Could Activists Do Better at Resisting Backlash?

March 15, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

Been having a series of conversations on the general theme of ‘backlash’. Some thoughts:

Background: a lot of activist thinking is predicated on being on the front foot – this is a law, policy, spending commitment or social norm that we want to change. Lots of case studies, toolkits and experience on how to do that – problem and power analysis, stakeholder mapping, insider-outsider strategies and all the rest. This is basically what I am teaching at the LSE.

But reality is often somewhere else – backlash against progress on rights, whether it’s the ‘anti-woke agenda’ or abortion rights in the North, or middle eastern governments criticising ‘CEDAW NGOs’ as being driven by a foreign agenda (in this case women’s rights) and/or being puppets of foreign funders. The more unsavoury fragments of faith institutions are weighing in on areas such as LGBTQI+.

How are activists responding? I would love to know. I hear a lot of lamentation, but I’m not seeing much of a theory of change around dealing with backlash. When Donald Trump was elected back in 2016, there was lots of initial hand-wringing about filter bubbles and the need to get out and connect with/understand the concerns of MAGA supporters (in a twitter poll, 97% of my followers at the time said they supported Hillary Clinton ☹). But I haven’t seen much evidence of that since – what happened? Lots of people bought Hillbilly Elegy, but how many read it?

In fact, the tactics employed sometimes feel like a throwback to the frontfoot agenda of 20 years ago – we just need to keep explaining why we are right and the backlash is wrong (good luck with that), or general pleas to find narratives that resonate with those who currently support the backlash (e.g. Islamic feminism, or Christian narratives on climate change).

Is that the best we can do? I was interested in Lisa Nandy’s recent point that susceptibility to backlash is partly a consequence of how you win. If you use the dark arts of advocacy to sneak through a progressive change, without taking the public with you, there is little to stop that change being reversed. That’s a profound challenge to the kind of Machiavellian approach to influencing that I am often preaching.

A wider point is that it’s better to think about prevention than cure – once a backlash is under way, it’s very hard to stop.

Maybe it’s worth unpacking into ideas, interests and institutions: how do you create bulwarks in all three against possible future backlash? Lisa’s point speaks to the importance of ideas and narratives, but if you can create interests (e.g. jobs) and institutions (dedicated organizations) to support the change, they will fight hard to resist any backlash that threatens them.

Final point, when talking about stakeholder mapping, I used to say activists could safely ignore the bottom left quadrant – those who oppose what you are advocating, and have little influence. I now think that’s a big mistake – that’s where many of the backlash movements we now see have been incubating, often invisible to progressive activists. Think Brexit or back to MAGA.

A quick Google produced this interesting 4 page guide for feminist activists. Its advice seems to be partly ‘be more frontfoot’, but it also suggests some new approaches:

Practitioners, researchers, donors and policy-makers

• Build solidarity with fellow activists to collectively mitigate and address backlash against work to promote gender equality and end GBV.

• Create environments that support respectful discussions among people with various backgrounds, including those who are — and are not — affiliated with feminist movements.

• Listen to and learn from local and national women’s rights and other relevant organisations.

Practitioners and researchers

• Anticipate and monitor for backlash and develop strategies to mitigate backlash throughout the programme cycle.

• Include community leaders from the start of GBV programmes, as they can be powerful voices to support or resist change.

• Engage entire communities — men, women, boys and girls — from the start of any programming.

• Meet people at their comfort level in conversations around gender equality, and work with communities to develop dialogue at their pace.

Policy-makers and donors

• Advocate for women-centred and women-led framing of the issue, discourse, strategies and resources around GBV.

• Lead by example by developing gender mainstreaming systems to advance gender equality within organisations and institutions.

Thoughts? Further reading?

March 15, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. “Lots of people bought Hillbilly Elegy, but how many read it?” — I bought it, read it, and then was bemused as the author, J.D. Vance, became a Trump-allied Senator from Ohio.

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