The New Establishment versus the New Movements
by Daniel Schlozman
The candidate who wants to ignite a movement is getting movements’ cold shoulder. From unions like AFSCME and the SEIU to the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Human Rights Campaign, powerful organizations born from social-movement activity have put their chips on Hillary Clinton – and not her insurgent rival, Bernie Sanders. Piqued, Sanders responded that “Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.” As campaign spats go, this was a revealing one. The yawning generation gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is also the latest iteration in an old battle between mature and insurgent social movements over how to play politics.
The Clinton endorsers were insurgents once, but now form the core of a new Democratic partisan establishment. It is an establishment far different from the now-vanished Eastern Establishment, the terrain of the Rockefellers and the Trilateral Commission. It admits to the club groups born of radical insurgency – and deeply besieged outside the Democratic camp. In red states, neither abortion providers not public-sector unions would call themselves a part of the establishment. But in its orientation to politics, it is an establishment, nonetheless. The Sanders campaign, by contrast, draws strength from new movements unconvinced that traditional half-a-loaf compromise will yield the society they want to see. Politicians, in this view, respond when organizable alternatives shift – and when agitation outside the electoral arena forces their hand.
Whatever their causes and constituencies, the Clinton endorsers have made the same bargain in their path to politics: they trim their sails, shed their radical fringes, shift tactics away from the streets, turn leadership over to professional advocates, protect their gains, and focus on winnable victories in concert with allied political parties. In 2016, that means, as the political director of the League of Conservation Voters tweeted, “Most important: win WH,” and it means winning with the candidate with the most conventional shot at victory. The possibility of unified Republican control frightens the entire new party establishment. And unless the Democrats somehow capture 29 seats, the House will remain in Republican hands, rendering any Democratic president’s legislative priorities dead on arrival. Those conditions, for the new establishment, call for a player of political brinksmanship.
Long-running alliance between political parties and social movements rests on a trade. Movements control resources that parties covet – votes, along with money, time, and networks that can be converted into votes – and hand them in over in exchange for policy concessions. This is a decidedly Clintonesque theory of change, emphasizing brokerage among elites and careful calibration of positions rather than mass pressure from below. As Sanders partisans have noted caustically, these endorsements have all followed decisions by boards of directors (many of them, to be fair, themselves elected), rather than direct votes from the rank-and-file.
On domestic policy, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly met her group allies’ price. She has not simply moved left with the tenor of the times; she has responded to organized pressure. And so she has pledged executive action on immigration beyond the scope of anything Barack Obama has countenanced; robustly defended abortion rights and advocated repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which since 1976 has banned federal Medicaid funding for abortions; and, in what may be a move of convenience for labor support, reversed her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Bernie Sanders, for his part, thinks like the groups in the new partisan establishment thought in their own organizational salad days. Change comes from below, and politicians move only when pressure from the streets. His political revolution means to build that pressure. He aims to fill what Walter Dean Burnham once called “the large hole in voter participation… where a socialist party ‘ought’ to have developed.” Eventually, political institutions will respond. It is an incredibly tall order. But so were the dreams, from the eight-hour day to gay marriage, of so many in the new partisan establishment when first they approached politics.
Sanders’s hope comes from the two great social movements of the Obama-era left. Occupy vanished once police cleared its tents, but the movement brought onto the agenda Sanders’s core issue: corrosive economic and political inequality, and especially the outsized rewards and influence accruing to what Occupy termed the One Percent and Sanders calls the “proliferation of millionaires and billionaires.” Sanders had raised these issues for decades; when a movement brought them to the public eye, it created space for his candidacy.
Black Lives Matter arose in anger against the carceral state that Bill Clinton and other Democrats helped to build. Bernie Sanders has an uphill climb with African-American voters. He has spent decades running for office in a rural, white state – and it shows. His worldview centers around class more than race. But if he is to win the Democratic nomination, he has to gain substantial support from black voters, and the movement energy from Black Lives Matter, far more than the traditional networks centered around churches and elected officials, will help Sanders to do it. No wonder that his stump speech now incorporates the names of the victims of police violence.
More than they care to admit, the two strategies need one another. New movements need friends in high places; the new establishment needs to shed its torpor. In time, the young people leading today’s movements may themselves come think like the new Democratic establishment. Then new social movements will challenge them, in turn. This winter, however, those syntheses prove elusive as each theory of change each has an unusually sharp proponent, in Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Daniel Schlozman is assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and author of When Movements Anchor Parties.