From THE RESISTANCE to Resistance; The United States as a Case of Democratic Transition

By Sidney Tarrow*

Sidney Tarrow 2My thanks to “Mobilizing Ideas” for the ingenious idea — taking off from The Resistance, published in 2018 and edited by David Meyer and myself — of taking the story of the movement against Trumpism to the run-up of the upcoming presidential election. Having moved on to other issues and to other venuessince The Resistancewent to press in mid-2017, I cannot claim to have original material to contribute to this new debate. But often the most interesting ideas for an author come after publication. What I propose is to look at the resistance to Donald Trump drawing on my experience as a comparativist as an experience of what may be shaping up as a new democratic transition.

I should say at the outside that I am not one of those people who regards the United States as a non-democracy – although Meyer and I were deeply concerned at the threat to our democracy posed by the Trump’s  election and what he has wrought since then (see the Introduction to The Resistance, p. 8; and especially Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). What leads me to focus on the potential for a democratic transition is the striking similarity in the tone of American politics today to the cycles of contention that “transitologists” and non-transitologists found in Southern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s (Bermeo 1997, Bunce 1995; O’Donnell, Schmitter and Whitehead, eds. 1986; Linz and Stepan 1996; Tarrow 1995). What is most similar to what comparativists found in those democratic transitions in Europe is the upsetting of inherited norms, the challenge to accepted rules of the game, and the high degree of uncertainty and contingency in America’s politics today (di Palma 1990).

That comparative literature is interesting to students of social movements for another reason:  part of it revolved around a debate between the “transitologists” – like O’Donnell, Schmitter, Linz and Stepan — and their critics — like Bermeo, Bunce and this author –over whether these transitions were largely the result of elite negotiation or of popular contention. Two recent students of the Arab Spring summarize the former argument; “Transitologists have argued that protestors should demobilize after an authoritarian has been outed, or risk alienating social elites and soft-liners from the former regime” (Ketchley and El-Rayyes 2019:1). In contrast, the those who think “transitologists should be grounded” argue that “continued protest can deepen the transitional process by forcing elites to make concessions, while checking authoritarian backsliding” (ibid; also see Bunce 1995). “Against this backdrop,” observe Ketchley and El-Rayyes, “it is surprising that little attention has been paid to how protest shapes popular attitudes to democracy over a transition” (Ibid).

These students of the Arab Spring point that that while much of the literature on attitudes to democracy focuses on the United States, it “has tended to study cases of low level, episodic mobilization….it is less clear how political attitudes will be patterned by more sustained mobilization” (Ketchley and El-Rayyes, p. 3). Since the United States since Trump’s election appears to be going through such a period of norm change and uncertainty, it is a good opportunity to “take transitiology home,” – that is, to try to understand whether the massive wave of protest that followed Trump’s election (Chenoweth and Pressman 2017; Berry and Chenoweth 2018) has led to attitudes favorable to democracy or whether – as in some cases of democratic transition — anti-regime protests have produced more negative attitudes to democratic participation in general (see the review in Ketchley and El-Rayyes 2019, pp. 2-3).

Of course, movement scholars have been aware of how – if at all – contention contributes to democratic transitions. In her provocative comparisons in Where Did the Revolution Go?(2016), Donatella della Porta contrasted cases of “negotiated transition” with those that are empowered by popular contention, finding that the latter are more more deeply-rooted more diffused, and more enduring. Similar findings emerged from Robert Fishman’s comparisons of the emergence of democracy on the Iberian Peninsula (2019). But for obvious reasons, these comparisons did not include the United States in the age of Trump. If this country is undergoing a democratic transition, it will perforce be empowered by a vast wave of contention, one that has slowed down and moved closer to electoral politics since Meyer and I put together The Resistance.

One particular aspect of political contention during periods of transition may give pause to students of democracy looking at the United States today: whether intense waves of contention lead to a deepening of democratic attitudes or to their diminution. In their path-breaking work on the post-Tahrir period in Egypt, Ketchley and El-Rayyes find that “four months into the transition, sustained protest had already begun to negatively impact Egyptians’ attitudes to democracy.” They found “no evidence for the alternative proposition: that protest endeared Egyptians to democracy” (p. 29). Egypt in 2011 is of course not the U.S. in 2019-20; but a worthwhile endeavor would be to examine whether support for democracy in the mass public has flourished or declined as a result of the vast wave of contention that the U.S. has experienced since Trump’s election.

A second aspect of this question relates to whether variations in the repertoire of contention that protesters have employed predicts different sets of attitudes to democracy. Most of the protests examined by Chenoweth and her collaborators and by Dana Fisher and her group (2018 a and b) in the months following Trump’s election took the form of mass, peaceful marches and demonstrations. But here and there, protesters flirted with, or deliberately employed, violence – especially in counter-protests from the extreme left against rightwing nationalists. Ketchley and El-Rayyes found that compared to districts in which demonstrations and marches dominated in the protesters’ repertoire “Egyptians living in districts that saw more blockades, sit-ins, and occupations held more negative assessments of democracy” (p. 25).

Asking whether support for democracy in Portland or Berkeley has prospered in the face of the aggressive protests of the “antifa” and other extremist groups, compared to the largely peaceful repertoire of anti-Trump protesters elsewhere may help us to bring the United States into connection with the broader comparative literature on democratic transitions.

This suggestion is of more than academic interest. Recall that the “riots” of the mid-1960s in American cities led – among other things – to a diminution of support for civil rights and for protest, which fed into the election of Richard Nixon, producing the greatest threat to American democracy in the last century. If the resistance veers into radical forms of contention (or can be portrayed as such by its detractors) we may well fail to see the deepening of democracy that many participants in the resistance passionately desire, and, instead, A revisiting of “the silent majority”.

*I am grateful to Beppe di Palma and David Meyer for their comments on an earlier version of this note.


Bermeo, N. (1997). “Myths of Moderation. Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transitions.” Comparative Politics 27: 305-322.

Berry, M. and Erica Chenoweth (2018). “Who Made the Women’s March?” The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. D. S. Meyer and S. Tarrow. New York, Oxford University Press.

Bunce, V. (1995). “Should Transitologists be Grounded?” Slavic Review55: 111-127.

Chenoweth, Erica and Jeremy Pressman (2017). “This is What We Learned by Counting the Women’s Marches.” The Washington Post.

della Porta, D. (2016). Where Did The Revolution Go?New York and Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Di Palma, G. (1990). To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transitions. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Fisher, D. R. (2018a). “Climate of Resistance: How the Climate Movement Connects to the Resistance.” The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. D. S. Meyer and S. Tarrow. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Fisher, D. R. (2018b). “Some Updates on American Resistance.” from

Fishman, Robert (2019). Democratic Practice: Origins of the Iberian Divide in Political Inclusion.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ketchley, N. and T. El-Rayyes (2020). “Unpopular Protest: Mass Mobilization and Attitudes to Democracy in Post-Mubarek Egypt.” Journal of Politics in press: 1-52.

Levitsky, S. and D. Ziblatt (2018). This is How Democracies Die. New York, Penguin.

Linz, J. and A. Stepan (1996). Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meyer, D. S. and S. Tarrow, Eds. (2018). The Resistance: the Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement. New York, Oxford University Press.

O’Donnell, G., et al. (1986). Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tarrow, S. (1995). “Mass Mobilization and Regime Change: Pacts, Reform, and Popular Power in Italy, 1918-1922 and Spain, 1975-1978.” The Politics of Democratic Consolidation: Southern Europe in Comparative Perspective. Nicos Diamondouros, Richard Gunther, and Hans-Jurgen Puhle. Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press: 204-230.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Showtime for the Resistance

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