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William Galston, Megan Ming Francis, Michael Tomasky, and Elisabeth Clemens honor me by offering their gracious comments on my efforts to understand the tangled relations between social movements and parties in my book Movements and Parties. What follows are further reflections on their stimulating comments.
My response begins with the current, somewhat muffled debate among American political commentators over how best to understand and defend America’s liberal form of democracy. The deeper question that lurks behind that one, as James Miller puts in his preface to this symposium, is that “it’s quite unclear precisely what form of the American regime we are all ostensibly defending, at this juncture in history (italics added).” Miller asks, chillingly: “What if our current form is less able to withstand illiberal challenges from the grassroots than any previous iteration of the regime?”
To rephrase this in the terms I use in my book: “What role do social movements play in our democratic dilemma?”
As William Galston recalls in his comments on my book, American movements have long been intertwined with the party system, beginning with the Jacksonian revolt against the Virginia establishment. Galston observes that more recently, “all of this changed at a speed that is breathtaking even to recollect, let along live through.” The movements of the 1960s and 1970s have radically transformed the American party system.
As for the causes of this change, Galston points to the Presidential primary and nomination reforms of the 1970s as an institutional spur, but also to the strategies of leaders, like Ronald Reagan, who fashioned a grassroots coalition of evangelicals, small-government advocates, cultural conservatives, and Cold War anti-communists. In his words, the Reagan coalition “dominated the Republican party for a quarter of a century before new developments began to disrupt it.”
But how deeply have these recent developments disrupted the forms of the two main political parties? Are we still dealing—as the title of my book implies—with “movements and parties?” Or with movement-parties, hybrids that have added the passions of movements to the parties, while depriving the parties of one of their traditional functions, as an institutional check on what James Madison would have considered democratic excesses.
Scholars used to castigate the “smoke-filled rooms” in which party bosses decided on nominations, but the traditional party system had one significant virtue, from a Madisonian point of view: it produced “institutions staffed by especially informed citizens, elected to keep an eye on broader issues of little interest to ordinary citizens.”
Much of the recent infiltration of grassroots movements into America’s two main parties has implicitly or explicitly revolved around race, as Megan Francis reminds us in her comments. In contrast to much of the literature on the Civil Rights movement, which focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, Francis’s work more accurately centers on what she calls “the long Black Freedom Movement.” As she argues—and I agree—“it is impossible to understand the arc of the Black Freedom Movement without integrating research on parties and movement politics.” She also sees the subfield of American political development as little interested in “the interplay between the Black freedom movement and parties, “largely because of its excessive focus on “political elites and institutions.” In other words, “Black protest only becomes worthy of study when it penetrates the political lives of white people.”
The good news is that there are signs of change on this front. I am thinking of Rick Vallely’s 2004 study of “the two reconstructions,” and Sidney Milkis and Dan Tichenor’s more recent book Rivalry and Reform: Presidents, Social Movements, and the Transformation of American Politics—and, of course, Megan Francis’ own incisive study of Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State.
All of these political scientists, along with the sociologist Doug McAdam, inspired me to make race a central topic in my book, and also to stress the recurring movement-countermovement dynamic between advocates of Black equality and their opponents. As McAdam and Karina Kloss put it in Deeply Divided, their magisterial study of political polarization, “It took the revitalized civil rights struggle [of the 1960s] to restore the normal party-movement dynamism of American politics.”
More recently, as Francis stresses, “The 2012 and 2015 phases of the BLM movement” even more dramatically “transformed people’s understanding of the impact they could have in the political process.” As she concludes, “If the last 10 years are any indication, movements in the American political system are not going away.”
Michael Tomasky undoubtedly agrees, but he also claims that “movementization” has taken a sharply different form in the two main American parties. He sees Republican-leaning movements as “movements of opposition,” while Democratic-leaning ones are “movements of aspiration.” Although Democrats can disagree about what they aspire to—or how desperately they aspire to it—Republicans, he writes, “tend to unite around what they don’t want.” This difference, he argues, makes it easier to be a Republican than to be a Democrat, because it is easier to unify around “saying no” than “saying yes” when Democratic-leaning aspirations range among a wide spectrum of policy proposals.
I have my doubts about Tomasky’s simple dichotomy—the slogan “defund the police” obviously expresses what some Democrats don’t want—and I also think it ignores a more consequential difference between Republicans and Democrats in recent decades.
As the political scientists Matt Grossmann and Daniel Hopkins suggest in their book Asymmetric Politics, I believe that the Republicans since the 1960s have been a fundamentally ideological party, whereas the Democrats since the New Deal have been a coalition of loosely connected interest groups. As I write in Movements and Parties, “the Republicans in the twenty-first century moved towards a movement-party model both by capturing much of the energy of the Tea Party and then by the capture of the party by the Trumpian movement.” Backed by a wealth of data, Grossmann and Hopkins put this even more strongly:
Whereas the organization of activists within the Democratic Party has tended to be divided into multiple social groups and issue areas—the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and so forth—the conservative ascendency in the Republican Party occurred via a broad mobilization of ideologically motivated activists who promoted an alternative philosophy that applied across a broad spectrum of policy domains.
But if ideological movement-parties are simpler to manage than interest-group coalitions, they may also be more brittle. Take the current conflict within the GOP about what to do about the Trumpian-inspired opposition to affording significant aid to Ukraine and levying costly sanctions against Russia. Although politicians like Lindsey Graham can turn on a dime from loyal Trumpian lapdog to raging anti-Putinist, the Trumpian base is having a hard time—as I write this—adjusting to the neo-cold war polarization that is emerging as a salient axis in American politics. Once a movement’s convictions are accepted by a majority of a party’s members, and a substantial number of its leaders, it becomes difficult for other party leaders to eradicate them.
Elisabeth Clemens is characteristically suggestive in her incisive comments on my book. She reminds us that political parties and modern social movements come from similar—and in some cases identical—origins. “Scholars seeing their origins, at least in the Atlantic world, trace parliamentary parties, national social movements, the administrative state, modern understandings of popular sovereignty and electoral democracy to the same sweep of a century, perhaps two.”
The implication? If movements and parties arose at roughly the same moment in modern history, they may well be prone to fuse recurrently, despite the fact that American scholars in recent decades have sorted them in into separate fields of inquiry.
I could not agree more, which is why I have adopted the locution “movement-parties.”
At the same time, Clemens reminds us that movements often separate from parties because elites often try to marginalize dissenting groups from institutionalized representation. She poses the question of “how to think about the movement-generating exclusions of our own time” through parties’ “gate-keeping” function.
“This gate-keeping,” she writes “is simultaneously a restriction on opportunities for some to express grievances through the endorsement of those very same unorthodox candidates.”
It’s certainly true that when the Democratic establishment tried to marginalize the socialist Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016, it led to a surge in socialist movement active on the left in 2020. But it’s also true that when the Republican establishment grudgingly embraced the unorthodox views of Donald Trump, it unleashed a movement on the right that “claims patriotism and the defense of democracy while denying the legitimacy of the votes of many other citizens,” as became ominously clear on January 6, 2021.
So what is to be done?
This takes me back to one of the questions posed at the outset: “What if our current form is less able to withstand illiberal challenges from the grassroots than any previous iteration of the regime?” How should we handle the conundrum of an ideological Republican Party with a flagging commitment to majority rule that continues to wave the banner of “freedom,” sincerely convinced that they are the “real” democrats?
In his sweeping overview of what he calls The Democratic Sublime, my colleague Jason Frank explores the connections between popular assemblies and democratic politics. He writes:
There is a more complex and compelling theoretical relationship between democratic authority and popular assembly than most contemporary democratic theorists have recognized, and this relationship may help to explain both the persistent role of popular public assembly within democratic politics up to the present day, as well as its distinctive power as a particular form of democratic representation.
Frank devotes his book to the factors that produce this affinity between democratic authority and popular movements. To put his argument concisely, the concept of “the people out of doors” captures the dual meaning of social movements—both that the people literally enter the streets on behalf of their claims and that the sovereign people always exceed the institutional boundaries of the state. I warmly recommend the book—and not only to political theorists, to whom it is mainly directed.
But here is the thing: Not all of the pairings between movements and “the democratic sublime” since the French Revolution have in fact issued in stable democratic institutions. The creation of the world’s first avowedly democratic constitution in France in 1793 was accompanied by terrorism and the de facto dictatorship of one political party led by Robespierre. An even bloodier tragedy unfolded in Russia under the aegis of the soviet democratic uprisings of 1917.
Could Hitler have conquered Germany or Mussolini taken over Italy without deploying the rhetoric of democracy and manipulating the legal mechanisms of their constitutions? Could Donald Trump have climbed to the heights of the American state without capturing and amplifying an aspect of our historically white supremacist democratic culture that leads to a dramatic narrowing of political freedom for the real majority of American people?
Popular movements in liberal democratic regimes may not only be autocratic or illiberal, as have recently seen; activists enthralled by “the democratic sublime” may also in practice undermine the sovereignty of a people in any meaningful sense.
As Galston, Francis, Tomasky and especially Clemens all acknowledge, we live in interesting times—and the future of liberal democracy hangs in the balance.
Sidney Tarrow is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement (Oxford, 2018), and the author, most recently, of Movements and Parties: Critical Connections in American Political Development.
Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Making and Unmaking of Modern American Democracy.”