How to Take Over a Political Party

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If social movements want to have long-term power in the United States, they must reckon with the state. And if they want to win control of the state, they must consider their relationship with political parties.

This is the argument Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Schlozman makes in his 2015 book, When Movements Anchor Parties. In recent years, we have witnessed some of largest mass protests in American history—from demonstrations of anti-Trump resistance to the uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd—as well as robust organizing organizing around climate justice, #MeToo, immigrant rights, and other issues. In the wake of these upheavals, activists are debating how best to institutionalize gains over the long haul and influence established political parties.

Rare among political scientists, Schlozman has looked at how social movements have shaped the agendas and ideologies of America’s major parties, drawing examples from both the left and right. Although written as an academic volume, When Movements Anchor Parties has drawn unusually wide interest in activist circles, particularly in groups such as Justice Democrats, which are attempting to elevate progressives—and thereby change the face of the Democratic Party.

“The fertile and contested meeting ground between political parties and social movements has made and remade American politics,” Schlozman contends. His research looks at the historical process by which some movements, such as organized labor in the 1930s and the Christian Right after the 1970s, became central parts of a governing coalition. He argues that, by becoming “anchor” groups within the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, these movements secured ongoing influence. Schlozman also examines why other movements failed to become anchors, and how that diminished their impact over time.

Recently, we spoke with Schlozman to learn more about the reception of his book and the lessons that social movements today can draw from his research. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

—Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Mark Engler: In your book, you quote prominent mid-century political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, who argued, “A political party is an organized attempt to get control of the government.” You argue that movements for fundamental change in this country must therefore seek influence through alliance with a sympathetic party. Can you say more about what it means for a social movement to become an “anchoring group” in a political party?

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