Even before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, protest groups were forming and mobilising against him. Together, they now form what is termed ‘The Resistance’. But what is The Resistance, and can it succeed in keeping American democracy alive? Maria Armoudian speaks with Doug McAdam, Kenneth M. Roberts, David S. Meyer, and David Karpf, contributors to a new book, The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.
Doug McAdam is the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology at Stanford University. He is an expert in social movements and is the author of Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.
Kenneth M. Roberts is Richard Schwartz Professor of Comparative and Latin American Politics at Cornell University. He is an expert in Latin American politics and is the author of The Resurgence of the Latin American Left.
David S. Meyer is a Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He is an expert in social movements and is the author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.
David Karpf is an Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is an expert in internet politics and is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: So you have got this new book The Resistance. It seems a little bit amorphous when you say ‘The Resistance’, so David Meyer, what are we talking about?
David Meyer: The title is a little amorphous and the movement is a little amorphous. It is a collection of activists who have opposed Donald Trump and the Trump Administration on some ground or another. And it includes people who really have no respect for American institutions at all and want to promote a revolution, but that is a tiny sliver of what is going on. It also includes people who have no problem with Trump’s policies but have a problem with his respect for law and his conduct in office, and basically everything in between. And it includes actions that range from street demonstrations, civil disobedience, and vigorous protests, to filing lawsuits, to registering voters. So that is The Resistance.
MA: So it is not really necessarily different from historic movements, except for that it sounds like they are from all different sides of political issues?
DM: I think it is faster in mobilisation and response to Donald Trump and I think there is a sense of urgency and a grassroots involvement that took off much more quickly than other movements in the past. I think there are more new actors engaged in the political process than we have seen before.
MA: In the opening chapter of the book you talked about some of the antecedents, you talked about Occupy, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights movements. How do you see these connected?
DM: There is a dissatisfaction with the efficacy of institutional politics in the US right now and it takes place on both the right and the left. On the right, the most visible formation before the Trump campaign was the Tea Party. On the left it has been a range of causes where, even when you elect a president and even when you gain majorities in Congress, which people on the left did in 2008, you don’t feel like the government is delivering on your concerns. So it is a turn to movement politics. Now the ones we have mentioned so far: immigrant rights has been on the docket since the mid-1980s and Congress has been unable to act since that time despite coming close a few times. Black Lives Matter which is mostly directed at least at violence at the local level, again demonstrating egregious conduct by the police sometimes and unable to achieve policy victories. Occupy, pointing out effectively the problem of income and wealth inequality in the US and political inequality, and really unable to convert and get policy change that addresses their concerns. All of that is simmering before Trump comes into office.
MA: It sounds like the exception to some of this is the immigrant rights movement which you said actually managed to stop a policy?
DM: Well it doesn’t feel like a victory though. So immigrant rights activists mobilised to stop harsher policies prior to Trump’s administration against immigrants. A bill in Congress supported by a Republican congressman from Wisconsin and mobilisation at the grassroots stopped things from getting noticeably worse. But immigrant rights activists felt frustrated. And anti-immigrant activists felt frustrated too because they did all this demonstrating, all this organising and they couldn’t get what they wanted.
MA: Let’s open it up for other comments on this. All of you have done it from different perspectives. Doug McAdam, you did this historic perspective including looking at Trump through a historical perspective. How do you see this?
Douglas McAdam: Obviously Donald Trump is an unprecedented character rhetorically, behaviourally, in terms of policies. But as I have tried to argue in the book, he is only the most extreme expression of a product, of a brand of racial politics that has been practiced ever-more brazenly by the Republican party. Its roots go back I would argue to the late-1960s. So in that sense, yes, Trump’s election marks some sea change in American politics and American life, but we are so focused on him and his actions in office that we are in danger of losing the broader context in which he fits. I would also say there is another way in which we need to keep him in context if we really want to do what we can to safeguard and preserve American democracy: there was a series of illiberal institutional developments in this country certainly stretching back two or three decades that actually played a significant role in Trump’s election. So, since he has taken office and since he has taken various actions and we have learned more about the various scandals swirling around his administration, there are all sorts of new threats to democracy that are ever-more visible. But his rise to power was aided by a series of illiberal institutional developments that we can’t lose sight of. It isn’t as simple as saying if somehow he was moved from power tomorrow that might be, for many of us, cause for celebration but we would still have lots of institutional work to do to restore a full and functioning democracy. Right now, it feels very fragmented and fragile indeed.
MA: You mention institutional developments. In the chapter you mentioned primaries and caucuses. What are the other things that you see in terms of the other institutional developments?
DMC: I mean you could do Citizens United as an important case that powerfully asserted the power of corporations and obscene amounts of money in our electoral system. You could talk about the new restrictive voting laws and real aggressive attempts to restrict access to the ballot by traditional Democratic constituencies, especially racial minorities. You could talk about extreme gerrymandering which has come pretty close to eliminating meaningful electoral competition in many House districts. That may have started to shift in the midterms but I would still say that is a really significant issue. Why we have partisan legislatures redrawing district boundaries and think of that as somehow democratic alludes me. And then there are caucuses and primaries if you want to talk about those. But there are lots of things that have happened over the last two or three decades that have really rendered our democracy much more fragile.
MA: You also wrote about racial geography.
DMC: That’s again where this brand of Republican politics comes from. Remember, the Republicans were the party of Lincoln, they were a social movement party – the electoral wing of the abolition movement. And until the mid to late-60s, Republicans were arguably more liberal on racial matters, civil rights matters. Both parties essentially organised concern for civil rights out of their policy agendas until, I would argue, at least the mid to late-30s and especially after World War Two. But then Republicans were really quite a bit more liberal in their pursuit of civil rights reforms than Democrats were. That changed though when [Lyndon] Johnson really quite aggressively – under pressure from the Civil Rights movement – came out for the major legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement in the early and mid-1960s. And so angered by Johnson’s betrayal the white South essentially got over their historical hatred of the Republican party, held their collective noses and voted for [Barry] Goldwater in 1964 which began to set the two parties on opposite courses with respect to Civil Rights and indeed other policies as well. So it is that shift in the racial geography of American politics that really creates this context for the development of a kind of racially inflected party politics by the Republican party, and you have got to slot Trump into that fifty-year history of racial politics in the Republican party.
MA: And probably aided by the technology which has also aided The Resistance. David Karpf how do you see this?
David Karpf: The first thing I would add into the mix is what I think makes The Resistance distinct from most of the social movements we are used to. Most social movements that come to mind are concerned with setting the public and political agenda. Black Lives Matter is trying to start a national conversation and then convert that into action. And the agenda-setting function of The Resistance is actually taken up by Donald Trump. The thing that brings the resistance together – and here I would say it is quite like the Tea Party that was also a resistance to Obama and whatever Obama was pursuing – Resistance activists, when they are getting started, are not voicing a preference for ‘Let’s not put kids in cages’ and then when Trump puts kids in cages The Resistance says, ‘Okay, well we are opposed to that’. And that makes sense and that is certainly aided by technology. We see this coming up actually during the early Bush administration with the anti-Iraq War mobilisation. We saw this sort of fast-twitch digital politics with groups such as MoveOn.org that were very good at allowing George W Bush to set the agenda and then give activists and motivated citizens who were watching aghast and wanted to do something an outlet. So rather than being issue-specific, they are there as a response. Now one thing that isn’t in the book because it happened after the book, is that it seems to me that we are now seeing a bit of a change in that agenda-setting function now that the Democrats have some power. The conversation amongst some Democrats now is about things like the Green New Deal, which I think would have been hard to generate a conversation about during the first year and a half, two years of the Trump administration because the agenda was being set by Trump. Now that we have a divided government, there is still a lot of Trump response but we see the sets of organisations that collectively make up the Resistance movement focus in on more policy, and both pressure Trump, but also start looking towards Democratic contenders for the next election.
MA: You also talked about different resistance arms and how they were effective. You talked about something called Indivisible, Sleeping Giants etcetera. Tell us about these and their various levels of success and how it all ties together.
DK: So these are various digitally-enabled organisational forms each of which have been pursuing different goals but quite effectively. So to take Indivisible, that is what I would term in my pre-Trump work a neo-federated organisation where they notice this upwelling of activist energy against Trump, and said, ‘Okay, let’s provide people with an outlet and then let’s craft that into an organisational form’. So they have thousands of local groups around the country who joined Indivisible and then the national organisation helped those groups find productive movement activities that could help resist Trump, things like the healthcare town halls. And that is different from a lot of the organisations that we saw in digital politics a decade ago where most of the political associations that were forming online were one central staff core with a massive email list that they could email and say, ‘Okay let’s all do this together’. Indivisible also has a large email list but it is primarily asking people to meet with each other in groups and craft local actions together in their own local spaces.
Sleeping Giants is an entirely different but also effective model where Sleeping Giants was looking at Breitbart in its role in setting the governing direction of the country and also in promoting the alt-right and white nationalism and said, ‘Okay we have got to fight against them’. And the way that they found to fight against them was purely online because they noticed these ads that were running on Breitbart. It wasn’t like a TV program where the advertisers said, ‘Yes, we would like to be on Breitbart’, they had just said, ‘We want to advertise on the web and follow people around’ and that meant that money was going to Breitbart. And so they took screenshots and they would reach out on Twitter and say to various companies, ‘Hey your ads are on Breitbart, do you want to support this? If not, here is the simple way to fix it’. And that led to hundreds upon hundreds of companies denying Breitbart revenue. Now Breitbart is still here today but they are poorer than they were before. They have had a bunch of leadership changes because of the way that sponsor boycott was so powerfully deployed online.
MA: It’s now being done towards Fox I understand, a similar kind of movement?
DK: Well there is a history with Fox dating back to Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck was one of the most popular entertainers on Fox, he had three million viewers per day – tremendously influential and also spreading garbage conspiracy theories. That led to a collection of organisations, primarily Colour of Change and Media Matters, to identify the advertisers that were advertising on Glenn Beck and reach out to them in a sponsor boycott and say ‘Look, you are advertising on this, here is what he said today, here is how you can not pull your advertising from all of Fox, but from Glenn Beck’. Glenn Beck got to the point where the only advertisements were for like survival seeds and for the Fox shows. And not surprisingly he then asked to go off and start the Blaze instead, which never quite worked out how he intended it to.
MA: It seems though targeting individuals like Glenn Beck just another one fills the shoes because of the model right? As long as it is about making money, they will find another person who will fan the flames to make more money.
DK: On the broad scale, yes. But I would also really put in a pitch here for one of the by-products of activism being enforcing norms amongst elites. I don’t think it is actually the case that when you get rid of Glenn Beck another Glenn Beck immediately emerges. Someone does fill that timeslot but the person who fills that timeslot and their entire editorial team says, ‘No matter how popular you are there is a line, and if you cross it you can get chased off the air, so let’s dance more lightly around that line’. That doesn’t mean that Tucker Carlson today doesn’t look a fair amount like Glenn Beck. While Glenn Beck had a chalkboard full of conspiracy theories, Tucker Carlson is now trafficking a quieter form of racism. And while that is still racism there is at least something to be said for a quieter slot, that is signalling to them that there is at least some behaviours that are out of bounds. If anything is the theme of the Trump years, it is that in a variety of elite politics we no longer have any signalling that something is out of bounds. When I say that activism chases a Glenn Beck off the air or really harms Breitbart, then that signals to the next Glenn Beck the next Breitbart that you have got to be more subtle about it, and that’s still a powerful impact.
MA: You talked about algorithms and how much they matter. How do they matter here in the movement?
DK: I think it is a little less about algorithms than about analytics and digital listening. What we see in this Trump era where activist organisations, both because Trump is such a different target than we are used to and because the media environment is changing so fast, they have got to be experimenting with new tactics and new strategies. And they can use analytics sometimes – what Facebook and Google gives them – but more and more for these organisations like Sleeping Giants and Indivisible there are internal analytics they can farm, taking a look at which of their members are responding to what and writing little experiments to find out [what happens when] we change our tactics in this way, how does that change response rates, what are people willing to do. So it is the digital listening that comes through analytics that I think is most powerful, and what they end up doing with that. There is an example I give in the book: MoveOn launched this project called MoveOn Video Lab. And what they did is when they saw Facebook Live being created and Facebook was signalling that algorithmically they are going to start giving preference in the newsfeed to grainy vertical footage, MoveOn said ‘Okay, if that is what is now going to go viral on Facebook and Facebook is sending that message, lets set up a shop that can produce that sort of video so we can reach larger audiences’. So it is a story of algorithms but more it is a story of Facebook, that rather than building your own Facebook, rather than building your own technology, since we are in an era of these giant tech platforms, you pay attention to what they are algorithmically rewarding and then that becomes a real opportunity for activists to innovate their tactics.
MA: Kenneth Roberts, your point was that the US is not alone in this. I imagine part of that is because of social media. Obviously, it was social media that brought the right-wing to such extremes to New Zealand. You have called it something like competitive movementisation. Help us put this into the international context.
KR: Well I think we see similar types of patterns that are underway in a number of other countries around the world. In part, what you see in a place like New Zealand, I mean certainly New Zealand is one of the last places where we would expect to see that and certainly a country that has not known this kind of violence before. But in some ways, you see actors there feeding off some of the international influencers and so you get patterns of political influence, the diffusion of certain kinds of extreme ideologies that will spread from one place to another. So there are elements of that that you see taking place. But I also think you see certain kinds of homegrown movements that are different expressions of white ethno-nationalism or far-right kinds of politics that are in particular mobilising against immigration pressures, or against certain patterns of economic globalisation, or the political integration of the European Union. So we are seeing a politicisation of nationalist sentiments and nationalist identities and in particular white ethno-nationalist kinds of identities in a number of different places around the world now. Certainly, the media helps to propagate that and to defuse it from one place to another. But in many respects, I think it is feeding off of very local and homegrown kinds of political tensions that exist in different places.
MA: You also said that the US is unique partly because you saw the extreme actually going to the top of the leadership and being mainstreamed. Can you help us understand that and why it happens that way in the US and not so much elsewhere?
KR: In particular, I was comparing the US case to Western Europe, because in Western Europe we see some of these far-right parties, or what many people call ‘populist’ parties of the right, emerging typically on the margins of traditional party systems. And so they carve out a niche in parliamentary systems in particular where you have proportional representation elections. So a party can emerge as a new outsider type of party using proportional representation to gain at least some sort of access to parliament. They may only have a handful of seats, and even in places where they have gotten larger and stronger over the years like France for example with the National Front, they have not been able to compete and take power at the executive office by winning a majority in parliament. But there are a number of Western European countries where they have been able to enter into political coalitions with more mainstream conservative parties and have at least some access to political power in that way.
We see versions of that in Austria and Italy. And then of course in a number of Eastern European countries you see parties of the nationalist right coming to power more directly, countries like Hungary and Poland in particular. So you see a range of different experiences. But I think part of what makes the US different, and in part this reflects our own institutions and not having proportional representation, but in our electoral system it is extremely difficult for third parties to get a foothold in the political system. But what you see is these nationalist and far-right tendencies work their way into the mainstream political parties, into the Republican party, and essentially what you get, I would argue, is a welling up of those pressure from the grassroots within the Republican party using Donald Trump as a vehicle, essentially as an outsider type of candidate but within the traditional Republican party. Trump is certainly not a traditional Republican or part of the traditional political establishment. In some ways he is offering himself as a political outsider but the logic of the American system is that that got channelled into one of the traditional political parties.
MA: The other thing you said in that chapter was how some of these authoritarian leaders moved to change the system so that they could criminalise the opposition and there are many ways they could do that. Do you see that possibly happening here?
KR: I think one of the things that is striking and worrisome about some of the patterns you see overseas is the kinds of weakening and erosion of democracy, that you see in places like Eastern Europe. For the most part these are not the traditional kinds of democratic breakdowns that take place by means of a military coup or an armed rebellion. Instead what we are seeing are actors who use democratic institutions: they organise political parties and run for office, they take power through democratic means, but then they use the institutional levers of a democratic regime to whittle away at democratic norms and practices themselves. And we see this in places like Latin America, you see it in places like Eastern Europe. And I think cracking down on political dissent or opposition becomes part of that. I think we are away from that in the US, but certainly I think in the context of extreme partisan polarisation that we see the strong negative partisanship that you see in the US. The Democrats and Republicans don’t only identify with their own party but they have intense antipathies for the other side. So you see efforts to close up the political arena or to make it more difficult for the opposition party to gain access to certain institutions. And so in many ways you tilt the democratic playing field or you skew the game in ways to make it more difficult for the other side to compete. I think those are the kinds of things that we tend to be worried about and I think it is something to keep an eye on.
MA: Let’s bring Doug McAdam in. You did say that this is very fragile and fragmented and it sounded like you were concerned about the potential harms that could occur.
DMC: I think that is fair, although I think Kenneth is absolutely right that relative to Poland and Hungary, the US certainly is not at the place they are and their institutional traditions and procedures are not as well established as they have been in the US. If you compare to other countries that have shifted dramatically to the right elsewhere, the US might look comparatively good. If the comparison is between the US in 2019 versus the US in 1960 or 1948, I think there is clear cause for worry. A number of the institutional developments that we have been talking about really have had the effect of eroding democratic norms and processes and further polarising the country. So, I think it is reasonable to see what is happening as kind of the ultimate stress test of American democratic institutions. There is reason to be somewhat encouraged. The free press continues to do its work despite being villainised by Trump and his allies. Courts play a largely independent role although one can be worried about the latest Supreme Court nomination and what that has done to the balance on the court and so forth. But in general, I think the institutions are holding up reasonably well. But again, if your comparison is with the US in an earlier time period, then there is cause for concern.
I would like to talk just briefly about primaries and caucuses. I guess the easiest way to say it is: if the system by which we nominate candidates, the one that was in place in 1968, if it had been in place in 2016, Donald Trump would never have been the candidate of the Republican party. In 1968, you will remember the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey even though he hadn’t competed in primaries. Primaries at that time were few and far between and they were non-binding, so the only guy who competed in all the primaries was Eugene McCarthy, but the party establishment did not want McCarthy as the party’s nominee and so they turned to Humphrey. People remember the violence in the streets in Chicago at the DNC and they say that was about the [Vietnam] war. In broad relief that is probably right, but a lot of it was anger at what was happening inside the convention where Humphrey was being anointed as the nominee despite the fact he hadn’t compete in primaries. Ultimately, that did lead to pressure to change our system by which we nominate candidates in both major parties and that certainly has wound up being a more democratic process than the one that prevailed in ‘68. But it is having ironically non-democratic consequences, because basically primaries, and especially caucuses which are on the rise, are very small turnout elections and those small elections are the perfect vehicle for the mobilised movement wings of the two parties. I would argue that at the beginning of the primary process or the nominating process, the party did not want Donald Trump, but again the nature of the primary system is the perfect vehicle for magnifying the influence of the ideological wings of the parties. We were always assured in the natural law of American politics that most voters in the US favoured moderate centrists. But if a moderate centrist can’t come through the primary process and the process is geared towards electing a more extreme candidate, then the supposed moderating effect of the American electoral system is not working to produce that more moderate outcome.
MA: David Meyer?
DM: I think Doug is certainly right about that. I wanted to go back to the attacks on democratic institutions. I think everyone has said to some extent that Trump and his supporters have made flurries to try to break down democratic institutions and democratic norms. Most of it has been an attack on norms and things that are not laws: we don’t have regular press briefings, we don’t answer questions, we don’t talk to reporters who don’t like us. But there are also attacks on laws. The Trump administration and the District of Columbia also prosecuted people who were present in the street when there was a somewhat violent demonstration on the day Trump was inaugurated, and those prosecutions failed, they were dismissed with prejudice, but the lives of 236 people were held up for over a year while the cases dragged on. The census department sent a census that asked questions that are deliberately designed to drive down the counting of minorities, and that is in the courts now and we don’t know how that is going to turn out. There’s reckless disregard for the emoluments clause. In the Senate, the Republican majority has abandoned norms that are long-standing giving home state senators the opportunity to veto appointees for district courts in their own states. The filibuster is all but gone and Democratic candidates for office are now being asked to say whether or not they would do away with the filibuster altogether which Trump has already called for. Attacks on voting rights are now routine and this is going to be another front in the battle in 2020. And most of them are not successful, but they keep trying. A candidate who was re-elected to Congress is now suing Twitter because of nasty things some accounts said about him. Up until at least today, nasty comments in the public arena about a candidate for office were part of the free speech protections of the Bill of Rights. Maybe that will hold this time but that is going to be tested over and over again as long as this continues.
MA: Despite this, you said you see a time where all of this might be in the rearview mirror?
DM: Yeah, the problem with prediction is it is about the future. I can imagine a horrifying future in which democratic norms erode and we are just a couple of steps behind Poland and Hungary, and that is tragic and I think that fear is mobilising activists at the grassroots across the US. But it is also possible to imagine a future in which people who realise that American institutions can be abused and that they actually do serve as guardrails for autocracy, against fascism, develop a new respect for the integrity of those institutions. It is an open question which way we go.
MA: Doug McAdam?
DMC: I think the way The Resistance mobilised new actors was quite extraordinary. At the moment, as we talk about this stress test of American democratic institutions, most of the action is centred within political institutions such as Congress, the House under Democratic control, courts etcetera. And the resistance isn’t playing, in my view, a particularly central role. But down the road, imagine that we really get to a point where we have reached a constitutional impasse. Some examples suggest themselves. The new attorney general who has not said for sure he would release the Mueller report decides he is not going to release the Mueller report. Or imagine that Trump is in fact called upon to release various documents, such as tax returns, and absolutely refuses, will not cooperate with any investigation or any court order to do so. Fast forward to 2020 and the election and Trump is defeated in that election, but as Michael Cohen said in a worried way when he testified that he can imagine Trump not going quietly, resisting the will of the people in an electoral sense. Imagine a Mueller report getting released and including bombshell revelations on obstruction of justice, collusion, emoluments, etcetera, and the House starting impeachment proceedings but the Senate ultimately not being willing to take action or rejecting the clear-cut evidence of impeachable offences. At that point, we may really come to a point where an act of resistance would be critical in helping to resolve whatever constitutional impasse we may find ourselves in. That may sound extreme, but I think as David said a few minutes ago, it is not at all clear where this is really headed. There are lots of individuals – Trump, his allies, and essentially the Republican party – that is intent on holding onto power, and as a number of people have said, if they can’t hold on to it democratically, a lot of the seem prepared to try to hold onto it non-democratically. If we get to that point and we really are at that constitutional impasse then an active sustained resistance might be the only thing that resolves the crisis.
MA: If it’s not from the institutions, then what can a resistance do?… I suppose there are those types of resistances that are also institutional but just not at the federal level?
DMC: I think that is right. The US system is so decentralised that there are lots of venues, institutional venues that are controlled by actors who are not sympathetic to Trump. So you can imagine all sorts of lines of institutional resistance all over the country. But I would insist, if you really got to one of these constitutional impasses that I imagine, that in the streets active sustained resistance would become a much more important part of the overall dynamic than it might appear right now. I mean, think about the movements that overthrew [Slobodan] Milošević or [Ferdinand] Marcos or [Hosni] Mubarak, we never imagine ourselves in the US being in that kind of situation, but it is not inconceivable that we will find ourselves at that kind of an impasse and again sustaining an active grassroots resistance in the streets might be the only way forward if we have gotten ourselves to the point where there is this entrenched constitutional crisis.
MA: Kenneth Roberts, what global or comparative insight might you give us?
KR: I think part of what stands out for me in looking at other cases abroad is you come to see that there is nothing intrinsic about the checks and balances in the democratic regimes themselves to guarantee you that those institutions will function in a democratic manner. It really depends on who gains access to those institutions and it is quite easy in fact to repurpose institutional checks so that they become instruments of some sort of authoritarian project or a hegemonic project by a particular political party. Sometimes in the US there is a rather naive faith that we are different, that there is something exceptional about American democratic institutions, that makes it impossible we would see the backsliding or erosion that takes place in other places.
I think it is quite impressive the way in which you see the institutions themselves standing up trying to defend themselves, and certainly the Democratic party to the extent that it has access to those institutions, trying to use them to investigate and to place constraints on the Trump administration. And then the way you see societal actors mobilising both at the grassroots and on the streets, but then also mobilising at the electoral arena trying to use existing institutional levers to try to maintain the resiliency of the regime itself. Clearly those forms of institutional resiliency are quite formidable in the US, in comparison to places like Venezuela or places in Eastern Europe that have seen autocrats emerge in recent years. So I think we are in a different situation here, but I think we really do see countervailing powers at work in American society, some of which I would argue are pushing for the whittling down of democratic institutions, and others which are pushing not only to protect those institutions but in some ways even to expand democratic rights and liberties by encouraging types of electoral reform that would actually make our institutions more inclusive and more responsive to popular demands. So I think there is a real tension that exists in American society because of the fact that we have these countervailing forces at work in American politics.
MA: Dave Karpf lets bring you back in. What would you add to this?
DK: I will echo that these institutions are resilient but also, they rely on actors with some sense of good faith in fair processes. The US system has a bunch of inequalities baked into it, including the structure of the Senate. I spent a little while when I was in grad school studying electoral system design: there are no other democracies that look to the US Senate and say ‘That’s a good idea’. It is a basic violation of one person-one vote which ends up being a real problem for The Resistance as a movement. I mean the simple example is that you have this pretty overwhelming blue wave in house elections in 2018, and Republicans did well in the Senate because of the vagaries of the Senate map and because North Dakota gets the same number of representatives in the Senate as California. This has led towards more of a focus on consumer activism, because the set of people who live in big cities and have a bunch of money to spend have less of a political voice than people who live in the rural middle of the country who are pretty well set. So the political institutions are right now less responsive than a lot of economic institutions, which is weird.
But if we start thinking about a post-Trump moment, let’s say that Trump does lose the election and does leave in an orderly fashion, this goes back to Doug McAdam’s point about all of the problems that we still have to face. It is hard to imagine a Green New Deal passing but it is easy to imagine a Green New Deal passing thanks to a massive social movement and then a partisan Supreme Court deciding to strike it down. Institutional resilience says that on the one hand, courts shouldn’t do that but also if they do, they are resilient enough that it is not like there is a movement that can stop us from having courts the next day or the next month. So within the context of responding to this Trump moment and then imagining a future, there are still these big complex problems that the US and movements have to solve, and institutional resilience also means these institutions are not very responsive to these tough changing circumstances. I remain pretty worried myself.
MA: David Meyer concluding remarks?
DM: I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I don’t want to punch a hole in David Karpf’s pessimism and concern. I think all those pessimisms and anxieties are well justified – we don’t want to wish this away. That said, there are signs about which we can be very optimistic and any of us who are on college campuses have probably seen it in the movements such as the women’s marches, the march for truth, the march for science, the Green New Deal and how they have spurred up a wave of youth activism which is really exciting for people who want to have faith in democracy. There are young people getting engaged in the political process based on one issue like the Parkland kids, and suddenly making contact with other kids who have different issues and finding a political power and collective voice. I have enough of a religious commitment to participation that I really believe when these young people get involved, even if there are going to be mistakes and stupid statements and unpleasant tactics sometimes, ultimately American democracy gets stronger. Where I live, Orange County was the heart of conservative electoral politics in the US. It was represented by four Republicans, three of which were thought to be in fake districts. And with a seventy percent voter turnout rate in the midterm elections, which is unheard of in the US, all four of them flipped to Democrats and those kids who made the difference by pushing up voter turnout, they are not likely to go away. The pessimistic side of me said well the white racists who have also mobilised in response to Trump’s call, they are not going to go away either. We are in the middle of what might be a massive change in American politics.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
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