#19) Creating Political Change – with Nicholas Hayes

schlozmanOur guest this week is Nicholas Hayes. Nicholas is pursuing his PhD in ethics at Boston College, focusing on the intersection of political theology and community organizing. He’s been involved in faith-based organizing since 2009, most recently with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Our text is Daniel Schlozman’s When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History (2015). Nicholas tells us, briefly, how Schlozman’s political ideas square with his own organizing experience.

Matt:

This week we read Daniel Schlozman’s When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. Schlozman examines why some social movements – the Christian Right, organized labor – have succeeded at integrating with and influencing political parties, while others – the anti-war movement, Occupy – have not. Essentially, he argues:

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 the 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.

This seems right to me. How do you see it? And can we apply some of this to help us understand what’s going on in American politics today?

Nicholas:

That seems right to me too, Matt. And I think Schlozman’s argument is instructive for activists and organizers of many stripes today.

I’ll be honest: I came to this book less because I wanted to understand our political scene than because I wanted to figure out what to do about it. I’ve been an activist and organizer for seven years. Most of that time, I’ve been organizing faith-based institutions in Boston. But a few years back, I was an Occupier too. I’ve worked in the New Economy movement. I’ve been a ground level protester in Black Lives Matter. Since January 20th of this year, I’ve been going to one protest after another!

Through it all, I’ve kept coming back to one central question: how does large scale, structural change in a society really happen? That’s what many of us, Left and Right, say we need right now. Our system seems really broken. And many of us think creating that change will take some kind of “movement” – that term is thrown around a lot. But how do we really get there? I think I keep coming back to that question because so many of the “movements” I’ve participated in don’t seem to get there.

Take Occupy. Starting in September 2011, it generated a lot of energy, quickly mobilizing thousands of people to start camping out in cities all over the country, and many thousands more to support them. It spread all over the media, and made inequality a topic of conversation again. Yet four months after it began, the camps were gone and the movement was largely finished. No major social, institutional, or policy change happened.

Does that mean Occupy accomplished nothing? No, I don’t think so. I tend to agree with the folks who claim that Occupy “changed the weather.” It awakened the public to economic inequality as a central issue that needed to be addressed, urgently. You could argue that Occupy made the Fight for $15 campaigns possible, and the breakout success of Thomas Piketty’s book. It made the Bernie campaign possible.

But Occupy didn’t yield anything directly. It didn’t come close to effecting a change in our political economy. It didn’t touch the trend of the 1% consolidating wealth at the expense of the 99%. To do that, it would’ve somehow needed to generate political power, since (I think) government policy remains the most effective instrument to create large-scale, lasting structural change. At least, that’s what the past 200 years of history seem to suggest. How do we tackle the inequality problem? Few strategies seem more effective than taxation and redistribution. When we had a 94% tax rate on top incomes in the US, the income and wealth ratios didn’t look like they do now!

The problem is, creating change through the government in the United states requires working through the party system. And most people have been pretty dissatisfied with our parties for the last couple decades, at least. In the eyes of people on both the Left and the Right, politicians haven’t been accomplishing much. There’s a widespread suspicion that they act only for their own narrow interests, and the special interests that pay them. That resentment (ironically) played a major role in getting Trump into the Oval Office. The Trump and Bernie campaigns (some call them “movements”) were both ambitious, “populist” attempts to reclaim the major parties from “party establishments,” and shift their focus to agendas grassroots activists cared about (though I think the Bernie campaign was much more genuinely grassroots than the Trump’s).

Anyway, one succeeded. Trump may well achieve dramatic social change (to my mind, of a pretty horrific kind)! But now the question for Trump’s base is: will Trump stay faithful to them, and actually realize the dramatic changes he’s promised: bringing back jobs, making America “safe,” cleaning up government? And for the millions of former Bernie activists, like myself, the question is: after Clinton’s loss, can we succeed now in taking over the Democratic party, and beat Trump at his populist game?

Enter Schlozman. Schlozman’s big question is “how to take movement fervor and translate it into durable change?” (256) His challenging claim is that movements most effectively achieve their goals when they are able to “anchor” parties – when they forego the initial independence they have as movements to create a stable alliance with a major political party. (Trying to imagine how that claim would have rubbed most Occupiers – not well, I think!) Independence is no small sacrifice, but making the sacrifice allows movements to acquire power within the party, and (sometimes) to significantly reshape its agenda. Schlozman’s five case studies are meant to illustrate what successful and failed “anchoring” look like.

What did you think of the case studies, Matt? Any of particular interest – or of relevance to today? And were you surprised by any examples Schlozman left out?

Matt:

Schlozman’s description of the anti-war movement was really interesting, especially because of the way it’s often portrayed in popular culture. If you watch a Hollywood movie or take a high school civics class, you could easily get the impression that the anti-Vietnam War activism of the 60’s and 70’s was one of the moral high points of American history.

Perhaps it was, but Schlozman argues that the movement didn’t have much long-term success. It wasn’t particularly organized, and because it didn’t manage to merge successfully with the Democratic Party. Except perhaps for a moment around the McGovern campaign of ‘72, it didn’t reshape the country’s politics.

It sounds to me like you take the party system as a given. And right now, I think that’s fair – it’s pretty damn hard to win an election or have a direct effect on legislation if you’re not a registered Democrat or Republican.

That said, I guess I want to ask you – and Schlozman – what a party is. I want to suggest that parties and movements might not be so fundamentally different: that perhaps parties are just the institutionalized residue of past movements. And if that’s right, then perhaps thinking of parties and movements as distinct entities ends up confusing things a little. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of a movement – at least in the pre-merger phase – as a kind of proto-party, a would-be component of a party that doesn’t yet exist.

Nicholas:

It’s an interesting question you raise. I think Schlozman would distinguish parties and movements by emphasizing that a party’s primary goal, as a social actor, is to get (or retain) control of the government by winning elections. That’s priority number 1.

A movement’s goal, on the other hand, is to accomplish some fundamental transformation in society that reflects the movement’s core values. Winning elections may be the best way to achieve that goal, but it’s instrumental; there may be other ways to achieve the goal, and many movements wouldn’t be invested in winning elections if that meant sacrificing their core values. That makes for two rather different kinds of social actors, with different strategic priorities. The distinction is a basic analytic assumption of Schlozman’s school of political science.

Parties, on Schlozman’s point of view, aren’t ultimately values-driven; they care most about acquiring and maintaining political power. In fact, they’re almost like arenas for the different interest groups and/or movements that make them up. Each of those groups or movements have their own ends, and try to use the party as a vehicle to achieve them.

But those ends could always conflict with the party’s overall goal of winning. If a given group within a party starts to obstruct or diminish the party’s chances of winning, it runs the risk of being expelled, and losing access to political power. This is Schlozman’s point about the challenge movements face in relating to parties. They have to prove their worth by offering “resources parties couldn’t get elsewhere,” as you already said.

Now, that account raises some fascinating questions. First, you might ask, who’s really “the party”–who’s making the decisions about which groups to include and boot out? That would lead into a discussion of party decision-making structures and party “elites.” Schlozman thinks there’s usually an elite running the show in a party, most likely from a dominant social group. Who actually runs today’s parties? That’d be a question worth pursuing at a later date.

Second, if parties are just about winning, why do different parties form at all? Where do their different platforms and ideologies come from, and do those even matter? Part of Schlozman’s answer, I’d guess, would be you need to look at history to answer that question. Values may, perhaps must, play a role in starting a party; abolitionist values almost certainly motivated the launch of the Republican party in the mid-19th Century, for instance (oh the irony!). In this respect, he might agree with your suggestion.

But as soon as a party tries to realistically achieve dominance, and especially once it begins succeeding, a different logic takes over: the logic of winning. Coalitions must be built with groups that don’t share all the core values, though aren’t totally opposed either. The party comes to look more like an interest-group coalition. An elite crystallizes. And so on.

It seems to me that in the US, with our entrenched two-party system, Schlozman’s view is particularly plausible. In a parliamentary system, new parties driven by strong values or ideologies start much more frequently, and they can remain smaller and more anchored to their values because there are many more parties playing the game. The compromise comes more by allying with other parties, not by incorporating a wide array of groups within the party. Here, by contrast, the last time a major new party began was when the Republican party launched over 150 years ago. Since then, party “values” have changed dramatically, as have party constituencies. But the structures have persisted stably. Don’t you think that maybe proves Schlozman’s point?

One other thought your question raised for me was how Schlozman would account for something like the Tea Party, or the Bernie campaign. These look like movements within parties, and arguably, they are very values-driven. Schlozman wrote the book before the Bernie campaign, but he does talk about the Tea Party in a few places. At the end of the book, he concludes it’s an “aggressive party faction,” rather than a real movement. I take it the difference is that the Tea Party didn’t have any goals independent of the Republican Party. From the get-go, it was a group within the Republican Party that wanted to take the latter in a particular direction. Do you find that distinction satisfying though? Or does it complicate Schlozman’s picture?

Matt:

It’s an interesting question – what does a party want? Your argument – and Schlozman’s – is that parties are ultimately concerned with winning elections, and that everything else is secondary.

When I look at politics from a distance – or across a long historical sweep – this claim seems at last partially right. As you say, the Republican Party – like the Ship of Theseus – has seen many of its original parts replaced.

But when I think about the individual people who make up parties, Schlozman’s claim doesn’t ring as true. I’m not sure I can think of anyone – from high officials working in Washington to local party members working at polling places – who cares about winning alone. There’s pretty much always for a reason – because the party stands for something that they value, or because they like the other side less, or whatever.

Now, sometimes these folks get dyed in the wool pretty dark, and they start talking about elections as if they were ends in and of themselves. But I think in almost every case, if you asked them why they care about their side winning, they’d given you an answer that ran to values.

I think I hear what you’re saying, though. Even if there’s overlap, movements are typically more values-driven, and parties are typically more pragmatic. Poetry vs. prose.

As for specific instances, I don’t know enough about Bernie or the Tea Party to have a strong opinion about how to classify them. Let me ask you a slightly different question, though: in the world of “alternative facts” that Trump et al. are creating, do you think there could ever be a movement whose primary goal was to increase the amount of honesty, clarity, and rigor in our culture and in our public conversations?

On one hand, I would swoon. On the other hand, honesty and clarity frequently cut against the kinds of in-group / out-group distinctions that movements tend to rely on. (Not always, of course: Martin Luther King and his followers were incredibly inclusive.) It’s hard to be a die-hard movement soldier if you’ve got questions about the movement’s goals or methods.

I also wonder whether truth and honesty are powerful enough motivators for political action. Does it makes sense to think of a movement dedicated to things like clear, honest discourse? King and his followers carried the torch for these values, of course. But they didn’t do so for the sake of these values alone; they also did so in the name of ending profound injustice and human suffering.

Nicholas:

It’s a good point you make, that many (most?) of the people who make up parties are values-driven. I’d buy that. I think you could even make the case about very powerful party leaders. LBJ, for instance. He knew that embracing the Civil Rights movement could spell the end of the New Deal coalition, and Democratic dominance, by alienating Southern Dems. (Eventually, it did.) But he did it anyway. I’m hard-pressed to believe that choice was purely strategic, even if some of it was. I think at some level he really believed it was the morally necessary thing to do.

Schlozman’s view is undoubtedly a simplification. But I do think it becomes more credible when one looks “from a distance,” as you say. Ultimately, Schlozman’s giving us an analytic model for how the party behaves. He might even grant that its assumptions are contestable. But what matters, he might say, is whether the model accurately describes party behavior. Do parties, as social actors, largely behave as if winning were all they cared about? Many political scientists certainly think so.

As to your last question: could a movement for truth, honesty, and vigorous civic discourse really take off? That sounds to me like the heartfelt wish of a true liberal! It also sounds like wishful thinking. Not that I haven’t had the same wish myself at moments these last few weeks – I have.

But the ideals you name strike me as prime ideals for journalists, academics, teachers, (some) lawyers….a pretty elite, professional class set. I don’t think, for the most part, they’re ideals that could get masses of people, especially working class and poor people, into the streets. Many have more immediate concerns. Justice and liberty? – yes. Rigorous public debate? Not so much. I just don’t think it provokes the same “vehement passions,” as they used to say in the 18th Century. And vehement passions – furious indignation, soaring hope – are the driving force of movement politics.

Even for folks who feel a strong loyalty to them, do truth, honesty, rational discourse seem like the most urgent issues? I’m not convinced. Right now, a lot of climate scientists really wish our public discourse accountably distinguished between actual and alternative facts!

But I think the main urgency they feel is about the impending catastrophe of climate change, not about the need for more rational public discourse. That’s true in my case, too. I tend to think that a society that abided by the ideals you name would be more humane, just, and sustainable. But those ideals pale in comparison to the larger vision of that society itself. It’s the anger at deep injustice, and the hope for greater justice, that carries me to the picket line.

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About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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