public opinion around contentious social issues, with important implications for politics and policy.

Social movements played an important role in shifting discourse and awareness around marriage equality issues in the US (Woodly, 2015). Earlier, protests around Civil Rights in the United States during the 1960s were highly successful at gaining media and thus public attention, shifting public opinion, electoral support, and policy (Mazumder, 2018; Wasow, 2020), though these protests took place in a different media context and succeeded at framing the issue in a resonant way. Broadly, some evidence suggests protest and movement activities generally tend to lead to greater political prospects for politicians aligned with protester demands (Gillion & Soule, 2018). Importantly, in this work negative media coverage (which has been a component of coverage of the Green New Deal and other climate policy proposals), has been shown to have had a negative effect on popular support for social movement aims.

Overall, these prominent case studies and others demonstrate that large-scale policy shifts driven by social movement activities are possible, but highly context-dependent, making it difficult to predict whether a particular protest act or social movement will achieve success with any reasonable certainty. The chain from action to media creation to shifting public opinion is long, and there is no one “optimal” way for activist organizations to go about doing this that can be generalized to many contexts.

Additionally, in numerous instances protest movements have been evaluated as failing in achieving their mission, such as the anti-Vietnam war movement (McAdam & Su, 2002) and Occupy Wall Street. This further highlights the highly contextual nature of mobilization success. Existing literature suggests that the success of mobilization is highly dependent on the number of individuals mobilized (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011), and on the ability of the movement to signal itself as a credible threat to those in power, especially through signalling the existence of authoritative civil society organizational structures (Tufekci, 2017). Little generalizable evidence exists on how this should be done, suggesting that what constitutes “effective” activism in one place and time may very well not be effective in another context.

Unfortunately, climate issues are impersonal and tend to command exceptionally low public attention relative to other social issues (Egan & Mullin, 2017). This means that climate policy may be less amenable to change through social movement mobilization, and overall lead to less mobilization, than other issue areas were and are. Turning to climate change specifically, some evidence from a pre-post study suggests that large-scale protest like marches may change public intentions to participate in climate social movement activities further (Swim et al. 2019). Overall, such evidence is not conclusive.

In summary, we find ample evidence that activist mobilization can succeed in generating media attention and shifting public opinion, but little evidence that there is one “best-practice” approach to achieving public opinion and policy shifts. This suggests that a key criterion for evaluating the likely effectiveness of a climate activist organization must be the organizations ability to adapt its tactics to shifting political conditions and public opinion.

10, 11, 12: Commitments by candidates and politicians, election of political allies, climate change becomes a policy priority

We observe that many climate activist organizations seek to gain commitments by elected politicians or candidates to act in a particular way. In order for the practice of securing politicians’ commitments to be useful, politicians must follow through on their commitments. Overall, we find evidence that politicians most often do follow through on promises and commitments made during campaigns, though we found little evidence specifically on politicians’ follow-through for on-the-spot commitments made during a confrontation with activists.

The academic literature on the subject suggests that most politicians keep promises and follow through on their campaign commitments most of the time. A review of the literature on the subject by Pétry & Collette (2009) finds that on average across studies in North America and Europe, politicians keep their promises about 67% of the time. However, the variance of the studies is significant (around 10%) and the overall quality of research reviewed is deemed fairly low. In an analysis of follow-through on environmental campaign promises in the 105th US congress (1997-99), Ringquist & Dasse (2004) find a rate of 73% agreement between campaign promises and votes on legislative proposals. Sulkin (2009) finds additional evidence of this, particularly in the context of campaign promises in the US and political activity in the 106th to 108th US congress (1999-2005). Thompson et al. (2017) provide a further up-to-date verification of these overall findings, we conclude that it is likely politicians follow through on their commitments, though notably a 67-73% follow-through implies a 27-33% non-follow-through rate. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that on average politicians are more likely to follow through on their promises than not.

13, 14: Enactment of legislative commitments, reduced atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration

Activists often advocate for politicians to adopt commitments, such as commitments to decarbonize the American economy by a particular date (most often 2030 or 2050). Do such commitments represent likely follow-through? Overall, we find little evidence on this point in the context of climate-focused commitments. Some intermediate evidence suggests that climate commitments across countries have tended to lead to expected intermediate changes (Tolliver et al., 2020). Overall, however, the link between commitments and action to meet the commitments is not entirely clear in existing research.

Conclusion

Our analysis of available research on activism demonstrates that activism has in the past played a key causal role in shifting public opinion around contentious social issues, with implications for politics and policy, but that such shifts are far from assured. For every instance of successful activism, instances of unsuccessful activism abound. The success of activism is highly context-dependent, relying on the ability of activists to formulate winning strategies in the face of existing and constantly shifting political, media, and public opinion conditions.

Because of the demonstrated successes of activism in causing massive political and policy change around contentious social issues in the past, we believe that activism is a highly promising activity for influencing policy, but that activist organizations must be assessed for quality and the coherence of their theory of change within the political context in which they work. In addition, our findings above suggest best-practices in certain areas such as organizational strength and internal alignment along with climate change issue framing. In our shallow-dive and deep-dive documents, we apply the lessons gained from our theory of change exercise and literature review presented here to identify high-potential opportunities for funding and giving time to climate activism efforts.


[1] In addition, activism can shift the way companies and other organizations behave. While this is an important outcome of activism, we focus in this document on the outcome of US Policy Change specifically.

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