Abstract This study uses insider ethnographic and interview data to examine one of the largest sustained collective actions in the history of the United States—the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011. It finds that this event took a highly unusual form due to a social relation that I term escalating moral obligation, a sense of solidaristic duty that grows increasingly fervent as others struggle on behalf of a shared cause. Each of three active groups within the movement engaged in arduous and unconventional resistance to controversial legislation, and did so in a manner that induced moral debt among the other groups. Fervency of commitment to the cause increased as a result of allies taking risky or self-sacrificial actions. Each group felt obligated to continue difficult mobilization as long as others continued theirs. Escalating moral obligation develops a simultaneously emergent, endogenous, and cognitive dimension of social movements. It is a relational mechanism linking political opportunity with actual mobilization. The political opportunity in this case was a combination of several conditions: an elite cleavage over the desirability of public unions, a more local balance of power allowing dissident legislators to obstruct but not defeat legislation, and an immediate severe popular reaction. This mechanism is potentially generalizable to other risky or arduous protests. When activists are motivated by the sacrifice or risk-taking of allied activists, escalating moral obligation is present. The concept links group-level imperatives with individual-level motivations. Escalating moral obligation shows one way that individual subjectivities can change through group interrelations and emotionally intense interactions. Introduction The Wisconsin Uprising was a historically massive protest centered in Madison during February and March 2011. The leading issue was an unexpected bill that would effectively end the existence of public unions in the state. During this lengthy collective action, not only protesters but also elected officials in the State Senate and State Assembly engaged in difficult and unconventional forms of resistance. Social movements usually aim to make joining and staying engaged as easy as possible. But in Wisconsin, highly demanding forms of protest were sustained for several weeks, with little attrition, despite no advance planning. This raises two related empirical puzzles: why did mobilization escalate so rapidly in this case, and how did actors maintain arduous collective actions? The answer, I propose, is a relational dynamic not previously formulated that I term escalating moral obligation, a sense of solidaristic duty that grows increasingly fervent as others struggle on behalf of a shared cause. It is a form of moral debt. The more arduous and radical one group’s form of mobilization, the greater the moral and strategic pressure on allied groups to continue, or even intensify, their resistance as well. This pressure changes the subjectivities of participants as the movement develops; their moral commitments increase as others continue to fight for the cause. No group wishes to break faith with allies by being the first to drop out of cooperation during an escalating situation. Thus, when actors engage in particularly difficult forms of collective action, they induce a moral imperative for others already involved to continue their own participation. This participation continues for longer than it would have, or takes more extreme forms than it would have, in the absence of escalating moral obligation. This dynamic resembles high-intensity communal reciprocity, but where debt is owed not to fellow activists as individuals, but to that which benefits the collective. You owe it to your allies to give your utmost to the cause, and by doing so, you give your utmost to them as well. Although the empirics of the present study are case specific, the conceptual payoff is potentially generalizable. Escalating moral obligation is not necessarily determinative of joining protest; it does not automatically trump the many other factors that affect that outcome. But across movements, escalating moral obligation is among the social conditions influencing both the level of participation and the form that social movements take. The social movements literature, across theoretical orientations, has traditionally emphasized the positive feedback that comes out of interaction among activists within a mobilization (e.g., Biggs 2003; Chong 1991; Eyerman and Jamison 1991; Fantasia 1988; Goodwin 1997; Kadivar 2013; Karapin 2011; Marwell and Oliver 1993; Nepstad 2008; Smelser  2011; Tarrow 2011). Another escalating dynamic that has received attention is how repression interacts with protest (e.g., Davenport and Eads 2001; Earl 2011; Rafail, Soule, and McCarthy 2012). Escalating moral obligation differs. I will show that, although it is a form of interaction between dissidents agitating for the same cause, the escalation in this case also depended on the power dynamics and political opportunities salient to the cause in question. Lawmakers may be directly or indirectly involved, and their majority status or minority procedural capacities can have a major effect on the form and duration of a movement. The empirical findings also have theoretical implications. The following section differentiates between inspiration in general and this specific form of obligation. The section thereafter proposes that this form of obligation is a relational mechanism linking political opportunity with actual mobilization, a significant implication for social movement studies. The third and final theoretical section argues that escalating moral obligation links group-level imperatives with individual-level motives. After reporting the data and methods used and brief background on the Wisconsin Uprising, the article moves to its empirical findings, applying these theoretical perspectives to explain a major recent movement. Inspiration Versus Obligation Inspiration and obligation entwined within the Wisconsin Uprising. Inspiration is a positive stimulation to do something; obligation is a sense that doing something is necessary. Inspiration implies an underlying excitement, obligation an underlying morality. Not acting on inspiration leads to disappointment; not acting on obligation leads to guilt. In the Wisconsin Uprising, as I will show, inspiration was broadly felt, but there was an additional ratcheting up of commitment among many participants (the exact percentage is unknowable) that rose to the level of moral obligation. The vast majority of participants were inspired by how others responded to the situation. In addition, a large portion of participants felt obligated to respond in a certain way because of how others were responding. Major existing perspectives in social movements imperfectly capture the motivations most salient within the Wisconsin case. Escalating moral obligation is more than commitment to a cause. It differs from more familiar activist motivations in both its etiology and its effects. The etiology of escalating moral obligation is the arduous or risky acts of allies, beyond the mere presence of a cause worth fighting for. The effects tend to be activism of longer duration or more extreme forms than in the absence of escalating moral obligation. The sense of obligation to act increases because of the actions of others. Escalating moral obligation does not reduce to frames or identities. Nor does it reduce to emotions. It is clear that emotions shape social movements, but the question of precisely how is still open (Goodwin 1997; Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2000; Jasper 2010; but see Effler ). My distinction between inspiration and obligation supplies one piece of the answer. Inspiration is emotional. Obligation can be felt on an emotional level, but need not be. Obligation is cognitive; an actor may be conscious of obligation regardless of their emotional enthusiasm for fulfilling it. Emotions such as inspiration are diffuse and usually easier to form than cognitions like obligation. Implications for Political Opportunity Theory Macro-structural social forces are often said to combine with shorter-term political imperatives to impinge upon elites. Structural forces create political opportunity for a social movement to succeed by inducing elites to accept social change, or at least by creating some cleavage among elites that would not otherwise have been present (Amenta et al. 2010, 298; Itzigsohn and Rebón 2015; McAdam 1999; Meyer 2004; Meyer and Minkoff 2004; Tarrow 2011, 32–33; Tilly 2008). Many social movement scholars have offered additions and clarifications to this core model. Opportunities can be conceptualized as either evading loss or achieving gains for interest groups (Almeida 2003; Bergstrand 2014; Jenkins, Jacobs, and Agnone 2003). Effects of opportunities vary based on how potential activists perceive them (Gamson and Meyer 1996; Kadivar 2013; Kurzman 1996). Scholars have identified cases where the political opportunity model does not seem to fit (Einwohner 2003; Loveman 2007; McVeigh 2009, 160). Another perspective suggests that “political reform” via transitions in party control and policy change affects incidence of and public attention to movements (Amenta, Caren, and Stobaugh 2012); any policy-focused movement, including the Wisconsin Uprising, fits this model. One recent modification suggests that whether activists can take advantage of political opportunity varies with their practices; that is, some types of activism succeed where others fail, even if the opportunity structure is the same (Bloom 2015). Since the impact of a movement may take decades to play out, the time horizons sometimes used by political process scholars are inappropriately short (Andrews 2004). Theoretical critiques of the political opportunity model have called for a more “relational” or “dynamic” perspective in the study of social movements in which effects would rely less on seemingly fixed structural conditions (Emirbayer and Goldberg 2005; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001, esp. pp. 22–24; Tarrow 2011, 188–94; Walder 2009). The term “mechanism” is now being used for any social condition that promotes social movement activity. This article identifies a relational mechanism based on a detailed examination of the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, linking opportunity with mobilization. My argument is consistent with the view that political opportunity is not necessarily an outcome of shifting interests and conflict between elites. Instead, it can be created by conflict between elites and non-elites, or by mutual commitment felt between elites and non-elites. Causation between opportunity and mobilization can go in either direction. Apart from the political opportunity model, older relational perspectives share something in common with escalating moral obligation. Herbert Blumer’s (1951) “circular reaction” features escalation, but lacks the crucial moral component. In circular reaction, people act based on what they expect others to do, creating a back and forth that may be slow or rapid. For Blumer, circular reaction veers into irrationality and can lead to frenzy, although the Wisconsin Uprising gave no indication of tending in that direction. The notion of a “culture of solidarity” (Fantasia 1988, esp. 19), a moral imperative to mutual aid, is also thematically close, though conceptualized with regard to a workplace goal rather than a legislative outcome, and with only incidental escalation. Some other studies of solidarity find a pre-existing group bond, but do not capture how it is forged in collective action (Kanter 1972; Nepstad 2008). A long-standing perspective in military sociology finds that an obligation to one’s comrades in arms can emerge through reciprocity and shared risk (e.g., Janowitz and Shils  1975; Kellett 1982, 41–43; Horn 2004, 14). Through the experience of combat, soldiers may be socialized into a self-sacrificial orientation. This cohesion within the military unit is an obligation to fellow soldiers, not necessarily to the war. Indeed, soldiers may be cynical about the war’s purposes, but deeply committed to one another (Vaughan and Schum 2001, 28–29; for contrasting views, see King [2006, 509–10]; Olsthoorn [2015, 184–85]). This differs from escalating moral obligation in the Wisconsin Uprising. In Wisconsin, there was certainly camaraderie, but relationships between particular activists were incidental to the fundamental legislative goal. Obligation to the shared cause was reinforced as others endured difficulties for it. Implications for Individuals Versus Groups The subjectivities of individual actors can change based on relations between the groups of which they are part. To see how they did so in the Wisconsin Uprising, and to differentiate the findings regarding this case from previous perspectives, we must briefly review some of the literature on decision-making in social movements. Seen from a methodologically individualist and rationally calculating perspective, an actor’s preference for joining collective action varies with the expected payoff. That payoff is a function of the balance of incentives for joining or not joining, which includes whether the actor expects to receive a share of the public benefit if the action succeeds. Probability of success is usually thought to depend on the number or proportion of a reference group expected to join (Marwell and Oliver 1993; Olson 1965; Van Stekelenburg 2013). On the level of individual calculation, actors can coordinate collective action by signaling their inclinations. Sequential alignment is one potential consequence of signaling (Ermakoff 2008, 353; 2015). The process is multilayered and complex: like a musician matching tempo in a symphony, each individual within each group and subgroup interprets signals from the individuals within the other groups, as well as within their own. Individuals thereby discern the expectations that members of each collectivity have for them and for the collectivity of which they are a part. A strict rational choice approach would treat these expectations as secondary to individual-level incentives. Individualists tend to treat obligation as exogenous to their theories of participation in collective action, assuming that an actor will not join if they believe the protest will fail or the cost of joining outweighs the benefits. Collective action is seen as an iterated process of interaction, not fundamentally motivated by obligation. By contrast, seen from a methodologically collectivist perspective, an actor joins a protest out of normative or moral commitment (Alexander 2011; Calhoun 1994; Eyerman and Jamison 1991; Ferree 1992; Smelser  2011. chapters 9–10). Here the problem of collective action is whether actors perceive a purpose higher than their own interest, such as group identity, normative duty, or morality. In some Durkheimian interpretations, higher purposes impact the individual with collective force; they have a reality independent of aggregations of individual attitudes. This collectivist view cannot be reduced to a morality bonus, as some game theorists attempt (Hausman 2012, 52–55), nor can it be dismissed with the unsatisfactory claim that norms are functions of self-interest (Elster 1989, 127–34). For collectivists, participation stems from a collective phenomenon—such as morality—in which the individual participates but does not autonomously control. In my view, individual-level analyses of mobilization are strong in their conceptualization of iterated processes between movement actors. But they imperfectly capture obligation, whether the obligation is moral, role based, identity based, or from some other source. By contrast, collective-level analyses conceptualize obligation, but miss the iterated processes within mobilization. The concept of escalating moral obligation aims to incorporate both iteration and obligation. To show that iterated signaling between individuals and mutual obligation between groups are not mutually exclusive, I will show that both operated simultaneously during the Wisconsin Uprising. Background On Friday, February 11, 2011, newly elected Governor Scott Walker announced one of the most sweeping union-busting efforts in United States history, eventually known as Act 10 (Wisconsin State Senate 2011; summarized in Kearney [2013a]).1 Most significantly, the bill effectively destroyed public unions via three provisions. The first made it illegal for public unions to collectively bargain. The second decertified unions unless they obtained annual written consent from a majority of their workplace. In these recertification elections, not voting counted as “no,” making the required majority enormously difficult to achieve. The third made it illegal for public unions to require dues; this alone was equivalent to so-called “right-to-work” measures for the public sector. In addition, the bill cut compensation for public workers by increasing health care and pension costs. The average annual reduction in take-home pay for a full-time employee was roughly $6,000 (author’s calculations). Most initial media coverage focused on health and pension cuts, not the existential threat to unions. This bill was a surprise. Even many longtime Republican insiders had no advance knowledge that legislation along these lines was being contemplated, nor was it mentioned in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Unions were blindsided. The bill was a “suddenly imposed grievance” (Walsh 1981). Walker demanded rapid passage. He wanted the required public testimony and final votes from the Finance Committee, Senate, and Assembly all within one week, placing enormous pressure on the Republican-majority legislature and sending union supporters looking for a delay strategy. The Finance Committee hearing began the following Tuesday, February 15. Early organizers, including myself, mounted a loosely coordinated “citizen filibuster” that stretched continuous testimony deep into the night. Republican committee members walked out of their own hearing, and Democrats pledged to stay and take testimony indefinitely. This extended hearing continued for six calendar days and nights. To maintain it, protesters developed infrastructure to support continual presence in the building, including food, first aid, child care, and an organizing hub known as the Information Station. Outdoor rallies exploded in size. The crowd estimates for the first week would be staggering even for a much larger city: 15,000 on Tuesday; 25,000 on Wednesday; 30,000 on Thursday; 40,000 on Friday; and 80,000 on Saturday. By the following week, Capitol Police simply reported the crowd as “over 100,000.” For perspective, the largest single Occupy Wall Street crowd was 14,500 (Silver 2011). Two days after the public hearing began, Democratic senators chose to deny quorum by refusing to attend the Senate session scheduled that day. They reconvened that evening in Illinois, beyond the reach of State Police, commencing a senatorial exodus. It was the first quorum denial in Wisconsin history. The senators had not had time to pack for an extended trip. One asked his wife to bring him socks and underwear. The group of 14 senators included an octogenarian, a woman seven months pregnant, a newlywed separated from his wife, and a single mother who went for three weeks without seeing her nine-year-old son. Most stayed in spare rooms or on the couches of friends and relatives. At least one did not sleep in a bed the entire time. When the Assembly convened on Tuesday of the second week, it began the longest legislative session in Wisconsin history and one of the longest in United States history. During this marathon, Democratic Assembly members used a variety of delay tactics, including repeated motions to remove the speaker, repeated motions to adjourn, addressing multipart questions to one another, talking slowly and at length (one speaker’s plodding pontification lasted 44 minutes), and dividing amendments into minimally admissible units. After four exhausting, sleep-deprived days of round-the-clock debate, just after 1 a.m. the speaker called and closed the roll so suddenly that one-third of the Assembly could not record their votes in time. Two weeks after Governor Walker announced the bill, his administration ordered the capitol locked. Despite a judge finding this unconstitutional, police ringed the building, enforcing a prolonged lockdown that finally ended the capitol occupation three days later. One week after that, amid a raucous but nonviolent reoccupation, Senate Republicans used an unconventional parliamentary maneuver to pass the bill without any Democrats present. Although a judge ruled this move illegal (Wisconsin vs. Fitzgerald 2011a), a one-vote margin on the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to take any enforcement action and ordered the law implemented (Wisconsin vs. Fitzgerald 2011b). After the bill passed, a brief surge of still-larger crowds gave way to a sense of resignation. The wave of recall elections over the course of the following year was related but separately organized, and quite different social-relationally in being directed at individual lawmakers rather than legislation. Although two Republican senators were removed, Walker became the first governor in American history to survive a recall. Figure 1 shows a timeline of major acts of resistance against the bill. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Timeline of major anti-bill resistance during the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 Note: The bill was announced February 11, passed the Assembly February 25, and passed the Senate March 9. Senators returned March 12. Black cells indicate continuous action. Striped cells indicate outdoor-only occupation. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Timeline of major anti-bill resistance during the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 Note: The bill was announced February 11, passed the Assembly February 25, and passed the Senate March 9. Senators returned March 12. Black cells indicate continuous action. Striped cells indicate outdoor-only occupation. Data and Methods A diverse set of data sources informs this analysis. During the capitol occupation and reoccupation, participant observation was conducted on Capitol Square from 12 to 24 hours each day. I helped organize the initial protests and wrote detailed daily journal entries. Formal field notes began on the fourth day. Allied demonstrations across the state and country were not observed in person. After March 2011, field notes were taken at every large protest in Madison, as well as many related events. A total of 137 in-depth interviews, 14 briefer interviews, and numerous informal conversations were conducted. Each interview was semi-structured with an individualized protocol, usually beginning with open and gradually narrowing questions, sometimes spread over multiple meetings. Table 1 provides a detailed sample breakdown of interviewees. Although there is representation from across the political spectrum, exposure to the anti-bill perspective is deeper than to contrasting views. This is appropriate for a focus on mobilization dynamics. Protesters interviewed come from a variety of social backgrounds and range from deeply involved organizers to casual visitors. Fieldwork helped identify and recruit key individuals. Transcripts were coded for topics and themes using NVivo software. Per standard use of interview data, quotations were selected for clarity, representativeness, and coherence with ethnographic observation. All quotations are from personal interviews unless otherwise noted. Table 1. Interviewee Distribution by Category Protesters Democratic Party Republican Party Upstairs occupiers 31 Senators 8 Senators 2 Downstairs occupiers 41 Assembly members 7 Assembly members 2 Non-occupiers 28 Staff 14 Staff 2 Pro-Walker activists 2 Other officials 3 Other officials 2 Total 102 Total 32 Total 8 Protesters Democratic Party Republican Party Upstairs occupiers 31 Senators 8 Senators 2 Downstairs occupiers 41 Assembly members 7 Assembly members 2 Non-occupiers 28 Staff 14 Staff 2 Pro-Walker activists 2 Other officials 3 Other officials 2 Total 102 Total 32 Total 8 Union affiliates Law enforcement Other Leadership 11 Leadership 3 NGO leadership 6 Staff (includes lobbyists) 9 Non-leadership 3 Other politicians 2 Members 36 Total 6 Reporters 2 Total 56 Total 10 Union affiliates Law enforcement Other Leadership 11 Leadership 3 NGO leadership 6 Staff (includes lobbyists) 9 Non-leadership 3 Other politicians 2 Members 36 Total 6 Reporters 2 Total 56 Total 10 Note: Total discrete individuals interviewed: 151. (The upstairs versus downstairs distinction is explained in Kearney [2013c]. Columns do not tally due to overlap between categories.) Table 1. Interviewee Distribution by Category Protesters Democratic Party Republican Party Upstairs occupiers 31 Senators 8 Senators 2 Downstairs occupiers 41 Assembly members 7 Assembly members 2 Non-occupiers 28 Staff 14 Staff 2 Pro-Walker activists 2 Other officials 3 Other officials 2 Total 102 Total 32 Total 8 Protesters Democratic Party Republican Party Upstairs occupiers 31 Senators 8 Senators 2 Downstairs occupiers 41 Assembly members 7 Assembly members 2 Non-occupiers 28 Staff 14 Staff 2 Pro-Walker activists 2 Other officials 3 Other officials 2 Total 102 Total 32 Total 8 Union affiliates Law enforcement Other Leadership 11 Leadership 3 NGO leadership 6 Staff (includes lobbyists) 9 Non-leadership 3 Other politicians 2 Members 36 Total 6 Reporters 2 Total 56 Total 10 Union affiliates Law enforcement Other Leadership 11 Leadership 3 NGO leadership 6 Staff (includes lobbyists) 9 Non-leadership 3 Other politicians 2 Members 36 Total 6 Reporters 2 Total 56 Total 10 Note: Total discrete individuals interviewed: 151. (The upstairs versus downstairs distinction is explained in Kearney [2013c]. Columns do not tally due to overlap between categories.) As part of this study, I helped assemble the Wisconsin Uprising Archive: more than 15,000 digital files, including photographs, video, audio, digitized documents, and e-mails. News media reports and a wide variety of relevant documents were also extensively consulted. The University of Wisconsin–Madison IRB expedited approval while the initial occupation was still in progress, and later approved it again on full review. Escalating moral obligation emerges and coheres across all data sources. It is unlikely but conceivable that my work as a protester fundamentally changed what participants, especially senators and Assembly members with a continual political agenda, told me. This is unlikely because, although I used no deception, they and their staff varied widely in their knowledge of the depth of my own participation, and their comments pertaining to escalating moral obligation are consistent across this variance. Results: Escalating Moral Obligation The analysis here seeks to explain the decision of three different groups to oppose Act 10 using relatively demanding means. My interpretation is that they did so in part because others did so, and likely would not have continued with such difficult forms of protest had others not been simultaneously engaging in their own difficult actions. An alternative argument might be that the actions resisting the bill were proportional to the threat it posed. Although the severity of the threat, combined with modern communication technology, could explain the presence of rapid initial mobilization, and perhaps even its duration, it does not explain the specific strategies the activists used. None of those strategies were determined by the actions of Walker alone, and none are explicable without the kind of obligation each generated for the others. It requires a relational understanding of the threats and opportunities to explain exactly what happened. The key conditions included severe, immediate threat and a particular balance of power within Wisconsin state government. By themselves, Democrats could disrupt the legislative process by lengthening debate or denying quorum, but they had insufficient power to vote the bill down. This configuration pointed to a difficult and politically risky way to disrupt legislation: senators could prevent quorum indefinitely by leaving the state. They were pushed to take that step by extraordinary and immediate popular resistance. Although escalating moral obligation applied to both legislators and protesters in Wisconsin, it need not always include legislators. The political process conditions most fortuitous to legislator involvement are the presence of legislative allies with power to disrupt the legislative process, but not power to determine outcomes. The threshold for this depends on procedural rules, which vary across legislative bodies. But when the threshold of allied lawmakers is reached, a political stalemate combined with an escalating feedback loop among activists can potentially create a large and sustained protest. This is what happened in Wisconsin, and would be likely to happen elsewhere should those conditions be present. Forms of Resistance The three groups—protesters, senators, and Assembly members—did not communicate with one another in any organized way. Democratic senators consulted only with a single staff member before departing posthaste for Illinois. During the senatorial exodus, indoor occupiers were not in touch with Democratic senators, and had only incidental conversations with Democratic Assembly members. Senior Democratic Assembly members report in interviews that union leaders rarely spoke with them during this period, and Democratic senators met with union leadership only once, though they did occasionally speak by telephone. My research has found no explicit coordination between Democrats across the two houses concerning the marathon session; like the senatorial exodus, it was an intra-caucus decision. The three groups did not coordinate their actions. The Democratic senators had varying personal backgrounds, political inclinations, and districts to represent. Nevertheless, they constituted a semi-corporate entity (where “corporate” refers to a group of people acting as one). They held formal caucus meetings nearly every day during the crisis, with a designated chair and procedures for making decisions. The 38 Democratic Assembly members had a nearly identical caucus structure. The protesters, whose total numbers likely exceeded a quarter million, were far too complex and heterogeneous to act semi-corporately, even bracketing simultaneous demonstrations in towns around the state and Wisconsin Solidarity rallies held around the country. Nevertheless, at least within the occupation, protesters had some means of internal communication. The Information Station was a flexible and widely used way of disseminating information (analyzed in Kearney [2013b]). There were labor unions, nonprofit organizations, and semiformal collectivities within the protest that held official or unofficial caucus-like meetings in which they discussed what to do next. Besides these meetings, several factors helped protest organizers create a collective understanding of strategy: spatial concentration on Capitol Square, twice-daily mass rallies where speakers exhorted the crowds to continue demonstrating, extensive news media coverage, and a high level of networking across social media platforms. Social media helped consolidate feelings of solidarity through rapid communication with allies. Technology did not itself trigger escalating moral obligation; the arduous actions communicated via technology did. The three groups cooperated in the sense of motivating each other to take simultaneous action. They used extreme methods—that is, methods that were both difficult to implement and that broke sharply with normative patterns of political action. Each adopted and sustained extreme measures in part because the other two groups were also using extreme measures. As a result, the level of commitment to the cause within all three groups changed over the course of the uprising. When some participants initiated new difficult actions, it triggered enhanced commitment among others. In chronological order, the capitol occupation (including the public hearing), senatorial exodus, and Assembly marathon were the key events in this respect. Continuing those actions then maintained the enhanced commitment. Hence there were sharp increases in commitment followed by plateaus at high levels of mobilization. We’re Here Because You Are There When I asked Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller whether the occupation influenced his caucus’s decision to leave the state, he answered: It had very much of an influence. Because the persistence of the demonstrations both here and across the country indicated that we had sparked a sentiment that might have long-lasting implications for the future of the country. In Miller’s view, the influence went the other way as well: “I think the fact that we left and that became knowledge inspired a lot more people to show up.” Senator Tim Cullen was the most conservative of the Democrats, even identified as such by Governor Walker during the infamous David Koch prank phone call (Walker and Murphy 2011). Yet Cullen shared the same basic view: “For those who were in favor of what we were doing, we became a symbol. Being in Illinois was a symbol of fighting this governor with this terrible idea.” During their exodus, the senators met almost daily, and as time away from their homes and families lengthened with no end in sight, they often discussed whether to return to Wisconsin. But crucially, as long as the occupation continued, they never did. Again in the words of Senator Miller, “The argument for staying was people have put their faith and trust in us and we cannot let them down.” The inspiration was mutual. Upon leaving the state, the senators instantly achieved heroic status among the protesters. The positive response was so strong it contributed to prolonging their sojourn. Hundreds of signs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other media supporting the “Fab 14” senators, as they became known, appeared almost immediately on Capitol Square and remained a fixture for months. Signs like “Thank you 14 Heroes” made the hero worship explicit. “When I Grow Up I Want to be a WI 14” suggested a degree of idolization, despite the joke implied by the middle-aged woman holding the sign. Pictures of the senators were displayed inside the capitol and covered in handwritten messages of support, including: “Way to go! You have made our efforts meaningful!” “We need you all” “Do your best! We’ll do ours!” At times, the hero worship approached veneration. When a large poster with pictures of each of the 14 senators was taped to a first-floor capitol wall in a prominent location, protesters laid flowers and decorative items around it, creating a shrine to their living but absent sources of continuing inspiration. On a strategic level, in the view of a typical occupation organizer, the exodus contributed to their own action: “I don’t know how we’d have stayed if they [senators] hadn’t done that.” Conversely, protesters widely believed that by continuing the occupation, they were sustaining the senatorial exodus as well. Note that even if protesters had been wrong about the senatorial motivation, their belief that they were causing it means the escalating moral obligation dynamic obtained, at least on their side. According to one heavily involved occupier: [The occupation] ended up becoming something that I think gave a lot of fire to everything else that was going on too, whether the protesters outside or the Democrats going down to Illinois. They mentioned that many times. The occupation was important to them, and that the fact that people were there made it so that they could do that. Mutuality was equally strong between protesters and the Assembly members, who slogged through the marathon session concurrent with the second week of the occupation. Assembly members were astounded by the level of support from the crowds. As Democratic Caucus Chair Kelda Helen Roys put it: We would walk through the building and people would cheer. And to have tens of thousands of people screaming, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” all the time, 24 hours a day, whenever we’d go anywhere. People just giving you hugs. They’d want to take their picture with you like you’re some kind of rock star. It was just insane. … It’s just something that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life, having had that. … It’s their [protesters] efforts that make that solidarity possible within our caucus, and that make it possible for us to sustain ourselves and keep going hour after hour after hour. Before these events, it was unusual for anyone to even recognize an Assembly member. Now they received thunderous ovations when they appeared on balconies overlooking the rotunda, or so much as stepped onto the Assembly floor. We would come out and people would say “thank you” and I wanted to say thank you, ’cause it was back and forth. We were there because they were there and they were there because we were there. … We were all there for the same reason, and so if they wouldn’t have been there I don’t know if I would have, and vice versa. So we were all in there. We were occupying the building together. We were just playing different—we all had a different job at the moment. My job was to sit in that seat and stay awake and theirs was to keep the doors unlocked. … I had to be there to fill my role, to be a person on the other side that represented government that listened. We just had to do it. It was an honor to do it. (Representative Janice Bewley) Assembly Democratic staff were crucial to maintaining the marathon session. As agents of the Assembly members and occasional participants in the occupation, they were part of the dynamic of escalating moral obligation. According to a legislative staffer: We were all, I think, very deeply affected by the people who were here both in the capitol and just day after day, outside the capitol, making their voices heard. As much as I am opposed to the bill, it was—I don’t know what the word is—reinforced or deepened or made stronger by the presence of the people in the capitol. There were also emotional and strategic effects of the Assembly marathon session on the senatorial exodus, and vice versa. A Senate staffer gushed about the Assembly members: “They were amazing. They were on the floor for sixty-five hours, which I think happened because the Senate Dems stood firm.” During the marathon session itself, the Democratic Assembly members agreed. A newly elected member (Elizabeth Coggs) used her maiden floor speech to praise her Senate colleagues: “How about we give a round of applause to our fourteen senators who are on the journey for truth, freedom, and justice?” Another (Gary Hebl) thanked the senators from the floor for making “huge, tremendous sacrifices.” On the senators’ part, it was a matter of obvious political strategy that they could not return and enable a vote as long as their sleepless colleagues were toiling around the clock to prevent it. A similar mutual inspiration obtained among the heterogeneous strata of protesters. Fundamentally there was one collective action, with no firm divide between indoor and outdoor protesters. People circulated throughout the building and around Capitol Square. There was, however, separation between those who regularly versus never stayed the night in the capitol, as well between those actively organizing versus those simply attending. Some of the occupation’s most influential organizers argue that the regular overnighters and the daytimers strategically aided one another. According to a local activist and regular overnighter, “the things worked together and needed each other.” The intra-protest dynamic began escalating in the first couple of days, once the first big crowds appeared. According to another experienced activist and constant occupation presence: That was the big question in all of our minds: are we going to go down to 20,000 or up to 100,000? And we went up to 100,000. So yeah, that was a huge shot in the arm. After that it was clear we were staying for as long as we could. A first-time activist similarly concluded that the crowd dynamic was mutually reinforcing, but for reasons emphasizing emotion more than strategy: We started talking to each other and it almost became about sustaining each other. It was like a much quieter drum circle. It gave you another reason to fight. Everyone that you heard testify was another reason, another affirmation of why you were there at 2 a.m. or 6 a.m. or whatever the time was. It was another person in your corner, another person you shared something with. That shared something was commitment to the cause. Here, in line with escalating moral obligation, the commitment of others fortifies one’s own commitment to maintaining a physically demanding protest action. Like Representative Bewley quoted above, many protesters saw the three groups performing complementary roles in the service of a larger project. As one said:, The project is to kill the bill … and our part is to maintain the occupation of the capitol. And that entails creating an environment in which people can stay here for a long time and make a lot of noise and be public while everyone else does their part. The senators do their part. In the early days of the protest, local high school students and even some middle school students did their part by walking out of classes and marching to the capitol. The next day, a teachers’ union held an informal job action that closed schools and swelled crowds on Capitol Square. One student describes her trajectory, beginning with the walkout: We’re doing something, I guess, kind of. This feels powerful and exciting and invigorating, but it’s probably just gonna be one day. And suddenly it was like no, our teachers also believe in this. And it made it feel a whole lot more real to me and a lot more important, I think. So I was sort of lit up with how much more real this was and how much more important this was. When we got school canceled and marched the second day, I wanted to do as much as I could. It was the actions of others that increased this student’s commitment, changing from a one-day invigoration to a deep engagement of wanting to do “as much as I could.” She went on to join the overnight occupation. When school resumed the following week, she fought with her parents over whether she could “go back to the capitol, because that would make me feel like I was doing something.” As I interpret the data, they show that participants felt increased obligation due to the actions of others. This contrasts with some social movements, where the form of collective action is unified and constant. In escalating moral obligation, it is not solidarity and commitment maintaining a consistent level regardless of the form of participation. Rather, the form of participation changes the level of solidarity and commitment. In the counterfactual sense, had those actions of others not occurred, or had they taken less arduous, risky, or spectacular forms, then the sense of obligation to persist would have been lower. Urgency and Cooperation The senatorial exodus began in part because huge outdoor crowds and an occupation of the capitol building created enormous political pressure to take any steps, no matter how unusual, that might defeat the bill. Sergeant at Arms staff had standing orders to compel their attendance, so the exiled senators knew that the moment they set foot on capitol grounds, perhaps even crossed state borders, they would be escorted to the Senate chamber and a vote would be held. As long as massive outdoor crowds gathered every day and the capitol occupation persisted every night, protesters discouraged senators from ending their exodus. Anything less than the highest-profile opposition to the bill would have invited accusations of political insensitivity at best, outright betrayal at worst. Reputational concerns were a likely factor in keeping senators out of the state and Assembly members on the floor during the marathon session. Reputation can motivate individuals to join collective action (Chong 1991, 9; Fairclough 1987, 18). I would add that reputation can operate at the level of groups (collectivities) in collective action as well. For instance, the elected legislators in the Wisconsin Democratic Party may have been anxious to preserve the public image of their party as pro-union, and feared accusations of partisan hypocrisy had they not used every means at their disposal to oppose the bill. Of course, this type of reputational concern can occur simultaneously with sincere pro-unionism; politicians can be aware of how their actions are perceived at the same time that they have their own political views. Thus, participants had both individual-level and collective-level reputational incentives to maintain cooperation in the escalating moral obligation dynamic. Republican obstinacy and willingness to employ their own non-normative, brute-force parliamentary methods gave Democrats no way to soften their tactics, no off-ramp from their reinforcing, virtuous circle of reciprocity with protesters (or vicious circle, from the opposite perspective). This dynamic of reciprocity locked in a positive feedback loop that required an exogenous shock to break, in the form of police repression (the end of the occupation) or procedural brute force (nullifying the senatorial exodus and terminating the Assembly marathon session). It was these exogenous shocks that allowed the bill to ultimately pass despite extraordinary resistance. A reverse form of the same pressure applied to protesters. As long as their allies in the Senate endured political and personal difficulty on their behalf, protesters were obligated to maintain strong visible opposition. Part of their moral obligation was to be seen by the global public as standing with the 14 senators against the bill. Besides reputation, there were a number of additional benefits to participation. By far the most important benefit was likelihood of victory. Protesters widely believed they could win, in which case the public good of a unionized public sector would be preserved. The United States had never seen an anti-union proposal quite as sweeping as Act 10, so in a state where union households divide their votes between parties, it was not obvious at the outset that even conservative Republicans would support the bill without modification. Republicans held a margin of 10 votes in the 99-member Assembly and a mere three votes in the 33-member Senate, so a few swing Republicans could have defeated the bill. Especially given the overwhelming public response against the bill and the comparatively tiny popular agitation in favor, victory seemed within reach up until the final vote. Dynamics on the pro-bill side are also complex, but in different ways. There was no significant protest movement favoring the bill (one small demonstration occurred on the southeast steps of the capitol on February 19), although right-wing interest groups and other private donors fund-raised and lobbied. The most proximate operative relations on the far right were within the political arena, between governor’s office, legislative leadership, and legislative rank and file (and likely pressure groups of one sort or another). In sum, when one group collectivity within the Wisconsin Uprising initiated arduous and unconventional means, it inspired a sense of obligation among the other collectivities to do the same. This moral sentiment ratcheted up mobilization to a qualitatively higher level for as long as these difficult actions continued. It was a plateau of sustained intensity, the social movement version of a high-cruising altitude. Thus, alongside the instrumental motivation of defeating the bill, a separate kind of motivation reinforced the commitments of the bill’s opponents—a moral obligation to answer and prove worthy of the heroic efforts of allies. Discussion Political Opportunity Mainstream political opportunity theory predicts that social movements occur in the presence of some form of macro-structural development generating a cleavage between elites. That cleavage constitutes an opportunity structure for a potential social movement. In this vein, one could argue that mass de-unionization weakening organized labor, systematic cuts to government spending straining state budgets, or a reactionary electoral wave sweeping right-wing politicians into power led to Act 10, and that therefore the mobilization came from developments within the political arena. But there are always developments within the political arena. The claim that political developments create opportunities for mobilization is non-falsifiable. The coincidence of political developments with popular mobilization is not sufficient to establish a causal relationship. To be convincing, the counterfactual claim that some particular set of political developments engendered a particular elite cleavage, which in turn generated a movement that would not have occurred without it, must be adjudicated with empirical data. At a minimum, we need a clear mechanism linking some particular elite cleavage to a particular mobilization, which is what this study provides in the case of the Wisconsin Uprising. The proximate cleavage in this case was the intense partisan split over the bill. Had Democrats not been willing to delay the legislative process with a marathon session in the Assembly and a quorum denial in the Senate, the bill would likely have passed within days, perhaps within hours, and the protest would either not have grown or taken a different form. These specific legislative behaviors are the product of a long-developing macro-cleavage between elites. In the past two to three decades, politico-economic elites in the United States have shifted their attitudes toward unions. From roughly World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a broad consensus in favor of maintaining unions, or at least basic worker protections, as a feature of regulated capitalism. Disagreement on contractual details, certification requirements, and membership criteria was common, but public disagreement over whether unions should exist was practically unheard of. That consensus is no longer present. For a variety of broadly neoliberal reasons, bound up with laissez-faire economic theory, libertarianism, selfish wealth maximization, perhaps absence of geopolitical imperatives, and more, there are now those with access to political power who believe worker protections are unnecessary. The conflict is, of course, complex, but to put the matter all too cleanly, the broader cleavage is neoliberalism versus regulated capitalism. This cleavage fostered Act 10 and the partisan split over it. But it did not dictate the specific form of a capitol occupation, plus a senatorial exodus to Illinois, plus a marathon Assembly session. As stated above, it was the particular numerical configuration of the legislature, combined with the immediate and severe mass popular outcry, that led to these specific actions. The macro-cleavage was layered with more micro power dynamics. In the Wisconsin Uprising, it was not simply that escalating moral obligation emerged out of a mobilization-friendly political opportunity. At least on the local level, the reverse might be closer to correct—a political opportunity emerged out of escalating moral obligation. The politics of the situation unfolded in a fundamentally different way than usual as a result of the initial action of protesters, then subsequently due to the senatorial exodus and Assembly marathon session. We can think of escalating moral obligation as a relation bridging political opportunity structure with actual mobilization. In the case of Wisconsin, we have a pre-existing broad elite cleavage over employment regulation, which prompted a controversial bill. That bill in turn set off a rapid mass mobilization in opposition, then parliamentary disruption by state-level political actors followed by a kind of feedback effect between the mobilization and the parliamentary disruption. In this case, and I suspect in general, the causal relationship between opportunity and mobilization is not one-way. It is complex and interactive. This means it is not correct to say that political opportunity causes mobilization as a general matter. It can, but it need not. Analysis of any given case should specify the sequences and delineate the mechanisms linking mobilization with opportunity, but without strong assumptions that one will always precede the other. Individuals and Groups As we saw above, some scholars analyze mobilization using individualist methodologies, which tend to emphasize rational calculation, while others use collectivist methodologies, which often emphasize moral commitment. These divergent approaches exemplify a more general dispute in social theory, between the methodological individualism used in much of economic sociology and the methodological collectivism used in much of cultural sociology. Seen from a broader perspective, these approaches need not contradict. Both individual-level calculation and collectively held values and norms regulate virtually all social action. Individual-level calculation always occurs in the context of collective normative expectations. To show that a given social situation is the product of both individual calculation and collective morality is thus not an inconsistency. Escalating moral obligation in the Wisconsin Uprising is indeed both these things: rational in the individual sense, and moral in the collective sense. It is well established that an iterated process of signaling may affect incentives for individual participation and therefore decisions to participate. Behavioral commitment, where actors have already begun taking action, is a blunt but clear signal. Sequential alignment does not stop even when everyone takes a clear behavioral stance; the topic of signaling then becomes how far and how long people are willing to go. Part of what can be signaled is whether participants feel an obligation to continue their participation. A version of critical mass logic applies here: what counts as sufficient prevalence of signaled obligation is a kind of threshold. Once severe resistance has begun, the relevant signaling and counter-signaling pertain to whether it will continue. If sequential alignment is to inform decisions to move to decreasingly conventional and increasingly radical expressions of opposition, it requires potential cooperators to read the signals as pointing in that direction. In Wisconsin, it was protesters who first used unusual methods of resisting Act 10. The protest pushed the Democratic legislators to radical action. Once large outdoor protests and the capitol occupation began, senators and Assembly members inferred from signaling and context that protesters were committed, and consequently that protests were not likely to end quickly. Although there was no direct coordination between the groups, a kind of signaling-based, informal, possibly even semiconscious communication was occurring. It is not possible to retrospectively determine the minimum threshold of expectations based on signaling that would have been sufficient to trigger and maintain escalating moral obligation in Wisconsin. But we do know this threshold was crossed. The three groups experienced an escalating mutual inspiration. I take the additional interpretive step of arguing that, for many participants, this inspiration generated moral obligation.2 The behavioral consequence of both was widespread persistence in difficult and unconventional collective action. There may be circumstances in which the difference between inspiration and obligation leads to different behaviors, even though they did not in this particular instance. Behaviors in the uprising are overdetermined by inspiration and obligation, that is, multiple sufficient conditions for the behavior of continuing difficult actions were present. Thus, the crucial question is not the counterfactual of whether obligation caused some outcome that would not have occurred with mere inspiration, but rather the more straightforward question of whether participants felt obligated to continue acting. Strategically, there was an immediate need to block parliamentary progress or suffer defeat, so continuing action was imperative, not optional. My relational interpretation of the uprising is that the groups did indeed feel obligated—indebted to one another on moral and strategic levels. We glimpse this in the few quotations above, which are merely the tip of a large iceberg of data: protesters wrote of their “need” for senators, and senators felt that “we cannot let them down.” For Assembly members it was a “job,” something they “had to do.” Conclusion Concepts within existing social movements literature can be adapted to describe many events of the Wisconsin Uprising, but explaining them, in the sense of accounting for their generation, requires the relational concept found in this study. Escalating moral obligation is an analytically specific relational mechanism behind mobilization. In the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, escalating moral obligation did not emerge out of a political opportunity structure. Rather, the political opportunity structure emerged out of escalating moral obligation. This dynamic entails an iterated obligation that transcends easy categorization as either individual level or collective level. Conceptually, it links individual iteration with collective obligation. Escalating moral obligation can lock in a pattern of intense mobilization. All three categories of participants simultaneously adopted difficult and extreme tactics relative to political norms in the United States. The arduous nature of the protests in Madison, senatorial exodus, and Assembly marathon were thus mutually reinforcing, a virtuous circle of mobilization. Escalating moral obligation altered the subjectivities of many of the actors participating in the Wisconsin Uprising, increasing both mutual inspiration and moral commitment, with observable behavioral consequences. Whether the altered motivation lasted beyond the collective action is a separate question. Further research may examine whether the conditions under which people change temporarily are different from the conditions under which they change indefinitely. In the Wisconsin Uprising, at least a temporary change in subjectivity led to at least a temporary change in behavior. In general, potential activists feel increasingly obligated to join when an already existing movement, or significant parts thereof, takes a form that is seen as difficult. Ceteris paribus, the more arduous a protest seems, including the longer it goes, the greater the obligation to join and the greater the guilt from inaction. Whether a given set of potential activists do in fact join is subject to several factors besides feeling obligated. Logistics and biographical availability are among those other factors, which were favorable to participation in the Wisconsin case. Escalating moral obligation pertains to whether actors feel they ought to join, which is not always sufficient to actually join. Some other sustained and sizable movements likely have featured escalating moral obligation among many of their participants. Across movements, if escalating moral obligation is present, then some version of either joining or guilt should follow. Social movement studies may benefit from identifying other cases of escalating moral obligation as a step toward determining the general conditions under which it emerges. I would hypothesize that, in the context of active mobilization, whenever actors perceive resistance as any one of several overlapping types—non-normative, unprecedented, arduous, severe, extreme, radical, risky, or sacrificial—then escalating moral obligation can be triggered. Escalating moral obligation can develop among activists, or simultaneously among activists and elite allies. A well-known case of escalating moral obligation among activists is the civil rights movement, including the diffusion of sit-ins and boycotts, where hearing about the pain and sacrifice of allied demonstrators inspired others to make their own sacrifices (Andrews 2004; Andrews and Biggs 2006; Fairclough 1987). The Occupy movement entailed less physical risk, but still some obligation to maintain an encampment as long as other encampments persisted. Cases where politicians were using their influence in innovative ways concurrent with allied street mobilization appear to be unusual in the United States, although there may be examples I am not familiar with. European examples include France in May 1968, the Solidarity movement in 1980s Poland (where, in a quasi-Stalinist setting, the elite allies were church officials rather than legislators), and the Hungarian revolt of 1956, when the elite-popular bond was so strong it took a Soviet invasion and the execution of political leaders to break it. The relational dynamic that developed in the Wisconsin Uprising between the two partisan caucuses and the massive heterogeneous collectivity of protesters was not a dispassionate collaboration based on cold rational calculation. Nor was it an irrational frenzy of headlong abandon. It was a call-and-response moral imperative felt both individually and collectively, induced by mutually enduring challenges in a common cause. It was an escalating moral obligation. Notes 1 To preserve space, this extremely brief narrative omits elements inessential to this analysis. 2 Escalating moral obligation is deeply mutual, of course. Relationality is emphasized throughout this argument. “Escalating mutual and moral obligation” makes for overly clunky verbiage. In the terminology used here, “moral” is headlined over “mutual” because moral imperatives seem most neglected in the related literature. About the Author Matthew Kearney recently completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University. A book about the Wisconsin Uprising, based on his dissertation, is under contract at Lexington Press. He anticipates future research in medical sociology, including the political and cultural determinants of health. 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Author notes Thanks to Erik Olin Wright, Ivan Ermakoff, Pamela Oliver, Kristinn Már Ársælsson, and participants in an ASA annual meeting session on emotions in social movements for helpful comments. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 28, 2017
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