With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.
Piven’s analysis starts with a sobering assessment of the state of US politics since the beginning of the republic. She explains that, contrary to what most of us learn in elementary or middle school, we don’t really have a system where there is a free competition of ideas and organized interests on an even playing field that, along with the American innovations of Constitutional government, electoral politics, and citizen participation, leads necessarily to a steady improvement toward a “more democratic union” as we are fond of describing our history and our future.
In Piven’s view, although important elements of pluralism and democratic politics are built into the US political system, the institutions of that system have always favored wealthy, elite interests. In the beginning it was southern owners of land and slaves, who were given extra representation in Congress and the electoral college because of their slave populations, even though those populations had no political or even human rights. In addition, the Senate was designed and still functions to give immense power to rural states with relatively small populations compared with urban states and their much larger populations. Women could not vote until early in the 20th century and states selected their own Senators.
In addition to the above, Piven observes that the nature of US political parties limits political debate and thereby the potential for major change. Because we have winner take all electoral systems, political parties bring together coalitions of interest groups, creating important incentives to avoid discussing potentially divisive issues within a party’s coalition. In contrast, in parliamentary systems in Europe and elsewhere, where elections are based on proportional representation, smaller parties are incentivized to campaign on more clearly articulated positions.
Finally and more subtly, entrenched interests such as large businesses and corporations have always been much better placed to participate directly in the political process as well as influence policy from the outside because of their prominent positions in communities and because of their wealth.
Nonetheless, Piven observes, there have been moments when common people were able to rise up to protest injustice and bring about significant change. The abolitionist movement in the the decades preceding the US Civil War and the civil rights movement a hundred years later are two important examples, although there have been many others, particularly labor movements, throughout US history.
How did these movements bring about such important changes? In particular, how did activism result in political realignments and then in legal and constitutional transformations? Piven argues that progressive movements have succeeded when they were able to disrupt the existing social order. This ability to disrupt is a critical source of power if it can be nurtured and wielded with strategic effectiveness.
But where does the ability to disrupt come from? In Piven’s analysis, no matter the gulf between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and the poor and dispossessed, on the other, there are relationships–interdependencies even–between these two social extremes. In 18th and 19th century terms, the rich own land and capital; the poor work in factories and fields. For an economy and society to work reasonably well, ordinary people who get few of the benefits have to play roles as workers and consumers. If they decide not to play that role and to contest the status quo, they can disrupt the system. This is their power or at least their potential power.
Piven then explains of how ordinary people can make potential disruptive power actionable. Very briefly, several conceptual leaps have to be made. Among them are:
- People must recognize that they have the potential to exert power;
- People must be willing to break the rules of the prevailing social order and face the consequences;
- They must also be able to endure the suspension of the relationship and the hardships they may have to bear; and
- There must be coordination among individuals and groups working together.
In other words, building protest movements is difficult and risky. There are many internal and external obstacles while the price of failure may be considerable. This is why truly disruptive movements are relatively uncommon.
We now come to the heart of the issue: how does change actually come about? How do protests bring about significant political change? Piven’s argument is that the disruption of the normal state of affairs through the mobilization of new social forces creates polarization and tensions within existing political coalitions. In the case of the abolitionist movement, the mobilization in the 1840s and 1850s polarized the old Whig party, eventually causing it to split along north-south lines, with the northern wing forming a coalition with other factions to become the new republican party. Sheared of its conservative, pro-slavery wing, the republicans were able to push more forthrightly towards the abolition of slavery, which led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, the civil war, constitutional amendments, and other massive social changes.
In the case of the civil rights movement in the middle decades of the 20th Century, social protests moved liberal, mostly northern democrats to support the end of Jim Crow and the American version of Apartheid in the South. The result was the breakup of the previous democratic coalition among liberal northerners and conservative southerners. The same basic formula was in effect: mobilization led to political polarization which then led to new political coalitions, new policies, and social transformation.
What are the lessons for progressive movements today? First, protest movements matter. Over time, they can affect party coalitions and positions on various issues. We may be seeing some of this in wins on minimum wages, climate-related energy policies, and the possible emergence of universal healthcare as a viable political position. On a more general level, American society is currently going through a period of intense mobilization across a wide range of issue areas that is polarizing political positions and creating tension within the coalitions of both main parties. How any one part or multiple parts of the broader movement might create political shifts is unclear, but it is important to pay attention to these underlying shifts, because they can give rise to various opportunities (and dangers). With enough energy exerted at weak points in coalitions, they could fracture leading to new alignments.
Second, while protest movements matter, disruptive movements matter even more, or at least potentially. They create greater polarization and tension in political coalitions. But they are also more difficult to bring off. Disruptive actions are often risky for individuals and require significant, sustained personal commitment. Such movements also require excellent coordination, discipline, and an astute leadership that understands how to build power and is able to formulate and act on a solid strategic plan.
On the other hand, for activists who are mainly motivated by a desire to resist Trump and the radical republicans in Congress, Piven’s answer is that disruption is probably the only way to achieve short-term results. In an article at The Nation shortly after Trump took office, she argued that the immediate objective was to resist the new administration’s massive efforts to curtail rights, assault minorities, and otherwise deprive citizens and residents of their fundamental rights. And the only way to do it was to engage in disruptive protests as seen in the initial reaction to the Muslim ban.
[B]y blocking or sabotaging the policy initiatives of the regime, resistance movements can create or deepen elite and electoral cleavages.
But where those cleavages may exist is largely unknown and difficult to discern in the current maelstrom of events and outrageous actions by the White House and Congress.
We don’t really know much about the potential fissures among the parade of groups and individuals that Trump is inviting into the national government. Can the alt-right co-exist with the Koch brothers’ network? Will traditional Republicans continue to stomach the flamboyant improprieties of Trump’s allies and of Trump himself? Will the voters who wanted to shake things up continue to be satisfied with rhetoric and bluster?
We don’t know. But we do know something about the political dangers of a Trump administration that is allowed to move forward without mass resistance.
Several months after Piven wrote this article, we know a lot about these dangers. I hope we are also learning about effective resistance.