Why Democrats and Movements Need Each Other

The Democrats are not just gaining voters. They are gaining activists determined to transform the party.

Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite October 18, 2017

A strik­ing fea­ture of the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment is that many activists on the Left are flock­ing to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. At first glance, this makes sense sim­ply as a reac­tion to the nar­row and dis­put­ed elec­toral vic­to­ry of the bizarre and dan­ger­ous Don­ald Trump.

Movements also depend on elected leaders who are susceptible to or embrace the challenges that movements generate. They thrive when they get the rhetorical support of the elected leaders who worry about defections from movement-influenced constituencies. Moreover, the policy victories that movements score are ultimately fashioned by elected politicians.

But the Democ­rats are not mere­ly gain­ing vot­ers. They are gain­ing activists, peo­ple who are com­mit­ting not only to pull the par­ty lever in the vot­ing booth, but who are deter­mined to reju­ve­nate and trans­form the par­ty, begin­ning at the local lev­el. This devel­op­ment is encour­ag­ing, and not only because it could make a dif­fer­ence in the 2018 midterms and the next pres­i­den­tial election.

Until the shock and fear of a Trump-led gov­ern­ment took cen­ter stage, some on the Left viewed elec­tions and move­ment build­ing as sep­a­rate, even irrec­on­cil­able, paths to reform. While their skep­ti­cism about the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was not mis­placed, we argue that move­ments also depend on elec­toral pol­i­tics. The growth, morale and effec­tive­ness of today’s move­ments will depend on the suc­cess of the cur­rent surge of enthu­si­asm for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty activism.


Com­pared to the Oba­ma years and the noisy 2016 elec­tion itself, the enthu­si­asm for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty activism welling up on the broad Left today is star­tling. It already over­shad­ows the usu­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elec­toral ground game of enlist­ing labor and oth­er grass­roots con­stituen­cies to knock on doors, dis­trib­ute lit­er­a­ture and make phone calls to prime vot­ers. Hun­dreds of groups at the nation­al and local lev­els have orga­nized to recruit new Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates and work on cam­paigns. Long-stand­ing orga­ni­za­tions that sup­port Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, such as Emily’s List, are see­ing unprece­dent­ed growth, and move­ment orga­ni­za­tions, from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca to the Move­ment for Black Lives, are get­ting involved in local and state races.

While fear of Trump has gal­va­nized even cen­trist lib­er­als, much of the new ener­gy and orga­niz­ing know-how is com­ing from left-lean­ing activists. Though sur­pris­ing, it is not hard to explain the sud­den enthu­si­asm for elec­toral action. The dan­gers of Don­ald Trump in the White House and a right-wing Repub­li­can Par­ty in con­trol of Con­gress, the Supreme Court and more than half of the states are glaring.

The path toward this new elec­toral activism was paved by the Bernie Sanders cam­paign, which made cred­i­ble the prospect of engag­ing in a fight with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for a more rad­i­cal and demo­c­ra­t­ic eco­nom­ic pro­gram, for racial and social jus­tice, and for peace. As his­to­ri­an Max Elbaum has observed, the polar­iza­tion of the coun­try grew dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion. But the sec­tors of the Left that grew the most were those ener­gized by the Sanders cam­paign. Our Rev­o­lu­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion inspired by that cam­paign, now claims some 400 local chap­ters that are try­ing to shift the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the left, in part by back­ing pro­gres­sive local and state candidates.

The path to vic­to­ry will be dif­fi­cult. In the House, if the Democ­rats can hold on to the seats they already have, they still need to win an addi­tion­al 24 seats. In the Sen­ate, the prospects are more daunt­ing: The Democ­rats must defend three times as many seats as the Repub­li­cans, 10 in states won by Trump, half of those by dou­ble digits.

It will take time, then, to oust the Repub­li­cans from their com­mand­ing posi­tion at the nation­al lev­el. That is why so much Left ener­gy has been focused on down-bal­lot elec­tions. Vic­to­ries on the local lev­el can mat­ter. Not only do they boost the morale of elec­toral and move­ment activists alike, but in our fed­er­al sys­tem, local­i­ties often have sig­nif­i­cant pol­i­cy authority.

An aston­ish­ing num­ber of state and local elect­ed offices go uncon­test­ed. One study found that, between 1992 and 2010, a third of all state leg­isla­tive incum­bents did not face a chal­lenger in the pri­ma­ry and gen­er­al elec­tions. Anoth­er study found that, in six states, half of all may­oral can­di­dates ran unopposed.

In Vir­ginia, for exam­ple, where all statewide offices are held by Democ­rats and Clin­ton defeat­ed Trump by five points, the low­er House of Del­e­gates has long been dom­i­nat­ed by Repub­li­cans. Forty of the Repub­li­cans’ 66 seats were uncon­test­ed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers in 2015. While it still might be a long shot, with the elec­tion of Trump and the new ener­gy for elec­toral pol­i­tics on the left, in 2018 the GOP could lose the 17 Repub­li­can House of Del­e­gates seats that vot­ed for Clin­ton in 2016.

Such a vic­to­ry would be unprece­dent­ed, but the chal­lenge is being embraced by a new grass­roots polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee, Pro­gres­sive House VA, found­ed by Josh Stan­field, a 30-year-old Sanders del­e­gate to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion. The group’s mis­sion is to field and sup­port pro­gres­sive Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates in all 100 House of Del­e­gates elec­tions. As of this writ­ing, these aggres­sive efforts have shrunk the num­ber of upcom­ing uncon­test­ed elec­tions against Repub­li­can incum­bents from 40 (in 2015) to 10.

Virginia’s exam­ple, which points to a key weak­ness of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, also offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to strength­en the influ­ence of the Left. The two major polit­i­cal par­ties are not par­ties in the sense of dis­ci­plined, uni­fied, hier­ar­chi­cal mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tions. Rather, they are loose and con­flict-rid­den con­fed­er­a­tions of sep­a­rate lead­er­ship groups whose over­all struc­ture reflects the com­plex con­sti­tu­tion­al and insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments of the U.S. fed­er­al system.

The point, how­ev­er, is not to bela­bor the weak­ness of frac­tious and insti­tu­tion­al­ly ham­strung polit­i­cal par­ties, but rather to note that the insti­tu­tion­al frag­men­ta­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty makes it sus­cep­ti­ble to takeover. As an exam­ple of how cen­trists have exploit­ed this polit­i­cal real­i­ty, con­sid­er the cre­ation of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil (DLC) in 1985. The so-called Third Way was designed to stymie the pro­gres­sive, pro-labor par­ty activism stim­u­lat­ed by Jesse Jackson’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns in 1984 and 1988, and oth­er efforts to move the par­ty to the Left. And it suc­ceed­ed — until the recent Sanders chal­lenge loos­ened the grip that cen­trists had on the par­ty for the past 30 years.

This kind of syn­er­gy between elec­toral and move­ment pol­i­tics may be emerg­ing in the area of health­care. On the one side, Trump and the right-wing major­i­ty in Con­gress have put for­ward a series of Dra­con­ian leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als to dis­man­tle the Afford­able Care Act, and espe­cial­ly the pro­vi­sions that under­write health­care for the poor. On the oth­er side, the polit­i­cal furor over these efforts has giv­en a big bump to the Sanders-backed Medicare for All Act, with 16 Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors now signed on. The leg­isla­tive dra­ma, in turn, is like­ly to boost the morale and increase the ener­gy of the longer-term move­ment for a pub­licly fund­ed health­care system.


The two major par­ties also mat­ter because they play a very large role in shap­ing the life course of move­ments. This dynam­ic is often over­looked because the fun­da­men­tal dynam­ics of move­ments and elec­toral cam­paigns are dif­fer­ent. Move­ment activists work to raise the issues that divide and anger con­stituen­cies, while elec­toral oper­a­tives tend to smooth over the divi­sions that inhib­it the build­ing of the win­ning major­i­ty that elec­tions require. In these respects, move­ment and elec­toral dynam­ics are antag­o­nis­tic. But that is by no means the whole of it.

Move­ments also depend on elect­ed lead­ers who are sus­cep­ti­ble to or embrace the chal­lenges that move­ments gen­er­ate. They thrive when they get the rhetor­i­cal sup­port of the elect­ed lead­ers who wor­ry about defec­tions from move­ment-influ­enced con­stituen­cies. More­over, the pol­i­cy vic­to­ries that move­ments score are ulti­mate­ly fash­ioned by elect­ed politicians.

As an exam­ple, con­sid­er the recent for­tunes of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. The same year Barack Oba­ma was first elect­ed pres­i­dent, a Cana­di­an firm, Tran­sCana­da, had applied for a per­mit to build a 1,200-mile pipeline across the Amer­i­can Mid­west to con­nect Cana­di­an tar sands oil with Gulf Coast oil refiner­ies. The com­pa­ny and the oil lob­by mis­lead­ing­ly claimed that the project would cre­ate 140,000 jobs and bil­lions in eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits; the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment pres­sured a new­ly elect­ed Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to approve the project. In April 2010, the U.S. State Depart­ment con­clud­ed the pipeline would have a lim­it­ed effect on the envi­ron­ment. Polit­i­cal strate­gists inside the White House con­vinced the pres­i­dent to stop using the term cli­mate change” and to focus on clean ener­gy jobs” and a clean ener­gy econ­o­my” to avoid draw­ing fire from the fos­sil fuel indus­try and con­ser­v­a­tives. Mean­while, oil lob­by­ists used pro­pa­gan­da to suc­cess­ful­ly shift pub­lic opin­ion on cli­mate change. In 2008, accep­tance that its caus­es were human-made was 72 per­cent. Two years lat­er, only 52 per­cent agreed.

Envi­ron­men­tal activists reject­ed their insid­er tac­tics and began to build a coali­tion of grass­roots groups that went well beyond nor­mal lob­by­ing and inter­est group pol­i­tics, bring­ing togeth­er ranch­ers and land rights advo­cates in red states like Nebras­ka, and Native tribes whose land would be vio­lat­ed and water threat­ened by the project.

At the time, Bill McK­ibben, a leader of the move­ment, wrote, Now we know what we didn’t before. Mak­ing nice doesn’t work … we may need to get arrest­ed.” In late August 2011, pro­tes­tors mount­ed a two-week cam­paign in front of the White House, joined by some of the large envi­ron­men­tal groups that are not usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, and more than 1,200 peo­ple got arrest­ed. On Nov. 6, 2011, thou­sands of pro­test­ers sur­round­ed the White House in what they called a sol­i­dar­i­ty hug” to urge Oba­ma to veto the pipeline. Under intense pres­sure from the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Con­gress to move the project for­ward, in 2015, Oba­ma exer­cised his veto pow­er for only the third time.

The re-ener­gized envi­ron­men­tal move­ment did its work in the streets. But the cru­cial point is that friend­ly Democ­rats ulti­mate­ly con­ced­ed to the demand. The delays won by a broad and inclu­sive coali­tion of oppo­si­tion groups to the pipeline using direct action, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, and mass arrests exert­ed polit­i­cal pres­sure on a wob­bly president.

The great and trans­for­ma­tion­al move­ments of the past — the rad­i­cal Democ­rats of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War era, or the abo­li­tion­ists of the 19th cen­tu­ry, or the 20th cen­tu­ry labor move­ment, or the Black free­dom move­ment, or the women’s move­ment, or the move­ments for per­son­al rights includ­ed under the LBGTQ acronym — all scored their suc­cess­es because they acti­vat­ed the ele­men­tary and fun­da­men­tal pow­er of ordi­nary peo­ple. The essence of that pow­er is the refusal to coop­er­ate in the basic insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments of a soci­ety. That is what move­ment pow­er is: The pow­er of the strike writ large, encom­pass­ing not only refusal in the work­place but in civ­il soci­ety itself.

Refusal isn’t easy, and that is an impor­tant rea­son why move­ments depend on elec­toral pol­i­tics. All of the influ­ences of the insti­tu­tions that mold dai­ly life col­lab­o­rate to make the exer­cise of move­ment pow­er dif­fi­cult, as do the imme­di­ate threats and pun­ish­ments that the dom­i­nant soci­ety impos­es on move­ments. Most of the time, elec­toral pol­i­tics legit­imizes those threats and pun­ish­ments, giv­ing the author­i­ty of tra­di­tion and legal pro­ce­dure to the threat of force that usu­al­ly sup­press­es rebel­lion. But some­times, when elec­toral cal­cu­la­tions lead politi­cians to rec­og­nize that they need vot­er sup­port from among emerg­ing move­ment con­stituen­cies, mass dis­con­tent is suf­fi­cient to lead at least some polit­i­cal lead­ers to rhetor­i­cal­ly side with the dis­con­tent­ed. By doing so, they of course give courage and moral sup­port to emerg­ing move­ments, as Roosevelt’s cam­paign rhetoric gave courage to an emerg­ing labor move­ment, or Kennedy’s rhetoric nour­ished the Black free­dom move­ment, or Obama’s sym­pa­thy for Trayvon Mar­tin encour­aged the Move­ment for Black Lives. The impor­tance of this encour­age­ment can­not be overstated.

Elec­toral con­text mat­ters for anoth­er rea­son. The dis­rup­tion that ensues from move­ment lever­age can cleave the elec­toral base of a gov­ern­ing par­ty, com­pelling polit­i­cal elites to respond with ame­lio­rat­ing reform. When that hap­pens, it is elect­ed politi­cians who fash­ion the pol­i­cy mea­sures that respond to move­ment demands and dis­or­der. We need politi­cians in charge of that process who lean toward the Left and its move­ments. Even when move­ment lever­age suc­ceeds in forc­ing action on pol­i­cy reform, the move­ment itself is only one of the influ­ences in craft­ing the pol­i­cy change. We want the thumbs of leg­is­la­tors like Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Bernie Sanders on the scale in leg­isla­tive delib­er­a­tions. And that means move­ments need a reju­ve­nat­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

FRANCES FOX PIV­EN writes about move­ments and Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Her books include Poor People’s Move­ments and Chal­leng­ing Author­i­ty: How Ordi­nary Peo­ple Change Amer­i­ca.LOR­RAINE C. MIN­NITE teach­es at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Cam­den. She is a nation­al expert on vot­er sup­pres­sion in Amer­i­can politics.
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