Cyclical Patterns in Activist Politics: What Do We Know about the Politics of Opposition?

We’re about to experience a phase transition in American activist politics. It’s a move from the “politics of articulation” to the “politics of opposition.” I’ve written about this before, both at this blog and in my first book. But those were sunnier times, and eons ago in internet time. So I want to use this blog post to reflect on three distinct movement dynamics that appear during periods of opposition and articulation.

The difference between opposition and articulation is fundamentally an agenda-setting issue. Major policy change in the United States is tremendously rare and difficult. Our system is designed to reward incremental changes to the status quo, and to punish big, new proposals. The party network that controls the White House generally gets to set the political agenda. When activist groups are part of that party network, they have to articulate a positive policy vision, and then mobilize the support necessary to overcome all the hurdles to a major bill becoming law. When activists groups are aligned against that party network, they merely have to oppose whatever the President is trying to accomplish.

As an example of these dynamics, consider the founding of the Tea Party. The first Tea Party protests convened around the moniker “Taxed Enough Already” (Get it?… TEA?). This was in spring 2009, just after Barack Obama had taken office. He had not passed, nor had he proposed, any major new taxes. The anti-tax revolt was not a response to new policies, it was a response to new politics. As soon as conservatives had a Democrat in the White House to rally against, they started rallying. Later, they settled on opposition to health care reform as their primary agenda item. The reason wasn’t because they had some deep commitment to the American system of insurance companies; it was because Obama had set the agenda, and they were going to oppose him.

The politics of articulation creates a lot of tension over what comes first. Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas admirably demonstrate this point in their book, Party in the Street. The anti-war movement dissipated once Obama entered the White House. This wasn’t because people stopped dying in Iraq and Afghanistan! It was because activists who had been united in opposition to Bush’s foreign policy agenda turned attention to the myriad other issues that they cared about. The ability to help positively promote a policy agenda exposes fissures in activist values and priorities.

So what should we expect from, and how should we prepare for, moving back to the politics of articulation?

  1. Rapid-response infrastructure is about to become a lot more valuable. Micah Sifry pointed out in The Big Disconnect that the internet is “better at saying stop than go.” Particularly during the early Obama years, this limitation seemed painfully clear. A senate supermajority and the makings of a mass digital movement still weren’t strong enough to overcome the combination of Mitch McConnell’s strategy and Joe Lieberman’s ego. During the Trump years, I expect we are going to find that the rapid-response infrastructure built to oppose Bush suddenly seems a lot more vibrant and viable. We aren’t starting this fight from scratch.
  2.  Intra-movement fissures are going to recede into the background. It’s no accident that the anti-globalization movement, and occupy wall street both emerged under democratic administrations. During the politics of opposition, we can confidently claim that the world would be made better if we just removed the current administration from power. During the politics of articulation, we are instead faced with the existential limits of our own party coalition’s ability to create the world we seek. This creates the conditions for heightened infighting around matters of policy and strategy. The agenda-setting dynamics also become tougher and more salient. It’s easy for labor and environmentalists to unite against regressive policy. Collaborating gets tougher when both are trying to articulate a vision and identify what types of compromises are unacceptable in the messy legislative process. Working through those tensions can be an important, generative process. It’s also painful and messy and no one particularly enjoys it. During the politics of opposition, we can expect these tensions to largely subside as we are all united against a common foe.
  3. The loss of positive momentum. This last one is the kicker. Opposition politics is easier, and opposition politics is cleaner. We know how to stop terrible policy ideas much better than we know how to promote innovative, effective new solutions to living in this complex world. But the hope for making real, positive strides around income inequality, or civil rights, or climate destabilization, or a host of other progressive causes is now going to be put on hiatus. The clock is ticking on some of these issues (*cough* arcticseaice *cough*), and that is time that we will not get back. But that’s what happens when you lose-an-election-by-only getting-~1.5-million-more-votes-than-the-other-guy. We’re going to have to focus on stopping terrible things. The window of opportunity for promoting good ideas is effectively closed for the time being.

One final note: all of these points are premised upon the assumption that the Trump Administration will be fundamentally similar to previous Republican administrations. That is a premise that I actually have very little confidence in. We may very well be heading into a time period where activist opposition in American politics looks less like it did in 2002 America and more like it does in present-day less-democratic countries. The challenges and the stakes are much higher than they used to be. And while I still consider the distinction between opposition and articulation is useful to think with as we plan for 2017, I don’t want to leave any readers with the false sense that it will all be alright.

It’s time to prepare. And then it’s time to fight.