One big sign that your cause is hitting something like an axle-breaking speed bump is when there's more conversation about its image than the reason it was spawned in the first place.
Take #BlackLivesMatter, for example.
Observers, activists and politicians are all struggling to measure the exact impact of the movement a year after its sudden and somewhat accidental birth amid the unrest of Ferguson, Mo. And we should.
The answer, however, is not as easy as it seems, despite all the dizzying protest noise around it. Many assume a viral and dominant spread in digital space is wildfire-like success. Others point to the very open (albeit tense and scattered) national conversation on race as if a major strategic victory was scored. When public figures or celebrities, after much teeth-pulling and upstaging, finally embrace the phrase, activists quickly cheer and pat themselves on the back as if they just blew up the Death Star. A recent Associated Press (AP) analysis listing 24 states pressed to legislative action since Michael Brown's untimely death got a heavy dose of retweeted gratitude from sympathizers who point to that as ultimate proof of policy overhaul and impact.
But is that power? Are you annoying candidates and elected officials into submission? Or have you navigated your way to the negotiating table to pull some strings when sausage grinding begins? I'm not saying that organizers really believe the extent of their action is based almost entirely on spirited typing of 140 characters all day. And I'm surely not trying to diminish the actual cause or the black millennial enthusiasm and energy behind it. Honestly, it's always healthy to encourage and witness budding mass public awareness around key national issues.
Still, enthusiasm can't amount to much if it hasn't metastasized into any actual political muscle, the real driver of lasting policy change. In this case, it's not clear if that's the needed #BlackLivesMatter movement end game. Tweets ultimately have about as much weight as the kid who runs a punch-then-run play in the school yard. Social media campaigns for any range of causes can be tactically effective. But the only tangible measurement of political success is not only in number of followers, retweets, favorites and pledges of support you've accumulated. In our current modern democracy, political success is a matter of how much money you’ve raised, how many elected officials you've either unseated or helped seat, how many bills were actually signed into law and, in the end, whether you've implemented a new policy paradigm or substantially mitigated the problem you set out to address in the first place.
The true measurement of success for any political movement is its ability to accumulate raw political power of some kind.
That hasn't happened, yet, with #BlackLivesMatter. The urgency for something is unquestionably there. But, to date, we're trapped in a circular firing squad squabble over the merits of #BlackLivesMatter as a brand compared to various petty iterations of it like #AllLivesMatter. And, while we're doing that, black people die disproportionately from inequality-sprang violence at a fast clip — or, at least, we're increasingly more aware of what's been happening all along. Economic and social disparities are growing and rich and that triggered this particular movement. Irreversible global disruptions such as "gig economies" and automation could dangerously exacerbate present inequality. Public school systems are in a state of disarray, youth unemployment mixed with overall underemployment could be a recipe for social meltdown and the post-recession recovery only works for a select few.
Even the AP analysis subtly wonders out loud if the few laws passed mean anything game-changing. "Despite all that action, far more proposals have stalled or failed. And few states have done anything to change their laws on when police are justified to use deadly force," writes the AP's David Lieb. Some state and municipal legislators are hustling to introduce bills, but police lobbies are still flexing a lot more political biceps to ensure many don't see the tip of a governor or mayor's pen. Ferguson and Baltimore police chiefs were eventually issued pink slips, but most police chiefs (along with their bosses) remain in place with lots of promises for procedural changes and diversity hiring largely unfulfilled.
We haven't really seen a true #BlackLivesMatter "win" — oh, yeah, save embarrassing moments for presidential candidates suddenly forced to rescript already scripted messaging. Yet, embarrassing moments and taped rants that go viral don't necessarily mean group empowerment. It's all momentary face-saving and low hanging fruit. Calibrating a talking point can be briefly fulfilling, but is the candidate really in your pocket? Sure, those moments are currently forcing folks on both sides to not forget about black voters, but the jury is still out on whether that's forced any significant realignment on the issues beyond mere wedgie-inspired statements that "yes, OK, OK, you got me, stop, it hurts ... Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter!"
But, what's the policy pledge beyond that? Is anyone saying they'll push or sign a law that forces rigorous national policing standards or demands totally enforced federal tracking of police brutality or gives real teeth to Justice Department audits of state and local agencies? And what's the plan to combat linked issues such as crumbling schools, high poverty and systemic housing segregation once they get elected?
With one known national weekend convention in Cleveland under its belt, there is no real sense of what the big plan or mission is. When you ask, organizers are unresponsive. Some are outright dismissive: either you're in or you're out (a strange feed-the-crowd mindset for any social justice movement pushing for universal equity, fairness and transparency). Keep inquiring or offering insight on the essential political mechanics, and it becomes a generational shutdown (that's "old school") or visceral the-system-can-kiss-my-ass anarchy ("we tried that already" when, um, sorry, no, you really didn't). Or, ask more and you are slowing down momentum and attempting to dismantle the cause, even if the questions are coming from a good place.
But these are important questions; decisive questions that will determine if it's a one-hit wonder like its Occupy Wall Street cousin or whether it can really last. Will there be a sophisticated, multi-state voter registration and mobilization campaign in 2016? Is there a robust national political action committee in the works? Are you relying on conditional grants or are you raising the kind of grassroots money that makes public officials – and the law enforcement bosses they hire or approve - wet their bed at night when they think about it?
Graduate students from Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley recently conducted the first "randomized' field study that showed what we sort of knew all along: "money equals access to candidates." So, what's your government relations or lobbying effort on Capitol Hill since, with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, lots of bills are being introduced but not much has passed (well, you've got the feds tracking police shooting data now, but what good is that if loosely enforced?). Several senators ban together on legislation in response to Cecil the Lion's death — including one of only two black members of the Senate — and you're wondering why they haven't pushed anything yet on #BlackLivesMatter?
People might be talking about #BlackLivesMatter. But do candidates, policymakers and influencers really fear it? If not, you'll still find yourselves frustrated and faced with the same issues and the same folks in power with no change of guard or policy in sight.
Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributor for The Hill. He is a contributing editor for The Root and Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. He can be reached via Twitter @ellisonreport.