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In the decades before the Civil War, conflicts over slavery and its abolition roiled and fractured American politics. A century before the advent of modern polling, multiple, massive drives were organized to represent public opinion to the Congress, only to see legislators deliberately set aside and ignore these painstakingly compiled petitions. At the same time, altercations and even beatings occurred within the Capitol itself, as legislators fought over the same polarizing issue. Such episodes trouble the distinction between “institutional politics” and “contentious politics.”
Advanced by the late Charles Tilly, this conceptual distinction both implied a separate domain for the study of social movements, and provided his longtime friend Sid Tarrow with the premise for this latest book. Tilly encouraged us to think of movements and parties (along with the rest of the established electoral and legislative systems) as separate kinds central to distinct fields of study.
With the inclusion of one small word in the title of his recent book—“and”—Tarrow reframes the question, directing our attention to the interaction between two separate modes of political action. That simple “and” is simultaneously subversive, profoundly generative, and ultimately limiting. In Movements and Parties, Tarrow constructs a powerful linkage through a binary conceptual distinction. I will suggest reasons for building on this accomplishment in order to go beyond it.
Appreciation of the subversive quality of Tarrow’s seemingly straightforward title requires a bit of historical perspective on the social sciences.
It was not so long ago, perhaps a few decades, that inquiry into movements and political parties lived within separate disciplines. Aspiring political scientists who were interested in movements might have found themselves forced to make careers in sociology. Until recently, political sociologists were focused on protests and revolutions, paying far less attention to political parties. These distinctions between fields understood as organized around types were policed and enforced, something that I learned as an assistant professor invited to my first social movements conference.
An eminent scholar asked what I was studying. The answer “organized labor” brought an immediate declaration that this wasn’t a social movement, but an interest group, to which I could only offer a halting argument that perhaps in the nineteenth century, organized labor had been more of a social movement. With that, I beat a retreat from the conversation. But memories of that encounter prompted a question as I read and reread Tarrow’s argument: What is the central difference between movements and parties?
For Tilly, that distinction turned on contentiousness and justified the centrality of protest events in his research agenda. For Tarrow, however, the key difference is tied more directly to motives.
One variation on the theme appears in his discussion of post-Watergate campaign finance reform. Tarrow characterizes “the different nature of party ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’” While the former are ‘transactional,’ social movements are held together by their ideological missions and their collective identities…The latter are activated in order to be right, while the former are in it to win.”
It’s a neat dichotomy. But repeatedly encountering this type of distinction in Tarrow’s text, I began to wonder.
Surely movements have their share of grifters and opportunists along with others whose action is fundamentally “transactional.” And, although perhaps this is naively optimistic, it seems plausible that at least some elected officials are motivated by substantive goals and ideals rather than the naked pursuit of power alone.
Furthermore, Tarrow’s own historical cases provide evidence of how quickly mobilizations can be decoupled from ideals and programmatic goals. For example, the Populists of the 1890s abandoned the well-theorized demand for the subtreasury system and embraced free silver specifically for the potential of this second issue to construct a more encompassing electoral alliance.
So what is the alternative to constructing a binary that remains at least partially embedded in those taxonomic distinctions that were once so fiercely defended?
Historically, I would argue that it lies in noticing that movements and parties do not begin as separate kinds. Scholars seeking 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 kinds are co-constituted, suggesting that we should focus on the emergence of boundaries rather than assuming distinct kinds and tracing their interaction.
Those boundaries may be defined in diverse ways. In the nineteenth century, some of the most consequential exclusions from electoral politics were of already politicized issues. Think, for example, of the imposition of the so-called “gag rule” in Congress starting in the 1830s, which prevented the consideration of petitions advocating for the abolition of slavery.
Similarly, party leaders worked to insulate electoral politics from issues that crosscut their often fragile coalitions. Both temperance and woman suffrage were often sidelined in this way, consequently amplifying initial mobilizations into major national social movements. A similar dynamic is evident in the de jure or de facto exclusion of persons from institutional politics, specifically categories of persons including women, African Americans, or young adults (between 18 and 21). But the demands made on defenders of political institutions are not limited to the full enfranchisement of new categories of persons. Activists and advocates may also mobilize to demand attention to issues not established on the agendas of institutional politics; examples may be found in the movement-driven politics of environmentalism, LGBTQ+ rights, or the legalization of marijuana, to list only a few. Whether of established issues, categories of persons, or new issues, the exclusions themselves generate mobilization.
In this way, by restating Tarrow’s seemingly innocuous “and,” we can pose the question of how to think about the movement-generating exclusions of our own time. Take, for example, one piece of the influential argument made by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die.
In a chapter on gate-keeping, they focus on the erosion of the ability of party leaders to control the nomination process and to weed out potentially destabilizing, anti-institutional candidates. But this gate-keeping is simultaneously a restriction on opportunities for some, to express grievances through the endorsement of those very same unorthodox candidates. As a result, in the past decade, mobilizations have flared and built across the political spectrum, from the Tea Party in 2009 to the protests against systemic racism and injustice in policing in 2020.
As became absolutely undeniable after January 6, 2021, the escalating grievances and elaborated networks on the right fuel a movement that simultaneously claims patriotism and the defense of democracy while denying the legitimacy of the votes of many other citizens. Elsewhere, the unresponsiveness of institutional politics sometimes leads to disengagement from electoral politics, or to creative forms of anti-politics.
Around the globe, we now see all too many instances in which political institutions themselves—along with the elites and interests privileged by them—generate the grievances, networks, and opportunities that fuel the new social movements of our own time.
Elisabeth Clemens is a professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and the author of Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State (Chicago, 2020).
Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Making and Unmaking of Modern American Democracy.”