The Movement and the Party

One thing I know is that political bents consist of two distinct elements—the movement and the party—and the relation between them.

The movement consists of amateurs acting on principle by way of passionate action, while the party is made up of professionals making deals and acting by calculation. The movement represents outsiders who aim to change values or policies, or to move the political system in a certain direction; the party represents insiders, aiming to leverage their power into successful careers.

These ideal types are structurally different. A benign interpretation is that there is a division of labor, a difference of type: In this sense, the movement is fuel while the party is a vehicle. But often the difference isn’t static and the two elements doubt their compatibility. The frictions flare into conflict. The movement and the party express divergent human faculties, and tend to engage different character types. Each needs the other but also suspects the other and fears betrayal. The movement tends to think the party is on the verge of selling out, and the party that the movement is reckless, or irrelevant, or counterproductive.

In her remarks earlier this year about the relations between Martin Luther King (the movement inspiration) and Lyndon Johnson (the policy consolidator), Hillary Clinton tried to express the interdependency of the two. The attacks to which she was subjected illustrate the difficulty of sustaining the right balance.

Over the last several decades, the dominant force in American politics has been the combination of the movement conservatives and the Republican Party. Beginning in the late 1950s, accelerating with the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and its sequel, the Reagan ascendancy in California, eventually culminating in Reagan’s presidential victories and the rule of George W. Bush, the conservative movement dynamically combined social conservatives with pro-business, anti-government, anti-tax conservatives. Beginning in the late 1970s, fueled by a wave of evangelical Christianity, these movements succeeded in taking over the party, coalescing under the leadership of men of Western demeanor consolidating Southern strategy aims.

While this movement-party synthesis was developing, the left was decisively weakened by a movement-party antagonism. When, at Johnson’s behest, the Democratic Party committed itself to the Vietnam War, the tenuous and complex relationship between movement and party that had developed with civil rights ruptured. In 1968 the party rejected the movement, and as a result fell out of power. The movement fragmented into movements, and the party withered.

Fast-forwarding toward the present, we can see how teeth-grittingly left-liberal movements have strived to accommodate themselves to the party and vice versa. Eventually, amalgamated more than 3 million members who could raise money outside the party and enter into elections. In 2004, the campaign of Howard Dean infused movement energies into the Democratic Party. The “netroots” demonstrated that they could raise money and energize the party from its periphery. Though Dean failed in his quest for the presidency, he succeeded in catapulting himself into the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, aiming to rebuild the party’s base. In the congressional elections of 2006, the so-called netroots mobilized with significant effect. They had become, in a sense, the movement on behalf of the party.

Meanwhile, the radical international, economic, and administrative policies of George W. Bush pushed the right’s movement-party synthesis into a corner. Their movement is fatigued, their party embattled. The evangelical glue has weakened. No single individual emerges as self-evident heir in the line of Goldwater-Reagan-Bush. It remains to be seen how convincingly Republican candidate John McCain can position himself as a living synthesis without painting himself into Bush’s electoral corner. Only if persona can make the difference does he stand a chance.

The question for the left side of American politics now is whether it can enfold the disparate energies of movements within the imperfect vehicle of a party.

Democrats battered each other this year because their energies split between two of the 1960s’ successor movements. For Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent offshoots of two different movements, though only Obama has the persona and style of the outsider.

Harkening to his experience as a community organizer, invoking “hope” and “change” incessantly, combining “cool” manners and “hot” rhetoric, Obama offers himself as a living translation of movement into party, intimating that he could be a transformational president (though tinctured, he hopes, by a non-partisan tinge). The next test of his transformational powers will be whether he merges the civil rights and feminist streams into a single movement that counts for more than a one-shot campaign.

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December 8, 2012

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