By Fabio Rojas
If a social movement were a person and you asked that person to describe their relationship with elections, the social movement would say “it’s complicated.” Sometimes, social movements really love elections. They help bring people to the rally and force candidates to pay attention to them. At other times, politicians and the public drift away from movements. Even when you win, involvement in an election can be a mixed blessing. The demands of power often mean that a movement might have to curtail its goals. As one activist told me, “the issue isn’t what we’ll do in the election, the issue is how to avoid being damaged by elections.” You can’t live with elections, you can’t live without them.
This year is an excellent example. In the 2000s, multiple social movements achieved great visibility and were key players in US politics. The antiwar movement helped Obama win crucial primaries in the early phase of the 2008 Democratic primary and the Tea Party became an important factor within the Republican party in 2010. Since then, movements have declined as factors in elections. There doesn’t seem to be a left social movement that has successfully challenged the Democratic party’s favored nominee. In the Republican party, the era of Tea Party rallies is over and the GOP is now governed by rambunctious nativist politics, not the traditional “movement conservatives” of the right such as the pro-life movement.
What happened? First, by their very nature, movements have a more episodic life than political parties. Every year, parties are expected to field candidates and they are a constant presence in the American political system. Furthermore, they have a natural flow of people and resources, guaranteeing their long term survival. In contrast, social movements seem to have a “natural life cycle.” With a few exceptions, movements go through a “protest cycle” where an issue develops, people mobilize, and there is a decline, which may occur once the movement has spent its resources. Many of the major movements have run their course. For example, the goal of Occupy Wall Street was to raise awareness of income inequality and corporate corruption. It might be argued that they succeeded and activists have moved on.
Second, there are partisan dynamics. The central argument of Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11, co-authored with Michael T. Heaney, is that when movements strongly ally themselves with a political party, they run the risk of collapsing when that party wins elections and moves on to other issues. What we found in the case of the antiwar movement is that the movement receded when Democrats gained power. We also argue that a similar pattern can be seen in the Tea Party. Once the Tea Party won control of the House Republican Caucus, there was little need for external protest. After eight years of a Democratic White House and six years of a Tea Party House of Representatives, there seems to be little demand for an electorally engaged social movement.
This general pattern speaks to the perils of polarization for social movements. In a polarized political environment, there is great incentive to strongly align a movement with a party. There are immediate benefits – popularity, legitimacy, access to the media, and financial resources. But there is risk as well. If the party wins a major election, many “partisan-protestors” will feel that the battle is won and it is time to move on. Similarly, it is hard to forge a political movement that can survive the ups and downs of elections in a polarized environment. In a less polarized environment, a movement might create robust support for their cause by recruiting people from both major parties. Without these “cross-overs,” the movement is at risk of sudden collapse.
Third, tactics and ideology matter a great deal. Theoretically, we might imagine that Black Lives Matter could become the big movement of the 2016 election but that has not happened. Repeatedly, its leaders insist that they are not interested in currying favor with political candidates. Rather, they have spent considerable effort challenging candidates, such as when Black Lives Matter activists infiltrated a Hillary Clinton fundraiser and confronted her. This speaks to a deep issue with social movements – ideology. In public statements, Black Lives Matter has made it clear that its focus is on social inequality and the challenges facing Black Americans. They also tend to use the language suggesting that they adhere to the tradition of Black nationalist politics, direct action, and community based politics. Black Lives Matter is an example of a movements whose ideology and tactics naturally move it away from a position of influence in elections.
Where does that leave activism in the 2016 election? My hypothesis is that we are in a transitional period in American politics. In the 2000s, there were two major issues that galvanized activists and pushed them into the election – the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2008. Now that these issues are receding into the past, they no longer drive people to the streets or the polls. But that is not a permanent state. There will be social change in the future and the rigid lines between parties will soften When that happens, new movements will rise up.