2011 Occupy Movement Washington D.C. Image Credit: Shutterstock / Evan McCaffery
In any discussion of how political movement impact parties, I think it’s important to note not only the similarities between movements of the Left and the Right but the many crucial differences. Because it is in those differences, in my view, that the deeper truth about the nature of our current grim stalemate is revealed.
Movements of the Left tend to be movements of aspiration. That is, groups of people get together because they aspire to achieve some kind of constructive goal: the right to vote; shorter working hours and more rights in the workplace; more care taken about the condition of the planet; expansion of access to health care; and so on.
Movements of the Right, meanwhile, tend to be movements of . . . well, I could choose any number of colorful nouns here, but let’s just say opposition—defiant opposition to immigration; to voting rights; to school desegregation; to same-sex marriage.
True, there are some Left movements that are oppositional, but they’re focused on particular cases and typically of short duration: against such-and-such a nuclear plant or gas pipeline. But in general terms, the activist base on the Left gets engaged to agitate for progressive change, while the activist base on the Right gets fired up to fight to hold the status quo (or indeed to return to an earlier status quo).
I believe that one can’t understand American politics today, and one certainly can’t properly understand the rise of Donald Trump, without keeping this aspiration/opposition distinction at the center of our analysis. Because just as the movements of Left and Right are different in this key respect, these differences inform and define the divergent ways in which the two parties relate to the movements that animate their respective bases.
Since Democratic-leaning movements are movements of aspiration, they have a long, long list of things they want to see achieved. That list has only gotten longer in recent years. It has also become more left-leaning, on any conventional ideological scale, since the wake of the Great Meltdown and the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement (a key recent activist movement, with a continuing influence that has greatly outlived its rather brief official existence).
Many veterans of recent movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter are waging an internal battle within the Democratic Party with the more traditional institutional forces that Bill Galston rightly identifies as still calling most of the shots in party affairs. That ongoing battle defines the bulk of what we know and read and hear about the Democratic Party today. In fact, it defines the central dynamic of the party. The media often describe it (a bit lazily and inaccurately, I think) as a struggle of the “Left” versus the “center”; more precisely, it’s a conflict between politicians who see themselves as representing a movement, and those who see themselves as defending an institution, the Democratic Party.
In the Republican Party, that tension exists, but it doesn’t define the dynamics inside the party to the same extent. And I think that’s because Republicans don’t really pursue aspirational goals. For example, there’s not a faction that wants single-payer versus a faction that wants a modest Obamacare expansion. Instead, Republicans tend to unite around what they don’t want. They want to stop the government from expanding health care; or raising taxes; or raising the minimum wage; or subsidizing childcare, or what have you. There are a thousand shades of yes, but no means no, and it’s a lot easier to agree on no.
Donald Trump is the “King of No”. What is “Make America Great Again” after all, but a huge NO to the last 60 years of American aspiration? No to Black people. No to women (or certain kinds of women). No to immigrants. No to LGBTQ people. No to giving a crap about the environment. No to public health. No to masks. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
The MAGA movement does have a small element of populism that you could call aspirational, for the stiffed white working class, but Trump’s class appeals are so deeply interwoven with his fundamental nihilism—and his open racism—that separating them out from one another is impossible, like trying to untangle vines in a rainforest.
So my answer to the question of what impact movements have on parties is that it depends on which side, and what sort of movement, you’re asking about.
Movements that want to make broad social change have their work cut out for them, even, as we’ve seen this past year, within their own party (although this should not be exaggerated—every House Democrat voted for Build Back Better, and but for two senators, it would be law, meaning that 269 out of 271 elected Democrats in Washington either did or were prepared to vote for it). They will lose fights, these movements, and it will create tension and hard feelings and the appearance of disunity (#demsindisarray, as they say).
Movements that exist primarily to resist change just don’t have as difficult a time within the context of their own party. Far from pressuring their party’s establishment to embrace novel policies about which the establishment is cautious, a more purely oppositional movement that has broad appeal among the party’s base can more easily define the terms on which the party operates. That’s why the MAGA movement is threatening to destroy institutional Republicans like Mitch McConnell, and swallow the party whole, as it keeps pushing further and further to the right.
The good news? There is some. Given that Democrats are in an inherently unfair fight with the Right, because of the profoundly anti-majoritarian nature of the Constitution, it’s kind of a miracle that insurgent progressives and liberals win political battles as often as they do. Most Americans support Democratic Party policy priorities, as polling on the constituent elements of Build Back Better told us, and most people reject reactionary ethno-nationalist politics.
The problem, in this land of the Senate and the filibuster and the Electoral College, is that what “most people” want risks being irrelevant.
Michael Tomasky is editor of The New Republic and of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has a book coming out on politics and the economy this fall.
Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Making and Unmaking of Modern American Democracy.”