2016’s uniquely polarizing and contentious campaign spawned campaigns and movements across the political spectrum, from the meme Pepe the Frog to the proliferation of the “fake news” epithet.
Pantsuit Nation originated as a simple Twitter hashtag and private Facebook group used to promote Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the same vein as other social media movements. The impetus for starting this group began when Clinton’s fashion choices of business wear and pantsuits fell under pointed and hostile media scrutiny. The founder of this Pantsuit Nation group considered both Hillary Clinton and her iconic pantsuits as emblems of the movement towards equal rights for women. The private Facebook page became a space for users to encourage each other to vote, share personal stories related to both women’s and civil rights, and incite support for Hillary through fan art, including logos on clothes, food, and signs.
Yet for all the excitement about the campaign cycle, it ended in disappointment for most liberals. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was a seminal moment for the American left wing, as much of what was seen as a coronation or a march to the presidency embodied in the historic candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton was put to a sudden, stunning end. Instead of celebrating the election of the first woman to the highest office, liberals enter the 45th presidency and 115th Congressional term without control of the executive office or both Houses of Congress.
Pantsuit Nation survived and re-branded itself, becoming a rallying point for all liberals to come together under a collective identity challenged by a brutal loss. The pantsuit became a totem for the group, a formulation Durkheim understood through his study of Australian aborigines.
On Election Day, using the pantsuit as their primary totem, members formed voting groups to cast their ballots together while dressed in pantsuits, all while posting this group ritual in the Facebook page for the nationwide collective to follow. The pantsuit itself is, of course, just a piece of clothing Hillary Clinton happens to wear, but it takes on meaning for the group as a symbol. Members of Pantsuit Nation find value in it for the same reason the tribes Durkheim studies value their totems, creating them “simply because [they] feel the need to represent the idea [they] have by means of an outward sign, whatever that sign might be” (126). The pantsuit is an identification, a visual message an individual can use to express their belonging to the group.
Pantsuit Nation is strange when first encountered because as a pro- Hillary Clinton group, one would expect that the group would have faded after her loss. This is far from the truth: the group has never been stronger than in the past couple of months. What started as a way for Clinton supporters and volunteers to unite and organize has grown into a much larger social movement.
Durkheim’s analysis of the formation of groups and the origin of religious life explains the cohesion that many have derived from the Pantsuit Nation group. As he explains,
“The members of a single clan are joined to one another by either common residence nor common blood, since they are not necessarily consanguineous and are often scattered throughout the tribal territory. Their unity arises solely from having the same name and the same emblem, from believing they have the same relations with the same categories of things, and from practicing the same rites- in other words, from the fact that they commune in the same totemic cult.” (169)
Interestingly, the group gained popularity immediately after Clinton lost the presidential election in November. Through the shared experience and grief, members came together to show their collective support of Secretary Clinton, the living manifestation of the pantsuit totem. The loss served as a stimulus of rebirth to create a more unified group, dedicated to spreading it’s supportive, accepting ideas. Since then, the group has shifted in focus, now serving as a forum for people to share their stories and a place for individual members to unite and express themselves.
Durkheim helps us to understand this shift from collective support to individual sharing. He argues that the collective is formed before concepts of individuality appear, and a person’s understanding of their personal self grows out of their understanding of the social group:
“Far from being the seed of the collective cult, the cult that the individual organizes for himself, and within his inner self, is in a sense the collective cult adapted to the needs of the individual.” (182)
To see how an individual cult can develop from a collective one, we need to consider the soul, the fundamental religious basis for explaining a person’s individuality. The members of the tribe develop the concept of the soul to grasp the source of the moral voice they hear in their mind, which feels like an external force:
“Although our moral conscience is part of our consciousness, we do not feel on an equal footing with it. We cannot recognize our own voice in that voice that makes itself heard only to order us to do some things and not to do others” (266)
This external moral force is an instance of what Durkheim calls mana, the real psychic power of the collective. Though this force is collective and universal throughout the group, each individual experiences it personally, especially in this context of morality, as though it were an individual voice dwells inside them: a soul. Indeed, Durkheim defines the soul as “only a portion of the group’s collective soul… It is mana individualized” (267). In other words, a person’s soul is just a particular instance of the collective soul. Since the soul is the basis of individuality, we find that the individual is, in fact, a reflection of the collective spirit, differentiated slightly from others only by the different roles people occupy in life and within the group.
The Pantsuit Nation group illustrates how a single collective spirit can be reflected in and colored by each individual’s personal experience. It’s hard to summarize what these members support as a whole: one could start with the liberal agenda, but it seems to be more than that. It appears that the group now exists as a platform simply to unite the members of the collective. The individual stories create a collective; at the same time, the collective allows members to find and express their own identities.
The page is intriguing because every day hundreds of women share their stories, ranging from the political to the everyday. It can feel scattered: as if the group accepts any and all pieces of information. But while the posts all discuss different individualized personal experiences, they are all united by the collective spirit of the group. Though the group originally developed around the support of Hillary Clinton, the collective spirit has grown to something much larger than just a political candidate. The soul of Pantsuit Nation is to strive towards social acceptance for all people.
Sure, while the group understands that they are all fighting for the larger cause of acceptance, what motivates all these members to share their most intimate stories and moments with millions of others? The collective inspires and mandates all women to feel as if they are participating in something larger than themselves. Through each post, comment, like, and event, the group becomes stronger, as does its unifying spirit. At the same time, each interaction with the group is an instance of mana becoming individualized: hundreds of beliefs and rights are shared, and every single individual brings unique perspectives to the group feeling. Each person feels their perspective legitimized and their individuality actualized by participating in the group.
Correspondingly, Durkheim holds that each individual owes their personhood to the collective, but at the same time, the collective owes its continued existence to the individual. The “collective spirit” isn’t a physical thing–it only exists in the minds of individuals and will fade if the members of the group don’t keep it alive. In the everyday course of life, many events will challenge the individual’s faith in the group; for the faith to be renewed, the individuals must reunite again and partake in collective rites:
“The shared faith comes to life again quite naturally in the midst of reconstituted collectivity… Once it is restored, it easily overcomes all the private doubts that had managed to arise in individual minds.” (350)
Individuals gain their sense of identity from the collective spirit, and in return keep the group together and its spirit alive through common ritual practices. Large-scale social gatherings are one of the most powerful ways to ignite a group’s spirit:
“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” (217)
For Pantsuit Nation, the most powerful congregation was The Women’s March on Washington. This ritual expanded to ‘sister marches’ in large urban hubs like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and in hundreds of others around the country and the world, creating a more individualized experience, while strengthening the collective objective as a whole. Over four million people marched through the United States and the world. While the marches weren’t organized solely through Pantsuit Nation, many of the members participated and posted about their experiences afterward. The groups often ended up marching illegally and the marches went on for hours after the original plans. This has to do with the feeling of collective effervescence, which takes individuals outside of their everyday behavior:
“People are so far outside the ordinary conditions of life, and so conscious of the fact, that they feel a certain need to set themselves above and beyond ordinary morality” (218)
In conclusion, Pantsuit Nation is both a forum for uniting people in a cause larger than themselves and a platform for people to define their individuality as part of a group. Within the last political cycle, it was easy to feel that your voice was lost, this group provided a space for each individual to express their personal beliefs, while at the same time feeling the spirit of the collective. The overlapping streams of individuality and collectivity are difficult to parse out, but Durkheim’s work on the construction of social groups allows us to understand how the collective and individual coexist and depend on each other.