Anticipatory Countermobilization

by Michael Dorf

In my latest Verdict column, I ask whether the post-Windsor unanimity of the lower courts (thus far) in striking down SSM bans will have any impact on the SCOTUS when the case eventually makes it there. Spoiler alert: I say the answer is yes. Here I'll discuss a related question about how we got to where we are today.

In an earlier post, I included a citation of a recent article in Law & Social Inquiry by me and my Cornell Government Dep't colleague Sid Tarrow. (Sid is probably the world's leading experts on social movements; it was a great honor to work with him, and to co-teach a seminar with him a few years ago.) The article is titled: Strange Bedfellows: How an Anticipatory Countermovement Brought Same-Sex Marriage into the Public Arena. Because of the journal's policy, the full-text version is behind a paywall, although if you're accessing the blog from a .edu domain, your institution probably has a site license for Wiley Online.  (OpenAthens is another possibility for some. L&SI is not available on Lexis or Westlaw.)  In any event, here's the abstract:
Since the 1980s, social movement scholars have investigated the dynamic of movement/countermovement interaction. Most of these studies posit movements as initiators, with countermovements reacting to their challenges. Yet sometimes a movement supports an agenda in response to a countermovement that engages in what we call “anticipatory countermobilization.” We interviewed ten leading LGBT activists to explore the hypothesis that the LGBT movement was brought to the fight for marriage equality by the anticipatory countermobilization of social conservatives who opposed same-sex marriage before there was a realistic prospect that it would be recognized by the courts or political actors. Our findings reinforce the existing scholarship, but also go beyond it in emphasizing a triangular relationship among social movement organizations, countermovement organizations, and grassroots supporters of same-sex marriage. More broadly, the evidence suggests the need for a more reciprocal understanding of the relations among movements, countermovements, and sociolegal change.
The germ of the article was my observation to Sid some years ago that I thought it was ironic that the anti-SSM groups on the right probably hastened the legalization of SSM because their opposition led the LGBT rights groups to fight for marriage equality. Sid noted that in the literature of social movements it is usually assumed that a movement puts an issue on the public agenda, whereupon a countermovement opposes it. We first wrote up a popular version of the story for CNN and then went about doing the research for the shcolarly paper.

Some of the conceptual work of that paper is devoted to coming up with non-circular definitions of "movements" and "countermovements" so that our thesis can even be evaluated, whereas the bulk of the paper is devoted to compiling evidence (from the existing literature and our own interviews) about what actually happened. We began with the hypothesis that "anticipatory countermobilization" catalyzed the marriage equality movement, and we found substantial evidence for that hypothesis, but as the abstract indicates, we also (somewhat unexpectedly) found that there was also a complicated dynamic between movement activists and the grass roots.

What about anticipatory countermobilization more broadly? The paper concludes by proposing a research agenda for enterprising scholars interested in describing the circumstances in which it is likely to occur. We note that the picture is likely to be quite complex.  Here is what we say:
[O]ur confirmation of the important, though not exclusive, role that anticipatory countermobilization played in leading the LGBT rights movement to champion same-sex marriage led us to wonder whether sociological accounts of movement/countermovement dynamics ought to be revised to include the dynamics of anticipatory countermobilization. At the least, this could be a fertile field for comparative research. We would guess that evidence of anticipatory countermobilization would most likely be found in movements concerning social issues, broadly defined, because such issues tend, by their nature, to be polarizing. For example: 
Did segregationists’ invocation of miscegenation spur civil rights activists to embrace interracial marriage at an earlier point than might otherwise have been expected? 
Did the pro-life movement’s efforts to ban so-called partial-birth abortion lead the pro-choice movement to define the targeted procedures as within the ambit of the abortion right it sought to protect? 
Has the gun rights movement in the United States been led to adopt ever-more absolutist positions by the gun-control countermovement’s backing of measures such as waiting periods and an assault weapons ban? 
We do not wish to prejudge the answers to these and other questions. Anticipatory countermobilization can lead a movement to rally around the cause that the countermovement attacks in anticipation, but it also can lead movement leaders to distinguish their cause from the one under attack. For example, the modesty of the US labor movement in the post–World War II United States relative to Europe’s can be understood as partly a reaction against the strength of US anticommunism: rather than embrace a radical agenda, labor leaders were often at pains to renounce one. Likewise, when opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment warned that it would lead to women being drafted into the military, some women’s rights activists responded by distancing themselves from that position, rather than embracing it.
Put differently, anticipatory countermobilization is real, but accurately predicting it is difficult. We hope that our case study and theorizing inspires further research into these questions.