Image Credit: Washington D.C.: MAY 30, 2020 Stephanie Kenner / Shutterstock

When, in the summer of 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis, the Movement for Black Lives, which had been founded in 2012 by an African American actress, was reinvigorated. It gave rise to what may have been the largest multiracial wave of protest in American history.

But the George Floyd protests and their aftermath also had a large effect on institutional politics. The outrage at the wave of killings of African Americans over the preceding years led to the largest Black turnout in American electoral history. From protest to electoral politics, the sequence of events from Floyd’s murder in the spring of 2020 to Biden’s victory in the fall of that year constituted a critical juncture that turned American politics—at least briefly—180 degrees from its orientation under Donald Trump.

This was not the first time in American history that a link between a movement and a party has helped to transform American politics. From the alliance of abolitionists and Republicans that helped precipitate the Civil War and then produced the Reconstruction Amendments, to the transformation of the agrarian movement into the Populist Party in the 1890s, to the impact of the organized labor and civil rights movements on the Democrats in the 1930s and 1960s, to the infusion of the Christian Right into the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s, social movements have frequently been key “anchors” in the transformation of the party system. 

Often, these movements pushed parties and presidents to make profound changes in American institutions; sometimes, they brought about major changes in the political economy; more rarely they determined the direction of the competing currents of democratization and de-democratization in American political culture.

The confluence of modern social movements and the political parties system will be no surprise to historians. But until quite recently, in the modern discipline of political science, methodological barriers have made it hard for students of social movements and political parties to synthesize their findings.As Jack Goldstone observed in the introduction to his edited book, States, Parties and Social Movements:

There has been a persistent tendency to see this interaction [between movements and the state] as distinct from normal institutionalized politics occurring through voting, lobbying, political parties, legislatures, courts, and elected leaders.

When did this bifurcation begin? The 1960s wave of contention and the “new social movements” that followed led many movement scholars to conclude that parties are cranky conservative institutions that needed to be examined separately from movements. At the same time, after the appearance of the landmark study of The American Voter by Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes, first published in 1960, electoral studies have been largely reshaped around survey methodology, which only taps into movements through the reports of surveyed individuals. These different methodological vectors made it difficult for students of movements and students of elections to build a unified field.

But in part because of the fractured state of American politics today, this separation between party and movement research is no longer tenable. These fractures can partly be explained by the advent of “movement-parties,” as European scholars like Herbert Kitschelt and Donatella della Porta have called them. But the phenomenon was already familiar to scholars of Latin America, after grassroots movements led to the rise of the Worker’s Party in Brazil, and of a number of indigenous-based parties in the Andes in the 1990s. Seeing something resembling movements within parties in Europe and Latin America brought American scholars into closer dialogue with students of movements.

In the United States, the links between movements and political parties have been most intense during the “critical junctures” of American history: From Lincoln’s intermittent relationships with abolitionist activists like Frederick Douglass to Trump’s insertion of unabashed white supremacy into the heart of the Republican Party.

In my own recent study of Movements and Parties, I explore five ways in which American movements and political parties have interacted, especially during critical junctures. In such periods, institutional and non-institutional conflicts intersect, people who have entered public life through movements gravitate into parties, and parties shift their ground to embrace new issues and attract new supporters. The result is to infuse institutional politics with the passions—and the divisions—of movement politics, leaving a legacy that crystallizes in the party system and often leaves a permanent mark on the institutions of government.

The most proactive way in which movements influence parties is through elections. Movements can introduce new forms of collective action that influence election campaigns; they can join electoral coalitions; in extreme cases, they turn into parties themselves. The formation of the “New Deal” coalition after FDR’s election in 1932 was such an election, although it was presaged by the election of 1928, and followed by the 1936 election in which African Americans began to leave the “party of Lincoln,” and eventually “anchor” instead the Democratic Party.

A second and reactive way in which movement actions influence elections and parties is the formation of a “counter-movement,” which can take violent, organizational, or even institutional forms. The most violent was the creation of the Ku Klux Klan to combat the gains that African Americans were making during reconstruction; possibly the most substantial organizational reaction was the creation of the NAACP in response to the wave of lynchings in the South in the early twentieth century, and arguably the most substantial institutional change to facilitate the interaction of movements and parties was the generalization of the direct primary in the 1970s.

In the intermediate range, critical junctures shape the strategies and structures of future movements. A successful electoral intervention draws movements towards the electoral arena, and these changes can bring about a longer-term shift in movements’ electoral involvement. The widespread creation of non-profit public interest groups was a direct result of the movements of the 1960s, many of whose veterans had entered this new generation of activism during the 1970s.

Also in the intermediate range, the interactions among movements, parties and counter-movements can reshape political institutions.  These are often electoral institutions, but movements can also provoke changes in the mechanisms of social control and repression, or broader changes, like the beginning of the welfare state that brought African Americans into the polity from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Finally, through this complex of interactions, regimes are shaped and reshaped, often threatened, and sometimes expanded. Many historians—following the aphorism of Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”—implicitly believe that American history is the history of democratization. Some of the critical junctures in the history analyzed in Movements and Parties—like Reconstruction and women’s suffrage—did indeed “bend toward justice,” but others did not, and still others produced a combination of democratizing and de-democratizing trends.

Movements and Parties argues that there has been a secular change in the relations between movements and parties, leading to a shortened time-span of movement influence on the party system, to a partial “movementization” of the parties—especially the Republican Party, to a “hollowing-out” of the party organizations, and to a set of policy and institutional changes—like the universalization of the direct primary—leading to the insertion of movement logics into the grassroots of the party system.

The culmination of these trends was the election of a cultlike movement leader, Donald Trump, to the presidency in 2016 

How, analysts and pundits have asked, could an ill-prepared and erratic figure as Donald Trump  have become the dominant actor in the Republican Party, with its 150-year history of winning elections and holding together a diverse coalition? Scholars and pundits have proposed a variety of reasons for the Trumpian takeover of that party: the failure of the Republicans to come together around a viable insider candidate; Trump’s rhetorical flair and ruthless campaign; the weakness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the widespread hatred for her after 30 years of Republican denigration; and the failure of Barack Obama to put substantial resources into the Democratic Party organization as he built his own movement organization.

I take a longer view.

First, the “hollowing out” of the party system began much earlier than the advent of Trumpism, leaving the Republicans easy prey to an assault from an outsider with a talent for exacerbating conflict.

Second, the once-insurgent Tea Party activists constituted a populist/nationalist base within the party that Trump could amplify. Looking further back, the New Right and Christian conservatives who had entered the party in the 1970s and 1980s had merged with mainstream economic conservatives who could never believe that Trump’s populist antics would cancel out his plutocratic instincts. That they were correct was shown during his first year in power when he rewarded the one percent with the largest and most disproportionate tax cut in American history.

But alongside his plutocratic alliance, Trump was basically a populist demagogue who depended on, and worked to maintain, his base of mostly-white, partly-racist, partly anti-feminist, and wholly anti-liberal followers.

But at the same time, Trump’s ascent triggered counter-movements—the Resistance, led by women, was able to build on some of the tactics of the Movement for Black Lives. The pandemic put the icing on the cake of this bubbling movement/countermovement conflict, reducing the Republicans’ ability to blend Trumpist excesses with normal Republican conservatism.

That is what took us to the insurrection and abortive coup of January 6th, in which Trump’s “formative movement” brought armed militias into contact with Trump’s congressional loyalists, posing a direct (and ongoing) threat to the federal government,

Where can the American left go from here? How should the Democratic party respond to the continuing electoral potency of the illiberal currents that now dominate the Republican party?  And how should movement activists respond?

The future of American democracy I think hinges on how we answer these questions.    

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.