An interview with Daniel Schlozman, author of When Movements Anchor Parties Electoral Alignments in American History
Tell me a bit about the book.
When Movements Anchor Parties is about five social movements across American history that confronted American political parties. Two movements forged long-running alliances with parties: organized labor with the Democrats starting in the New Deal years and the Christian Right with the Republicans starting in the late 1970s. Two movements couldn’t make alliance work, and basically collapsed: the Populists in the 1880s and 1890s and the antiwar movement in the 1960s. And finally the abolitionist movement got inside the Republican Party but, as Reconstruction fell apart, couldn’t stay inside the party.
What’s your argument?
The book does three things at once. First, it narrates the stories of these alliances and would-be alliances. And those stories go a long way to getting us our polarized politics. So much of what we’re arguing about today, about race, about wealth, about work, about war, about values, and so much of what’s politically possible or not, goes back to these confrontations between parties and movements.
Second, and more analytically, the book offers a framework to make sense of why movements do – or do not – get inside parties. Basically parties accept movements inside their coalitions if they prefer them to other paths to majority. Movements need to convince pragmatists inside parties that they’ll be a good electoral bet, and that they won’t upset the apple cart and disrupt the rest of party coalition too much. So movements have got to offer resources to parties that they can’t get elsewhere – votes, and the money, time, and networks needed to get votes. In return, parties will deliver policy for their group allies. That’s the exchange that makes alliance work. But it’s a tall order.
And finally, it’s a new way to understand big moments in American political history – what a prior generation called realignments. At all these major turning points – 1860, 1896, 1936, 1968, 1980 – came a major social movement making once-radical demands. As the parties responded, coalitions shifted, and possibilities opened and closed.
Why did you decide to examine cases across time rather than place?
Comparisons of parties and movements across countries – and I draw on a long, rich tradition of them – almost invariably end up in the same place: that the United States is more or less exceptional given our history and our unique political system. So I flipped the question around. The book deliberately compares across American history and all the way across the ideological spectrum. I wanted to show similarities in apparently dissimilar cases. In different guises and with different results depending on the circumstances, movements with radically divergent priorities have faced common challenges in the American political system. For activists, or scholars of a particular movement or period, who read the book, I hope that’s eye-opening – and maybe even a little uncomfortable.
What advice would you offer to movements as they think about how to win influence inside the party system?
Let’s be clear: When Movements Anchor Parties is not a how-to, but I think there are lessons. Above all, build movement organization. Without a sustained movement that can register its supporters and bring them to the polls, and then do the same for their friends and neighbors and coworkers and fellow congregants, parties will ignore movements’ demands, and mobilize directly. And the key movement-building is face-to-face contact, stitched together with leaders who understand national politics. Now, there’s a question about new technology here. We know that social media can mobilize, but how can they help build organization to last? We’ll see, but I’m skeptical that the hashtag can replace the basement meeting hall with folding chairs.
Another lesson, one that movements won’t want to hear: the most radical activists are a double-edged sword. They’re the most dedicated, tireless organizers, the ones who really expand the boundaries of the possible, but they’re sometimes beyond the pale for parties that want to win national majorities. So the price of alliance, the price of shifting possibilities in the political system as a whole, is often jettisoning those radicals. That’s not a normative statement; it’s just a repeated historical fact that comes through, especially for movements on the left. If you want to read the book as an argument for moderation over maximalism, I certainly won’t stop you.
The movement that gets this best – it’s not in the book, but, again, the lessons are clear – is for immigrants’ rights. They’ve organized hard in communities across the country, using a variety of tactics, and they’ve coalesced behind a clear set of ideas that they’ve made politically palatable. The Democratic Party looks at this bloc of voters and future voters, and sees majorities long down the line, but gets that it won’t win them without appealing to immigrants on their issues. Look at what Obama finally did on DACA, and what Hillary Clinton, who was much quieter on the issue in 2008, has proposed to do beyond that.
You were a local party activist yourself in Massachusetts for awhile. How did that experience influence the book?
American parties are coalitions of really disparate groups trying to win elections and wield power together, and I saw that up close. I’d go to the Mass. Democratic conventions in Lowell or Worcester, and watch all these different tribes. It was my lefty-wonky crowd from Cambridge; the Irish backslappers; unions – the building trades, the SEIU in purple t-shirts, the teachers; the earnest suburban liberals straight from Lily Geismer’s book, with their resolutions about recycling; business types, who’d sponsor receptions. And the book is all about how movements do or do not get, in a quite literal sense, to take their seats at party conventions.
Also, procedure is the lifeblood of party politics, and I got pretty good with Robert’s Rules. That was really helpful as I did my research.