Image credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons
I’m in broad agreement with Sidney Tarrow’s claim that social movements have had a powerful impact on America’s political parties. If anything, I’d argue that he understates his case.
The impact of movements is nothing new. The Republican Party owes its existence to the anti-slavery movement. The Jacksonian revolt against the Virginia establishment defined the Democratic Party until the early twentieth century. The Progressive movement had a powerful impact on both major political parties and remained an independent force in American politics until it mostly fused with New Deal Democrats.
In my lifetime, social movements have again reshaped both political parties. Today’s Democratic Party reflects the influence of multiple social movements, many of which barely existed when I began high school in the late 1950s. Democrats had not yet become the home of the civil rights movement—or of the racial and ethnic movements inspired by the Black example.
Feminism was just beginning to reemerge, and the environmental movement was in its infancy (neither The Feminine Mystique nor Silent Spring had yet been published). The Port Huron Statement had not appeared, the Vietnam War was not an issue, and Stonewall lay a decade in the future.
All of this changed at a speed that is breathtaking even to recollect, let alone live through. By the time these movements achieved critical mass, the Democratic Party had been transformed, substantively and institutionally.
Social issues had assumed a new prominence, stressing the coalition that had been forged around economic issues in the 1930s. College-educated Democrats with left-leaning views challenged the dominance of working-class Democrats, most of whom favored the Vietnam War and opposed the cultural changes of the 1960s. The McGovern-Frazer commission reshaped the party’s structure, shifting power from the “regulars” to reformers and activists. By the mid-1970s, the party’s presidential nomination was determined by primaries and caucuses, not by state committees. The modern Democratic Party was born, and there was no turning back.
The impact of grassroots movements on the Republican Party has been no less profound. Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952 seemed to have settled long-standing intra-party disputes: the “modern Republican” party would embrace internationalism and make its peace with the New Deal.
Substantial portions of the Republican base never accepted these changes, however, and after Richard Nixon’s defeat in 1960, they went into open revolt. Founded in the fall of 1960, the Young Americans for Freedom spearheaded the movement that led to Barry Goldwater’s nomination. By 1962, Ronald Reagan had joined YAF’s national advisory board, a fateful alliance that endured for decades. After Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964, his supporters began the long march through their party’s institutions that eventuated in the Reagan presidency.
Other movements contributed to this outcome. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, handed down in 1973, sparked the formation of the “pro-life” movement, which soon became a key building block of the conservative coalition. So did Evangelical Protestants who had backed Jimmy Carter, only to discover that he was serious about civil rights and was prepared to deny tax exemptions to “Christian academies” established to avoid desegregation. Rev, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped bring these evangelicals back into the public square for the first time since the Scopes trial.
The Reagan coalition, which brought together these evangelicals with small government advocates, cultural conservatives, and Cold War anti-communists, dominated the Republican scene for a quarter of a century before new developments began to disrupt it.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door for the reemergence of conservative isolationism and laying the groundwork for “American First.” Slow-acting demographic changes flowing from immigration reforms enacted in 1965 triggered a resurgence of nativism, which intensified during the Great Recession. Polling I helped design a decade ago confirms Tarrow’s assertion that the Tea Party was a populist and nationalist movement, not a group that mainly cared about limited government.
When Trump pledged not to cut Social Security or Medicare, he repudiated fiscal conservatism and opened the door to fervent working-class support. Voters who had gotten little from the Republican Party finally occupied its center stage.
Having gone this far down Tarrow’s road, let me conclude by rebalancing the conversation.
Social movements often fail, the scope of their concerns is limited, and their impact on parties is cyclical, rather than ever-expanding.
Consider Tarrow’s leading contemporary example—the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Although they were massive and lengthy, they failed to transform American politics. They foundered when they moved from protest to prescription.
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominee rejected the movement’s key demand to “defund the police,” and so did most of the Democrats running for state and local office in 2021. Remarkably, the movement’s skeptics include African Americans, a majority of whom favor better policing, not fewer police. Their opposition to the movement’s proposal helped sink the “defund” ballot initiative in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd died.
Despite the growing impact of social movements on American political parties in recent decades, it’s also true that much political business is still transacted among elites.
Many legislative and administrative matters are of limited interest to grassroots organizations. There was no bottom-up movement for infrastructure improvements, but a bill authorizing the largest investments in a generation was enacted last fall with support that crossed party lines. The same is true of efforts to invest in cutting-edge technologies vital to our intensifying competition with China, another bill that appears likely to pass with bipartisan backing.
Social movements tend to be intense but narrowly focused. On issues movements care about, parties have a hard time resisting their demands. In other areas, however, cross-party elite coalitions can still carry the day, as with sanctions to deter (or punish) a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the growing partisan polarization of the past three decades, there is more elite consensus than meets the eye, and it can yield agreement when movements do not mobilize in opposition.
This said, there is no doubt that the balance of power within political parties has profoundly shifted over the past half-century.
Republicans did not resist the McGovern-Frazer reforms that had shifted the power-structure toward the grassroots: instead, they imitated these reforms.
By the end of the 1970, both parties were more exposed to revolts from outside than ever before, and they still are. The lingering influence of the New Left and the new energy of the populist Right have merged to shift the initiative from above to below, from party institutions to social movements.
The consequences of these changes culminated in 2016, when the establishment of both political parties came under attack. An avowed socialist came close to winning the Democratic nomination, and a conservative populist showed the Republican Party how hollow and outdated the Reagan consensus had become. Each insurgent drew support both from party members dissatisfied with his party’s leaders and from citizens who were previously uninvolved in institutional politics.
A simultaneous challenge to both parties is an unusual moment in American political life, and it may well represent a cyclical peak of public discontent. In the past, anti-establishment movements have either faded (as did the populism of the late nineteenth century) or been absorbed into new governing coalitions.
Despite the bitterness of the struggle between traditional conservatism and the Reagan insurgency of the mid and late 1970s, President Reagan worked successfully to incorporate his defeated adversaries into the new Republican coalition. For better or worse, Joe Biden negotiated a peace treaty with his left-wing adversaries in 2020 and continued it into his presidency. By contrast, Donald Trump has pursued a strategy familiar in autocracies but rare in American politics—a hostile takeover of his party followed by waves of purges that have not yet ended.
For the progressive and socialist left animated by hope for a “political revolution,” the inability of a Democratic administration and Congress to enact its agenda has yielded disappointment and resentment. Meanwhile, the populist right has embraced a strategy of permanent revolution until its demands are met, whether or not a majority of the electorate supports them.
Much depends on when these political passions cool, as they have in the past. In the meantime, decades of participatory reform have left American parties ill-equipped to resist them.
As a result, American politics is likely to remain both unstable and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.
William A. Galston is Ezra Zilka Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Making and Unmaking of Modern American Democracy.”