Populist Protest or Parallel Network?

As the Trump administration approaches its first six months in office, public consternation, disgruntlement and opposition have escalated to what many consider “record highs.” Protestors rail against the election results; ‘my vote counts too’ is the platform. The media inundates with stories on connections to and proposed cooperation with Russia. Activists concentrate on immigration, women’s rights, the “Muslim ban,” environmentalism (Paris Accords) and other policies and practices. Social media is abuzz with mockery and animosity. With interruptions at Republican town-halls on the intended repeal of the Affordable Care Act and other like-minded efforts mounting, commentators ponder whether we are witnessing the onset of a liberal social movement. Was the Women’s March the birth of a liberal Tea Party? Will the democratic party base mobilize and take back Congress at midterm? Will populism and polarization fade as more independents steer Leftward? Is this the ‘beginning of the end’ of the “Trumpian-era?”

Yet, these pundits, almost all belonging to one party or the other, frame the debate in reductionist terms and obfuscate the issue under faulty premises. If it is to ‘succeed’ in the truest sense of the term however, mounting opposition and consternation must not prove partisan, populist, insular, or simply anti-Trump. Instead, general sentiments of frustration and opposition to policies and the political landscape generally, would do better to unify and coalesce as an alternative to the networks of privilege and polarized clusters that mark the contemporary reality. For certain, the reality is not confined to Washington. Instead, an entirely new outlook is needed; mobilization and activism should seek to formulate a parallel network, a true antiestablishment movement that expands consciousness and induces a paradigm shift that surpasses mere politics.

Think of the late 1960’s countercultural social movement. We call it ‘countercultural’ because the era represents more than a simple protest of politicians and policy. It was a principle-based critique of the predominant lifestyle, an absolute assault on the status quo. Yet, a sense of nostalgia leads us to believe today that it was largely a circus: with little purpose or leadership, a spontaneous formulation simply about sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and rebellion. These misunderstandings and others plague organizers and protestors currently.

The 1960’s countercultural movement, activists, organizations and collectives shared precepts advocating human rights for all, an end to war, racial and gender inequality and other concrete principles. They built a network that challenged what C. Wright Mills called the ‘power elite’, and the ‘military-industrial complex’ Dwight D. Eisenhower identified as a threat to democracy in his 1961 farewell address. As he put it, “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” The countercultural movement that culminated later in that decade may not have addressed issues concretely but they had a clear vision and imparted a genuine expansion in consciousness. It was a representation of a parallel network.

At the same time, slogans such as ‘Make Love Not War’ proved effective. These were antithetical axioms upon which concrete policy alterations could stem from. Similar representations are exemplified in social media memes and regular postings of SNL skits that attempt to address the president’s incompetency. Today it is imagined that humor alone can inspire an alteration in collective behavior. Indeed, it does; deference to comicality induces lethargy and indifference.


Political scientists, particularly those that study policy alterations have for years assumed that the media, the general public, and activists encourage policy. When policymakers and those that influence them are mapped as networks however, the idea that we live under Madisonian democracy crumbles. Dr. Matt Grossman recently turned the field of policymaking (and in fact political science in general) on its head with a seminal work, Artists of the Possible (Oxford Press, 2014). Utilizing network mapping, he empirically documented that activists, media and public opinion have almost no actual influence; instead a small, elitist network tends to tweak alterations incrementally. The status quo has remained the norm with one exception: the 1960’s countercultural movement, which Grossman claims birthed “the long great society.” The key hub in that network? Dr. Martin Luther King – a man with seemingly clear policy objectives. Nevertheless, a look at the network surrounding reveals a diverse and robust parallel network, unaligned with any political party. It is no wonder that as King’s opposition to segregation influenced others, but he too was influenced by the network to the degree that, in perhaps his greatest speech at the Washington Monument, he expanded his horizon from the domestic to the transnational arena, powerfully condemning the Vietnam War.

Thus, a principle-based, interlocking social movement birthed alterations in culture, science and public perception, as much as politics. It was not the political that affected change on the culture. It was bottom-up, not top-down. Critics point out that it became crass consumerism, but it was a conscious expansion even in business. One could now ‘do good and do well.’ From it we got the personal computer, the World Wide Web, Silicone Valley and other immaculate innovations that have revolutionized the way people all over the world live and reduced the degrees of separation between everyone on the planet.

Today we are starting to recognize that networks are everywhere. However, where we once imagined that the internet and information age would harness further democratization, we now see maps of shocking polarization. The Far-Right offers a perfect illustration. From 2005-2011 once disparate Nazi and ultranationalist movement maps grew completely overlapping. Today that map tracks with the Alt-Right. It has become mainstreamed. Indeed, it is this network that has made the astounding gains of the Far-Right possible, even if public opinion polls show they represent a minority. Enhanced support for Le Pen, Wilders, Brexit and Trump are fundamnetlally misunderstood because we fail to grasp the nature of networks. In fact, popular opinion drives much less than we imagine.

Models of collective behavior speak of ‘tipping points’ or ‘thresholds,’ where the propensity of others to partake in a movement (such as to participate in a riot) depends on the decisions of an influential other. A ‘critical threshold’ is the domino effect. Groups with average mean beliefs and preferences may be induced to adopt fads, migrate or join social movements based on the actions and characteristics of a select few. Malcolm Gladwell calls them Salesman, Mavens and Communicators. Salesman sell one side of a binary position. Mavens frame the issue in a powerful way, synthesizing information and creating a worldview and narrative. Communicators use their connections to expand the network. These select few make fads and ideas spread like viruses do.

Popular ideations of activism and advocacy imagine that vying for majority opinion represents the primary means of social alteration. It is a zero-sum perspective based on misconceptions of equilibrium and human behavior. If most members within a community share a belief, it is imagined outcomes fall in line. This is the notion that drives popular conceptions of democracy, though the notion of a republic is much more accurate and in tune with what we know from the science of networks. The election of Donald Trump is representative. Trump’s campaign was carefully engineered to formulate a tipping point. They understood the irrationality of human decision-making. The opposition relied on a quant-driven, big data approach that clearly backfired. Polls and statistics do not tend to reflect popular sentiment and threshold momentum.

The power of social movements is that small changes in the preferences (or norms and beliefs) of a subset in any population can initiate disproportionate alterations in collective behavior.  This is particularly true when one removes the assumption that people are rational actors and that preferences are normally distributed. As soon as standard deviations are adjusted, a wholly discontinuous qualitative effect is witnessed. A minor fluctuation in the composition of a crowd, or to some change in a situation, might cause a radical alteration, the cause of which would seem so insignificant in relation to the effect that the causal attribution would never be connected. Such is the case in stock market crashes and revolutions, the black swan or tipping point – when the flap of a butterfly’s wing half-way around the world induces a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, social networks can induce such extreme and sudden reverberations.

It is similar to efforts that seek to ‘countermessage’ jihadists. When ISIS announced its so-called caliphate, it was portrayed and understood in popular opinion as something altogether new, as if it came out of nowhere. Yet, the idea of a caliphate drove extremist propaganda for years. The idea was inseminated but never induced majority support. The sudden sweep of the movement from Syria and into Mosul induced a tipping point, a critical threshold. ISIS recognized the properties associated with contagion and manipulated the process to seem much larger than they were. They consciously played off the psychology of collective herd behavior.

Once the science of networks is incorporated into thinking about how one can separate themselves, and perhaps others, from an age of extremisms and polarization, opposition surpasses partisanship and unrecognized allegiance to a bifurcated broken system. Instead, a parallel network, an antithetical countercultural movement, should be advanced. That parallel network should be based on three primary principles.

First, it should promote ‘Global Democratic Identity;’ the world may be blanketed in nation states but a higher international order with an escalated role for international law, transnational partnerships and human rights-based policies. It would be a return to the principles FDR and his wife Eleanor advocated for after World War II. They are distinguished from the Cold War, Iron Curtain mentality that came to dominate under Harry Truman.

Second, opposition must promote ‘Creative Pacifism;’ Art is truly the only means of generating sustainable change in societies. Non-violent means must create safe spaces and parallel universes where ideas can reign but are subject to scrutiny. Creativity and critical thinking assist in cultivating an educated and informed citizenry – the key to a flourishing republic.

And Third, it must be built on an ‘Enlightened Humanism;’ no matter the culture or civilization, the Age of Enlightenment, the turn to reason over tradition, should be unabashedly celebrated. However, scientific and technological advances should not make humanity haughty. Instead, we should revel in what we do not know. We should step back and recognize our limitations. What good is reason if it removes the intangibles that make life the human experience majestic? Let us understand the key distinction between John Locke’s, “life, liberty and property” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

While they do not offer a platform set in stone, these principles might form the basis of a parallel network, a countercultural movement, paradigm shift or whatever you want to call it. These principles are evident in the movements that have contributed most to the liberal order. In an era of rampant polarization, an era of intersecting and mutually reinforcing extremisms, similar principle-based efforts would ground a movement and formulate a coherent alternative worldview that might challenge the binary status quo. These efforts would hold within them the capacity to one day culminate as a tipping point, to induce a critical threshold with the necessary momentum to induce the next paradigm shift in humanity’s development.