As social movements gain strength, they almost inevitably spark opposition, which can become organized as countermovements. These oppositional groups typically become active when a social movement’s success challenges the status quo, threatening the interests of a cohesive group with its strong potential for attracting political allies. The emergence of an opposition group and the complicated dance of actions and reactions with the original movement that results can change the trajectory of a social movement’s path and even derail it.
Countermovements emerge in many different kinds of social movements, such as abortion rights and civil rights. Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups formed in the years after Roe v. Wade to battle with pro-choice groups, sometimes violently, to stop women from obtaining legal abortions. The civil rights movement gained not only legislative and judicial successes in the 1960s but also a cadre of opponents, who staged their own protests and lobbying efforts to stop desegregation efforts made possible by Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By advocating for change and threatening established interests, social movements also stir up a reaction among those established interests, who aim to fight back as vigorously as possible.
What factors lead to the development of opposition groups, and when are they most effective at blocking the social change advocated by a social movement? What tactics do opposition groups usually take, and what impact do those activities have on the course and outcome of a social movement?
When Do Countermovements Form?
Looking at the history of social movements that sparked intense opposition reveals three factors that tend to lead to the formation of a countermovement. Opposition groups are most likely to develop and become active when a social movement gains some measure of success, though not a total victory, that threatens the interests of a population who are unable to block the social movement through normal institutional channels and when political elites are available and willing to support the countermovement.
A social movement must meet some measure of success in attaining its goals to be taken seriously enough to spawn an opposition movement. Advocates of the availability of safe and legal abortions did not attract much reaction until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which overturned state laws banning the procedure. Fierce opposition formed in the wake of the court ruling, as the movement’s goals became attainable. But total victory would squelch opposition by making resistance seem hopeless. The success of the civil rights movement in light of the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated public schools, led to the creation of several countermovements, such as the citizens councils in the South. The councils vanished after mobilization of federal marshals to enforce school desegregation efforts.
Countermovements are also more likely to develop if those threatened by a social movement’s goal cannot block the threat through existing institutions. For example, agricultural growers, frustrated by the inability of law enforcement officials to stop labor strikes and protests staged by farmworkers seeking to unionize in California in the 1930s, formed an opposition group known as Associated Farmers (AF). Farmworkers staged more than 200 labor strikes between 1933 and 1939, but these were so peaceful that the local sheriff had no grounds to break them up. Frustrated growers, whose economic interests were at risk, formed the AF and organized vigilante groups to terrorize and intimidate the farmworkers.
The brutal AF illustrates a third factor often found in the formation of countermovements: support of political elites. The opposition group was made up of members of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, wealthy growers, groups such as the American Legion, and industrial organizations. In fact, the local power elite formed the core of the AF, which originated as a subcommittee of the Chamber of Commerce. It was able to draw on the support of transportation and power companies, whose economic fortunes were linked with the growers.
Boston city officials were active in the anti-busing movement that mobilized in the 1970s to block the use of busing to achieve school desegregation. City officials held key positions in the organizations that opposed busing, and many countermovement activities were held in city buildings. But although city officials provided the necessary resources, they were able to dissociate themselves from the sometimes violent actions taken by more militant members. Those protestors hurled rocks at buses carrying black students and taunted the students as they went in and out of school, but city officials did no more than offer tacit support.
Elite support, however, can be a double-edged sword, as pro-nuclear power groups formed by nuclear power industries learned in the 1970s. The pro-nuclear movement was spawned largely by companies involved in the production of nuclear equipment and trade associations in the face of the anti-nuclear protest movement. Demonstrations at Seabrook, New Hampshire, Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, drew hundreds of protestors. Opposition groups launched a major campaign to counter those voices but were often publicly scorned as shills for the nuclear industry. The active engagement of companies, such as Westinghouse, affected their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Actions and Reactions
The interaction between movements and counter-movements is a dynamic, fluid process of thrusts and parries, as each side attempts to disarm and delegitimize the other. Countermovements can try to raise the costs of mobilization for social movements by blocking their access to resources, damaging their public image by casting movement goals in a negative light, and directly intimidating and threatening movement activists.
Pro-nuclear organizations responded to the anti-nuclear movement by organizing “truth squads” to promote their position that nuclear power was safe and discredit their opponents as wrongheaded. The pro-nuclear movement also tried to block activists’ access to federal funding to intervene in regulatory proceedings, and several campus chapters organized efforts to block the use of student fees to fund the activities of campus anti-nuclear groups. The pro-nuclear organizations also tried to intimidate protestors by hiring security firms to photograph license plates at rallies, disseminating derogatory information about activists, and pursuing trespassing charges against activists protesting at nuclear power plants. More recently, conservative groups such as the Capital Research Center have tried to discredit anti-corporate globalization groups by writing derogatory articles about them and embarrassing foundations that fund movement groups into cutting off their financial support.
Anti-abortion groups worked hard to reframe the abortion debate to discredit their opponents. A movement that thought it was advocating for safe and legal medical procedures for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy was eventually recharacterized as “baby killers” as the terms of the debate shifted from the rights of women to the rights of the unborn. Demonstrators ringed abortion clinics with signs showing gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, and some abortion opponents turned to violence by bombing abortion clinics.
Countermovements also use conventional political methods to block social movements. The AF not only physically attacked striking farmers but also worked to convince state and local governments to pass anti-picketing ordinances, withhold relief payments from striking farmworkers, and prosecute labor leaders for their organizing activities. Anti-abortion groups have turned to the courts to seek favorable judicial rulings to uphold limits on the availability of abortion through such avenues as requiring minors to obtain parental consent or mandating counseling before a procedure can be performed. Opponents of the civil rights movement created private academies for white children in the South in the 1970s to circumvent federal demands that public schools be desegregated.
Opposition movements such as the anti-abortion movement can change the path of a social movement by changing the terms of the debate and can even ultimately defuse an activist group. A countermovement formed by scientists and professional associations to battle against animal rights activists in the 1980s was eventually able to prevail, blocking activists from shutting down animal experiments. A group of animal protectionists was able to stop two animal research projects in the 1970s and 1980s, but opposition groups formed to defend the use of animals in research.
Professional associations began discussing ways to counter the animal rights movement and to counsel research institutions to defend their practices. They were able to reframe the issue as one of helping the sick, particularly children, giving support to other universities and research centers.
- Andrews, Kenneth. 2002. “Movement-Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of ‘White Flight’ Schools in Mississippi.” Social Forces 80:911-36.
- Jasper, James and Jane Poulsen. 1993. “Fighting Back: Vulnerabilities, Blunders, and Countermobilization by the Targets in Three Animal Rights Campaigns.” Sociological Forum 8:639-57.
- Meyer, David S. and Suzanne Staggenborg. 1996. “Movements, Countermovements, and the Structure of Political Opportunity.” American Journal of Sociology 101:1628-60.
- Pichardo, Nelson. 1995. “The Power Elite and Elite-Driven Countermovements: The Associated Farmers of California during the 1930s.” Sociological Forum 10:21-49.
- Zald, Mayer N. and Bert Useem. 2006. “Movement and Countermovement Interaction: Mobilization, Tactics, and State Involvement.” Pp. 247-72 in Social Movements in an Organizational Society, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
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