The rise of American social movements

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I generally agree with Sidney Tarrow’s assertion that social movements have had a powerful impact on American political parties. If anything, I’d say he underestimates his case.

The impact of the movements is not 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 turn of the 20th century. The Progressive movement had a powerful impact on both major political parties and remained an independent force in American politics until it coalesced primarily with the New Deal Democrats.

In my lifetime, social movements have again reshaped both political parties. The Democratic Party today reflects the influence of multiple social movements, many of which barely existed when I started high school in the late 1950s. The Democrats had not yet become the home of the rights movement civics – or racial and ethnic movements inspired by black example.

Feminism was just beginning to reappear and the environmental movement was in its infancy (nor The feminine mystic or silent spring had not yet been published). the Port Huron Declaration hadn’t appeared, the Vietnam War wasn’t an issue, and Stonewall was a decade in the future.

All of this changed with breathtaking speed, even to remember, let alone to experience. By the time these movements reached critical mass, the Democratic Party had transformed, both substantively and institutionally.

Social issues had taken on new prominence, underscoring the coalition that had been forged around economic issues in the 1930s. College-educated Democrats with leftist views challenged the dominance of working-class Democrats, whose most favored the Vietnam War and opposed the cultural changes of the 1960s. The McGovern-Frazer Commission reshaped the party structure, shifting power from “regulars” to reformers and activists. In the mid-1970s, the party’s presidential nomination was determined by primaries and caucuses, not 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 internal differences: the “modern Republican” party would embrace internationalism and make peace with the New Deal.

However, a significant part of the Republican base never accepted these changes and, after the defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960, they revolted openly. Founded in the fall of 1960, Young Americans for Freedom spearheaded the movement that led to the appointment of Barry Goldwater. In 1962, Ronald Reagan had joined the National Advisory Board of YAF, a fateful alliance that lasted for decades. After Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, his supporters began the long march through their party institutions that culminated in the Reagan presidency.[1]

Other movements contributed to this result. That of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision, handed down in 1973, sparked the formation of the “pro-life” movement, which quickly became a key part of the conservative coalition. So did the evangelical Protestants who had backed Jimmy Carter, only to find that he was serious about civil rights and was willing to deny tax exemptions to “Christian academies” set up to stave off desegregation. Reverend Jerry Falwell’s moral majority helped bring these evangelicals back into the public eye for the first time since the Scopes trial.

The Reagan Coalition, which brought together these evangelicals with petty government supporters, 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 to the re-emergence of conservative isolationism and laid the foundation for “America First”. Slow-acting demographic changes stemming from the immigration reforms passed in 1965 sparked a resurgence of nativism, which intensified during the Great Recession. The poll I helped design a decade ago confirms Tarrow’s assertion that the Tea Party was a populist, nationalist movement, not a group that cared primarily 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 received little from the Republican Party finally took center stage.

After going this far down the road to Tarrow, 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 prime contemporary example – the protests that erupted over the murder of George Floyd. Although they were massive and long, they failed to transform American politics. They sank when they went from protest to prescription.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate rejected the movement’s main demand to “defund the police”, as did most Democrats who ran for state and local elections in 2021. Remarkably, the movement’s skeptics include African -Americans, the 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 is also true that much political business is still transacted between elites.

Many legislative and administrative issues are of limited interest to grassroots organisations. There has been no bottom-up movement for infrastructure improvements, but a bill authorizing the biggest investment in a generation was signed into law last fall with support that crossed party lines. So does efforts to invest in cutting-edge technologies vital to our growing competition with China, another bill that looks likely to pass with bipartisan support.

Social movements tend to be intense but narrowly targeted. On the issues that concern the movements, the parties find it difficult to resist their demands. In other areas, however, elite cross-party coalitions can still prevail, such as with sanctions aimed at deterring (or punishing) 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 fail to mobilize in opposition.

That said, there is no doubt that the balance of power within political parties has changed profoundly over the past half-century.

Republicans did not resist the McGovern-Frazer reforms that had shifted the power structure down: instead, they emulated those reforms.

At the end of the 1970s, the two parties were more exposed than ever to external revolts, and they still are. The lingering influence of the new left and the new energy of the populist right have coalesced to shift the initiative from above downwards, from party institutions to social movements.

The consequences of these changes culminated in 2016, when the establishment of the two political parties was attacked. 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 gained support both from party members disgruntled with their party leadership and from citizens previously uninvolved in institutional politics.

A simultaneous challenge to both sides is an unusual moment in American political life, and it may well represent a cyclical spike in public discontent. In the past, protest movements have either died out (as late 19th century populism did) or been absorbed by new government 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 integrate his defeated adversaries into the new Republican coalition. For better or worse, Joe Biden brokered a peace treaty with his leftist opponents in 2020 and pursued it through his presidency. In 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 are not yet complete.

For the progressive and socialist left driven by the hope of a “political revolution”, the inability of a Democratic administration and Congress to adopt its program has caused disappointment and resentment. Meanwhile, the populist right has adopted a strategy of permanent revolution until its demands are met, whether a majority of the electorate supports them or not.

It all depends on when these political passions cool down, as they have in the past. Meanwhile, decades of participatory reform have left American parties ill-equipped to resist them.

As a result, American politics will likely remain both volatile and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.


William A. Galston is the Ezra Zilka Professor 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 Creation and Undoing of Modern American Democracy”.

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