Legal literature is replete with references to the infamous “slippery slope”, basically, where a shift in policy lubricates the path towards further (perhaps more controversial) reforms or measures. Less discussed is the idea of a “sticky slope”. Sticky slopes manifest when a social movement victory acts to block, instead of enable, further policy goals. Instead of greasing the slope down, they effectively make it “stickier”. Despite the lack of scholarly attention, sticky slope arguments show up again and again in legal argument particularly in areas focused on minority rights. Formal legal doctrine can create sticky slopes insofar as it reduces legal protections for marginalized groups as they gain political power. Informally, sticky slopes can also develop through backlash, through legal arguments whose valences drift from their original intention, or through social exhaustion at grappling with the problem of inequality to seemingly little effect. I argue that attentiveness to sticky slopes is important for two reasons. First, awareness of the prospect of a sticky slope can be important in long term social movement strategizing. Where social movements are in pursuit of a cluster of related political ends, they will want to choose their tactics carefully so as to minimize the degree that their past accomplishments can be turned against them. Second, when deployed by legal actors, sticky slope arguments sometimes do not play true causal roles, but instead act as a mask for other, less tolerable justifications. Unmasking sticky slope logic can force legal policymakers to be more explicit about the rationales and implications of their decision.
I'll be presenting this paper at the 2010 Law and Society Conference this May, in a panel entitled "Social Change in Unexpected Ways". The discussant is scheduled to be Gerald Rosenberg, Lecturer in Law and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and author of The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? Any comments you have are greatly appreciated -- I love getting feedback.
And I might note, in blogging solidarity, that this paper originally was a blog post I wrote back in May of 2008.