The Political Identity Paradox (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 7)

This is an adapted version of an earlier, longer article by the same title, which was part of series on evolutionary logics of collective action.

Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.

The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.

This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.

The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who meet the kind of brutal resistance that the civil rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.  

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization &#151 beneath the rational arguments that leaders were slinging at each other &#151 was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity and grown more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and inclination to relate to their broader membership &#151 a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion &#151 let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action.

This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to forge broad alliances.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Expressive & Instrumental Actions (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 5)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Zack Malitz

Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut &#151 whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.

“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequentialin terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.

Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.

Both aspects are important, and though a well designed action can deliver on both simultaneously, expressive and instrumental often get pitted against one another. Many hard-nosed organizers focus exclusively on tangible impacts, forgetting that the self-expressive dimension of an action plays a critical role in affirming values and building group identity. On the other hand, many groups can carry out a whole string of expressive actions without ever winning anything. The danger here is clear: groups that don’t evaluate the success of their tactics in terms of their instrumental goals risk becoming narcissistic and self-referential. They can spiral into irrelevance because they aren’t tuned into how their action effects anyone outside of the group.

While instrumental actions are often focused on an “external” outcome, say, some measurable kind of pressure you can exert on the bad guy your campaign is targeting, they can also have an “internal” focus. Consider a mass teach-in that is designed to build your organization’s capacity, or increase the skills of participants, or shift the thinking in your movement. Here, the expressive value of the action is being directly translated into an instrumental outcome. Expressive and instrumental are therefore not mutually exclusive categories, but rather dynamics to which we need to pay attention.

Instrumental actions can be further subdivided into “communicative” and “concrete”. Communicative actions are designed to sway opinion, express an idea, or contribute to public discourse, while concrete actions are designed to have a tangible impact on a target. These are two separate ways of measuring an instrumental outcome.

While self-expression is a necessary part of the social change process, it is not sufficient. Through our rituals of self-expression, we affirm our values and visions and build the kind of group identity and cohesion without which we’d be too weak and disorganized to change the world. That said, expressing values is not the same as engaging society and affecting systemic change. If we really want to change the world, we must know the difference between &#151 and artfully balance &#151 our instrumental goals with our desire for self-expression.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!