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Climate Action: What the Sunrise Movement Can Do Better

Climate Action: What the Sunrise Movement Can Do Better

Members of the Sunrise Movement display a banner on the Green New Deal at a rally in Chicago, February 2019. Photo: Charles Edward Miller, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • The Sunrise group organises protests meant to “ignite moral conflict” between climate action heroes and fossil fuel villains, and move public opinion.
  • Many have accused Sunrisers of engaging in pageantry that stands no chance of improving, and perhaps could damage, the prospects for meaningful climate action.
  • While Sunrise has significant potential, it stands at a remove from the vast majority of people the organisation wishes to mobilise.

“BIDEN YOU COWARD – FIGHT FOR US,” the sign blared. A few hundred members of the Sunrise Movement had gathered near the White House late last month to protest the Biden administration’s proposed compromise with Republicans on infrastructure legislation, jettisoning most of the climate provisions from an already inadequate bill. Speeches were made, songs sung; many Sunrisers sat down in the road before being dragged away by the police.

For long-time observers, these scenes have become a familiar sight. Such tactics are Sunrise’s bread and butter. The organisation focuses on direct action and coordinating national media blitzes, most famously their late 2018 sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. Actions like these use multiday trainings which erupt in carefully calibrated protests meant to “ignite moral conflict” between climate action heroes and fossil fuel villains, move public opinion and recruit more members into the organisation. By tying climate action to economic security and racial justice, Sunrise believes the Green New Deal’s message can call a multiracial, working-class climate coalition into being.

This strategy has yielded dividends. Since 2018, Sunrise has effectively popularised and refocused public discourse around the Green New Deal (GND). While the GND is demonised by conservative media and shunned by centrist Democrats, many of its core policies receive majority support among the public. The other plank of Sunrise’s efforts – mobilising a small army of volunteers to knock doors and make calls for progressive local and Congressional races – has contributed to a rising crop of new electeds loyal to GND-style messaging and legislation.

Yet Sunrise’s tactical repertoire is running up against hard limits. In contrast to the generous and relatively favourable media coverage the group received early on, attention to Sunrise direct actions has waned. Multiday marches through California and the Gulf Coast in May and June, for example, received little to no media coverage. The June 28 action earned some attention, but the reception by journalists, commentators and on social media was mixed. Many observers criticised the action for targeting Biden instead of Congress, which presents more serious obstacles to significant climate spending.

The blogosphere pounced, accusing Sunrisers of engaging in pageantry that stands no chance of improving, and perhaps could damage, the prospects for meaningful climate action. While some of the criticisms offered ring hollow – contra Matt Yglesias, who argues Sunrise’s only accomplishment is “fooling gullible journalists,” Sunrise has moved latent public opinion and moved climate change onto the political agenda – it is true that despite their best efforts, Sunrise and its allies seem powerless to stop the watering down of climate legislation at the hands of Joe Manchin and company.

A number of warning signs have emerged over the past year that American politics is moving in quite a different direction than the vision of multiracial populism which anchors Sunrise’s long-term strategy. Voters of color shifted away from the Democratic Party in 2020, compounding the issues presented by the long-standing departure of white working-class Democrats. The decline of trade unions, the black church, and other mass organisations means most Americans have no personal experience participating in politics beyond casting an occasional ballot, or even organised social life more generally.

Right-wing attacks on state capacity, police brutality and mass incarceration have convinced many Americans that the government is necessarily incompetent at best and malevolent at worst, undermining the public faith in the state required for any Green New Deal project. Meanwhile, the relatively affluent, college-educated segment of the Democratic Party base seems wholly uninterested in any but the most modest demands of social movements like Black Lives Matter. While the Bernie campaign showed that there is a significant hunger for social-democratic politics, it wasn’t enough to push Sanders to victory, and workers across the country are not engaged in significant amounts of organising and class struggle on the job.

This is the moment we find ourselves in. What kind of political shift can Sunrisers and other Green New Dealers actually effect in the next ten years? And how do we navigate the political terrain’s current openings and constraints to accomplish it?

In the case of Sunrise, we offer a simple diagnosis. While Sunrise has significant potential, it stands at a remove from the vast majority of people the organisation wishes to mobilise. Sunrise is socially dis-embedded from American society. In order to succeed, Sunrise must develop an ideological analysis that clarifies what the group wants and why its strategy will accomplish it; penetrate a much broader cross section of the population beyond its largely affluent, highly educated, and metropolitan membership; and focus on developing a mass base of support at local levels.

What is Sunrise’s ideology?

Our analysis draws from dozens of interviews with Sunrise members across the country over the past six months, as well as our combined twenty years of experience studying and organising within the American climate movement. Our critique is meant to be constructive and friendly: we hope that it meaningfully contributes to the conversation on the direction of Sunrise and the collective Green New Deal project.

In order to understand why Sunrise has stalled, we first have to ask a basic question: What is Sunrise’s ideology? The organisation sends mixed signals.

Early on, the organisation self-described as “[looking] neither left nor right, but forward.” In the years since, Sunrise has become more comfortable affiliating itself with left-wing ideas and groups, and frequently critiques capitalism on social media. Still, the guiding principles for Sunrise’s agenda – to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process” and “fight for the liberation of all people” – are so broad as to include many incompatible political commitments.

For example, a Green New Deal could mean nationalisation or buyout of the nation’s energy system, or a series of federal investments that encourage further private sector participation. Collective liberation per one definition could mean grants, contracts, and discounted loans to minority-owned businesses, or the abolition of privately owned corporations and natural resources, prisons, and police. With a stated ideology this broad, it’s difficult to assess what compromises are worth making, or how to measure success.

We don’t believe Sunrise and the GND have to be an explicitly socialist project, but we do believe that a deeper ideology would clarify the direction of the policy battles that Sunrise prioritises. The organisation’s list of legislative priorities this year is nearly two dozen items long, yet it’s not clear how Sunrise assigns these relative weight, or why.

The Civilian Climate Corps might make sense from an organising perspective, but, from our interviews, this hasn’t been communicated effectively to Sunrise’s members, making buy-in more difficult. And this is just at the national level: there are always strategic dilemmas regarding GND-inspired policies to lead with or support at the state and local levels, which would be easier to navigate if Sunrise’s ideal policy aims were defined.

For example, earlier this year, Sunrise New Haven faced a choice about whether to fight for more local government stimulus-sourced investment in GND projects, higher taxation of carbon-greedy mansions at the state level, a greater contribution by company town overlord Yale University to the city budget (in order to build rapport with local unions and other progressive groups), or to prevent the construction of a new pipeline elsewhere in the state. The local hub put some effort into a few of each of these battles but didn’t have the ideological depth to prioritise a particular goal – and has fallen back on doing whatever people in the room (largely untrained) are most energised about.

The result has been the fragmentation of energy across different projects, decreasing the probability that any will be successful, in addition to taking too much time to decide on every subsequent project.

More generally, Sunrise has been criticised for bringing in a hodgepodge of left causes ranging from Palestinian liberation to policing into its messaging and programming, leading to a sense that the group lacks direction and coherence. While many of these critiques are made in bad faith by those who do not support such causes, they raise a useful question: How should limited time and resources be allocated, given Sunrise’s largely correct but wide-ranging political commitments on a variety of issues? The choice may not be easy without a more clearly defined ideology.

Ideology is useful not just because it articulates a political vision, but because it provides an idea of how the world presently works – and, by extension, how we might successfully intervene in it. The concepts that Sunrise typically deploys to describe this part of its ideology – “people power” and “political power,” for instance – are too abstract to be useful. Why and when are the people powerful?

After all, many social movements with both majority public support and an intense core of activists fall short (like the Arab Spring or recent protests in Hong Kong), while others with minority support succeed (like the Civil Rights Movement). Even those movements which get a taste of political power are often unable to effectively use the state to achieve their goals, as shown by left-populist Syriza’s capitulation to the austerity-minded European Union in 2011, as well as countless socialist governments in the Global South constrained by economic sanctions and capital flight.

For insight into these questions, we can turn to the organising model behind Sunrise: Momentum.

The Momentum model

Momentum is a self-described “training institute and movement incubator” influenced by “nonviolent resistance” thinkers and practitioners such as Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth, and Mark and Paul Engler. Momentum attempts to use tactics from myriad twentieth- and early twenty-first-century social movements – the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the Indian independence movement, Occupy Wall Street – and synthesise them into a single model.

That model consists of a virtuous cycle of tactics: first, a small group of activists stage a series of (often theatrical) protests, hoping to attract media coverage and thus public attention. The protests will involve a “polarising” demand that provokes a sense of crisis, forcing onlookers to feel like they have to take a side. Those that favor the protests will then join the movement, replicating its tactics, symbols, and slogans at mass scale with minimum coordination, like Black Lives Matter.

Finally, those who enter the movement are “absorbed” into a preplanned organisational structure which allows for the staging of increasingly large and dramatic protests which recruit even larger numbers, and in turn enable mass acts of “non-cooperation.” The cycle of protest, absorption, and training continues until it results in victory.

What “victory” entails depends on the movement in question – and this is precisely the problem. In its attempt to provide a universal template for left-leaning activists in the twenty-first century, Momentum raises more questions than it answers. Do the social movements they aim to replicate really have anything in common?

Each succeeded or failed under very different historical conditions, with their own ideas and goals. The underlying “theories of change” expressed by these movements often conflict significantly with each other.

For example, while Mahatma Gandhi embraced an absolutist course of nonviolence – going so far as to forbid cursing or insulting political opponents – Nelson Mandela came to embrace tactics such as bombing campaigns and guerrilla warfare, arguing they were indispensable for compelling the apartheid regime to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC).

What’s more, these men and the tactics they symbolically represent do not exhaust the full repertoire of tactics used by the movements they belonged to: the Indian Independence movement, for instance, involved riots, sabotage, and mass strikes, which Gandhi abhorred but to which many historians attribute the movement’s ultimate success.

The differences between movements extend well beyond tactics. For much of its apartheid-era history, many ANC leaders embraced Marxism and maintained warm relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba, a development that leaders of the anti-Soviet color revolutions in Europe (also cited approvingly by Momentum) would surely detest.

While the great campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement were orchestrated by a constellation of groups exercising organisational discipline, a class of publicly known leaders, and a recruitment model deeply rooted in traditional institutions such as the black church, labor unions, and social clubs, Occupy Wall Street eschewed a leadership cadre, embraced participatory democracy, and relied on social media networks for quick mobilisation.

These movements attempted to reach different populations at different times for different purposes. Even if it wanted to, Occupy couldn’t draw upon the social base that was available to civil rights organisers in mid-century American South. Nor could the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) use the internet.

Ideology that served some movements well failed others. Mandela’s embrace of guerrilla tactics after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre was motivated in part by a disillusionment with the Gandhian brand of nonviolence, which had seemingly delivered independence from the British thirteen years earlier and inspired ANC partisans to adopt a similar strategy. Revolutionary Marxism-Leninism delivered the Bolsheviks victory in 1910s feudal Russia, but not so much the Weather Underground in mid-to-late century America.

Gilded Age populism and WWII-style Keynesianism with a green twist have both been advanced as ideas that would make climate policy more popular, but polling shows these are among the least compelling pitches for the GND to the American public. Left parties pursuing “Third Way” neoliberal politics saw tremendous electoral success in the 1990s, yet now in many countries are struggling to maintain political relevance.

These instances of variation are understandable: each successful movement, in both its tactics and messaging, astutely captured and articulated the realities of its own time and place in a way that resonated for that moment. Having an ideology outfitted for its unique historical context was critical to each movement’s successes. In its ambition to be objective-neutral and ideologically agnostic, the Momentum model overlooks this critical insight.

Even if twentieth-century social movements did succeed for the same reasons, do they necessarily apply to the contemporary climate movement? Of the myriad movements Momentum draws upon, perhaps the most influential is Otpor, which ended the rule of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia at the turn of the twenty-first century. But deposing a dictator is quite a different task than equitably decarbonising a national economy – something that, it should be noted, has never been accomplished anywhere – and a theory of change that applies equally to both is unlikely to be useful.

What ideological orientation might resonate for our time and place, retaining the interest and commitment of new members long after the exhilaration of initial success has worn off? What sort of “noncooperation” might be necessary to win a Green New Deal, whenever we decide it might be?

Sunrise has yet to fill in the gaps. For example, a youth strike of some kind to demand climate change action is now frequently entertained in Sunrise circles. Why is this the best tactic for America in 2021, especially when most of our youth have never heard of Sunrise, and most of those who have are not prepared to endure the legal consequences of striking?

Reasons Sunrise and adjacent climate movement leaders give for striking evoke abstract concepts such as “disruptiveness” that could or could not apply in any given time and place, and risk conflating a school strike with a labor strike. The Fridays for Future climate strikes of 2019–20, led by school children around the world, were certainly disruptive, yet so far their effort has fallen short of winning ambitious climate policy. This outcome should be enough to cast doubt on any one-size-fits-all axioms plucked from social-scientific literature.

Even as children were exempted from school for “strike” days and encouraged by their parents, only a fraction participated, even in the most active countries – far fewer than would be needed to grind society to a halt. What strike numbers for how long a period of time are necessary to force the government into action? How can Sunrise achieve and sustain this level of strike participation, especially given the sacrifices required?

If these questions are not taken seriously, precious years may be wasted on pursuing tactics which bear little fruit. Yet answering them requires a serious analysis of American society and the specific opportunities it presently offers – and, just as importantly, the ones it does not.

Perhaps Sunrise’s leadership has conducted such an analysis behind the scenes; however, actions like the “Generation on Fire” marches in California and the Gulf South make us worry that the organisation is simply copy-and-pasting from the Civil Rights Movement playbook. Over the years, hundreds of left-leaning causes have attempted their own version of the Freedom Marches, or held a rally on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. None have been a tenth as effective as the original.

For this reason, we call on Sunrise to turn away from the idea of a singular “craft” of social movements which can be distilled and applied from the past, and instead be more inventive in its analysis, tactics, messaging, and goals. Additionally, we call on Sunrise’s ideology-as-strategy to be less moralist and more materialist – that is, cognisant of how people’s position in the economy and society affects their worldview and ability to exert power.

Momentum relies on the idea that protests “drive a wedge into the public’s moral conscience.” But whether such protests do drive a wedge depends not only on what language is used, but also whether the audience is in a position to be receptive to any message.

This is not just the work of messaging: it is the work of organisation, especially at the local level.

National-hub relations: A story of contradictions

Sunrise’s organisational structure currently employs a self-defeating mix of centralisation and decentralisation. Despite Sunrise’s design as a decentralised “mass movement,” in practice, a national core team based in Boston and DC sends out movement directives to the four hundred–plus “hubs” across the country. This process is anything but democratic: the hubs have no institutionalised say in the direction of strategy, which is formulated by the national team before being sent to the local hubs for implementation – usually without their input, often without advance notice, and always without a vote.

The effect is a set of dynamics that work at cross-purposes: decentralised strategy implementation without much decentralised strategy development, and centralised leadership without much centralised power.

The potential benefits of centralised command – such as improved coordination and organisational discipline – are undermined by the fact that hubs are not actually required to follow any directives from the core. One Sunrise local leader told us, “Many hubs simply formulate their own strategies on their own time and resources, because the national strategy won’t work for them.”

The team which produces this strategy and serves as the face of the organisation nationally, meanwhile, is hyper-focused on federal politics – in particular, via actions designed to grab national news media attention – putting community organising in the back seat. This focus put the GND on the national political agenda, but has stalled since. Given the difficulty of winning Congressional majorities that can pass meaningful legislation and get through the courts, keeping state and local politics in main sight is crucial for movement victories. No power can even be exerted at the federal level without local, deep-seated, organised power bases in cities, towns, congressional districts, and states.

Yet the unidirectional flow of information within Sunrise prevents the national core team from being able to meaningfully assist with local base-building. A frequent complaint in interviews was that directives from above often display a “one-size-fits-all” approach ill-suited to local conditions.

New organisers are left without the tools required to assess their surroundings. What is the basis of the local economy? What are the demographics and local political institutions, the civil associations and social networks? Where are the bases of political power? Sunrise trainings include a “power-mapping” exercise, but – in our experience – it focuses too much on pressuring particular individuals without explaining how to identify these individuals, why influence might flow in a particular direction, and when and how to exert pressure accordingly.

Without an ideology, it’s hard for local organisers to make sense of their surroundings. It also leaves them stranded when events take an unexpected turn – say, an election delivers a surprise result, popular opposition to a campaign materialises out of nowhere, or an opponent (say, an employer, mayor, or presiding police captain) retaliates without warning.

The absence of movement democracy can also lead to disinvestment from a group’s rank-and-file members. This has been demonstrated by “Big Green” groups in the US, whose budgets have grown while mass participation is minimal. Signs such as the ongoing conflict between the Sunrise Black Caucus and national leadership over the organisation’s funding and lack of democracy indicate that Sunrise is in danger of following this route.

Institutionalising a more democratic national structure of decision-making – similar to that of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), where elected delegates from each chapter meet to decide on nationwide strategy and goals – would increase the legitimacy of national leadership, open vital channels of deliberation, and allow for hub autonomy when necessary to embed Sunrise more deeply within community life. DSA’s structure isn’t perfect – in fact, the organisation would benefit from a more binding strategy decided at the national level – but democratising Sunrise would make it more likely that local hubs accept and implement a centrally decided national strategy, improving upon coordination and cohesion overall.

The Hub Model: Fast but shallow growth

The tensions between the national core and local hubs bring us to the hub model itself – in particular, its pattern of recruitment. College-bound high schoolers, college students, and recent college grads in metro areas with somewhat lefty inclinations and climate anxiety are drawn to meetings by their immediate networks. These recruits are disproportionately affluent, highly educated, and likely to hail from a handful of selective high schools and universities.

Sunrise has taken some strides toward improving the group’s racial diversity, but has still fallen short of substantive multiracial representation, as evidenced by repeated claims that national leadership has not engaged with Sunrise Black Caucus demands about movement strategy, structure, and funding.

While this recruitment pattern can be efficient, it presents two structural obstacles to embedding Sunrise meaningfully and durably within society writ large. First, the predominance of upwardly mobile college and high school students in Sunrise’s ranks means that most of its members are transients. Rather than putting down roots in the given community, they will move to a different part of the country within the next few years.

This compounds the “town-gown” issue endemic to most youth-centered organising: despite living in close proximity with each other, universities and the communities who host them often maintain hostile relations. College students are among the least socially embedded members of their community, frequently resented by locals for their privileges and afforded little social authority or respect, making them less-than-ideal community organisers. Second, the reliance on peer-to-peer recruitment results in an organisational base that is demographically cloistered along lines of race, class, and education and does not reflect the local youth more broadly.

Adjacent movement groups, YDSA included, also struggle with making their membership more representative of the communities they’re trying to mobilise. A recruiting strategy that explores and maps out the social networks of youth in the local community who are not likely to be reached through traditional Sunrise peer recruitment is essential.

The Sanders presidential campaigns did this successfully in California, tapping into enthusiastic but previously neglected subpopulations such as attendees of community colleges, trade schools, and alternative high schools. We also suggest implementing more rules – or at least guidelines – about who can start Sunrise hubs, such as requirements about planning to stay in the region long-term, as well as recruiting beyond immediate peers.

It’s crunch time

Sunrise is unquestionably the most successful political venture the American climate movement has ever produced. The emphasis on media attention-getting stunts – a textbook application of the Momentum model – was perfectly suited for the pre-Biden era.

Yet as the action turns from setting the political agenda to winning and implementing policy over the long term, Sunrise’s existing model has clear limitations. It remains largely dis-embedded from American society, unable to form the mass organisation and ideological assent required to structurally transform the economy within ten to fifteen years – which we absolutely need to do to realise a livable future.

We know that activists at the center of Sunrise – and adjacent climate movement organisations – are already rethinking movement strategy. The task ahead is enormous. A new phase of the struggle is here. How will Sunrise, and the rest of us, change to win it?

Johnathan Guy is a PhD candidate in political science at UC Berkeley, a co-editor of the Trouble magazine on climate-left politics, and organises with his union. Sam Zacher is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University, coeditor of the Trouble magazine, and organises with Sunrise New Haven.

This article was first published by Jacobin Magazine and has been republished here with permission.

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