Joe Biden’s inauguration, in conjunction with the Democratic Party’s very narrow majority in the Senate, dramatically changes the prospects for advocates and activists for all sorts of causes. Students of social movements should be able to make a few guesses at how, and what’s coming. The events of the pre-post-Trump era suggest, emphatically, that President Biden, despite his avowed intent to promote national healing and unity, will face vigorous and volatile social movements from both the left and right.
There’s plenty of empirical evidence for ongoing protest and disruption, and plenty of theoretical cause as well. Let’s dispense with the theory first, and then look at what’s happening. The change in partisan control of government is an element of the “structure of political opportunities” activists face (see McAdam 1982; Meyer 2004; Tarrow 2012; Tilly 1977). Although often operationalized in scholarly analyses as a D or an R, the world outside a movement is more complicated and confusing. Mainstream politics and culture generates grievances, encouragement or provocation, and the prospects for influence—all at the same time. Potential protesters and even revolutionaries respond to all of it.
On the left, organizers know that they can’t afford to allow the new president to define the terms of his presidency and the vigor of his commitments to more egalitarian and environmentally responsible policies. Biden established himself as one of the least favorite candidates in the Democratic primary process for most activists, gaining the nomination only because most mainstream politicians assumed that Donald Trump would unite and mobilize the voters around whomever the Democrats nominated; mostly, they were right. Biden’s decades-long career is largely free of ideological tells; as Senator and as Vice President, he proved a commitment and a skill in navigating to wherever the center of the Democratic coalition was. Savvy activists know that they have to continue to stretch the left boundary of that coalition.
On the day after the election, Linda Sarsour, one of the original organizers of the first Women’s March, announced at a Count Every Vote rally in New York, that she planned to be in the streets protesting, regardless of who won the election. Speaking in front of Bryant Park, she proclaimed “If we don’t fight, nobody’s going to fight for us the way we deserve. So let’s stay in the streets regardless of the outcome of this election, and I promise you when Joe Biden gets inaugurated, I’ll be the first one on those streets, because that’s when the real work starts.” Sarsour understood that protesting when a potential ally is in office is every bit as important as protesting to try to stop an opponent (Meyer 2020). Activists respond to both openings and to provocations and threats.
Biden’s opponents on the populist right are likely to be more aggressive and more volatile. In the last five years, both Trump and mainstream Republican politicians have called white nationalist groups off the fringes of American politics into the streets –and into the Capitol, bearing signs praising Trump or Jesus, and symbols of America, the Confederacy, and the Nazis. It’s less an ideology of political perspective that unites them than a commitment to something Trump seems to represent. Biden will be added to a long list of enemies that includes notable Democratic politicians—particularly visible women of color like Representatives Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York)—as well as a growing list of Republican politicians insufficiently committed to Trump, now including outgoing Vice President Mike Pence and conservative stalwart, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyoming).
Social movements are most powerful and effective when they unite protesters with institutional politics. Over the next months and years, we need to watch those connections, which are likely to play out very differently on the left and the right. Opportunities vary across causes and constituencies (Bracey 2015); the invitation to one group is a provocation to its opponents. With institutional politics shifting toward the left, and the new president committed to social and economic investment, and even something that looks like a Green New Deal—without the title—organizers will be positioned to get their claims heard. Mostly, we should hear different versions of “More” and “Faster.” There may be large and recurrent demonstrations, but the marginal left should stay marginal.
The story is likely to be very different on the right. Already, groups promoting white nationalism or gun rights or conservative social values are articulating different interpretations of Trump’s departure from office: an institutional ally who achieved a more conservative judiciary; a martyr forced out by a rigged election; an unreliable and cowardly symbol who deserted the cause. The interpretations will affect what happens next, but probably not as much as the availability of allies in mainstream politics.
At this moment, it seems like the Capitol invasion, which included foiled plans to attack at least some Republicans, was a wake-up for many in office. A dramatic rupture within the Republican Party, along with harsh prosecution of the identified and arrested invaders, is likely to warn most of those who’ve been showing up at Trump rallies off the cause. When the line is drawn in the dust, most folks look at who’s on each side of it before deciding whether to cross. Do you want to stand with elected officials or with a guy in Viking horns?
But more than a few will remain engaged, convinced of the existential threats to America (defined vaguely, or specifically as more extensive regulation or restrictions on guns or accepting a more diverse America) will find ways to represent their causes. The large demonstration in a public space hasn’t been a reliable tactic for the right in recent years, and it’s especially unlikely to work with stricter policing and broader public concern with violence. This means that more aggressive and clandestine efforts, launched by much smaller groups, are likely to be the greatest threat in the near term. And every bit of violence against property—much less against people—will exacerbate the growing rift on the right. A bigger split between institutional conservatives and frustrated activists makes it more possible for authorities to marginalize and contain the sort of insurgency we saw at the Capitol.
It will be a great time for scholars of movements and of insurgency—unless they happen to live in the United States.
Bracey, Glenn E., II 2015. “Black Movements Need Black Theorizing: Exposing Implicit Whiteness in Political Process Theory,” Sociological Focus 49(1): 11-27.
McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meyer, David S. 2020. “Activists helped get Biden elected. When he’s in office, they’ll fight him.” The Washington Post, November 6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/social-movements-presidents-biden-pressure/2020/11/06/532fd91c-1f99-11eb-90dd-abd0f7086a91_story.html
Meyer, David S. 2004. “Protest and Political Opportunities.” Annual Review of Sociology 30:125-145.
Tarrow, Sidney. 2012. Power in Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, Charles. 1977. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
David S. Meyer is professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent books are How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter (forthcoming), and The Resistance: Dawn of the Anti-Trump Movement (co-edited with Sidney Tarrow). He blogs at https://politicsoutdoors.com/