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Party in the Streets

Party in the Streets

March 21, 2007

During the first administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or so goes a story now making the rounds of American progressives), the president met with a group of citizens who urged him to seize the moment. Surely it was time for serious reforms: The Depression made it impossible to continue with business as usual. Just what measures the visitors to the Oval Office proposed -- well, that is not clear, at least from the versions I have heard. Perhaps they wanted laws to regulate banking, or to protect the right of labor unions to organize, or to provide income help for the aged. Maybe all of the above.

The president listened with interest and evident sympathy. As the meeting drew to a close, Roosevelt thanked his guests, expressing agreement with all they had suggested. “So now,” he told them on their way out the door, “go out there and make me do it.”

This is less a historical narrative, strictly speaking, than an edifying tale. Its lesson is simple. Even with wise and trustworthy leadership holding power -- perhaps especially then -- you must be ready to apply pressure from below. (The moral here is not especially partisan, by the way. One can easily imagine conservative activists spurring one another on with more or less the same story, with Ronald Reagan assuming the star role.)

I recalled this anecdote on Saturday after meeting Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida. He stopped by for a visit after spending the afternoon collecting data at the antiwar demonstration here in Washington.

For the past few years, Heaney has been collaborating with Fabio Rojas,  an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, on a study of the turnout at major national antiwar protests. With the help of research assistants, they have done surveys of some 3,550 randomly selected demonstrators. (That figure includes the 350 surveys gathered this weekend.) Their research has already yielded two published papers, available here and here, with more now in the works.

We’ll go over some of their findings in a moment. But a remark that Heaney made in conversation resonated with that fable about the New Deal era, and it provides a context for understanding the work he and Rojas have been doing.

“Political scientists are good at analyzing how established institutions function,” he said. “We have the tools for that, and the tools work really well. But there is very strong resistance to studying informal organizations or to recognizing them as part of the political landscape.”

In the course of thinking over their research, Rojas and Heaney have improvised a concept they call “the party in the street” -- that segment of a political party that, to borrow FDR’s (possibly apocryphal) injunction, gets out there and pushes.

Party affiliation was only one of the questions asked during the survey, which also gathered information about a demonstrator’s age, gender, ethnicity, zip code, membership in non-political organizations, and how he or she heard about the protest. (The form allowed responders to remain anonymous.)

“We attended or sent proxies to all major protests during a one-year period, from August 2004 until September 2005,” Heaney told me, “and we’ve coded all those surveys. We’ve also collected surveys at other demonstrations since then, including roughly a thousand responses just in 2007.”

The researchers attended demonstrations sponsored by each of the two major coalitions organizing them, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER). The two coalitions have been at odds with one another for years, but worked together to organize the September 2005 protest in Washington before going their separate ways again. “We couldn’t have planned this,” as Heaney puts it, “but now we have data from each stage – when the two coalitions were in conflict, when they worked together, and then again after they parted.”

During the September 2005 activities, Rojas and Heaney gathered information both from those  who attended a large open-air protest and from the thousand or so people who stuck around to lobby members of Congress two days later.

Their survey data also cover demonstrations in the months before and after the midterm elections in November, though most of those results remain to be processed.

“I’ve been shocked at how few academics have paid attention to the antiwar movement,” Heaney told me. “When we first went out to do a survey at a demonstration, I sort of expected to find other political scientists doing research too. But apart from a couple of people in sociology, there doesn’t seem to be much else happening so far.”

I asked if they had met with much suspicion in the course of their research -- people refusing to take the survey for fear of being, well, surveilled.

“No,” he said, “the response rate has been very high. There hasn’t been much paranoia. The temper isn’t like it was after 9/11. People don’t feel as much like the government is out to get them. And fear on the part of the police has gone down too. Now they don’t seem as concerned that a protest is going to turn into a terrorist act.”

The survey results from demonstrations in 2004 and 2005 showed that “40% of activists within the antiwar movement describe themselves as Democrats, 39% identify as independents (i.e. they list no party affiliation), 20% claim membership in a third party, and only 2% belong to the Republican party.”

Some of their findings confirm things one might predict from a simple deduction. Protestors who identified as members of the Democratic Party were more likely to stay in town to lobby their members of Congress than those who didn’t, for example.

Likewise, the researchers found that Democratic members of Congress “are more likely to meet with antiwar lobbyists than are Republicans, other things being equal.... Members of Congress who had previously expressed high levels of support for antiwar positions were more likely to meet with lobbyists than those whose support had been weak or nonexistent.”

Other results were more interesting. Protestors who belonged to “at least one civic, community, labor, or political organization” proved to be 17 percent more likely to lobby. People who turned out for the demonstration after being contacted by an organization were 13 percent more likely to lobby – while those who found about the event only through the mass media were 16 percent less likely to go to Capitol Hill.

The contemporary antiwar movement has a “distinctly bimodal” distribution with respect to age. In other words, there are two significant cohorts, one between the ages of 18 and 27, the other between 46 and 67, “with relatively fewer participants outside these ranges.”

Each birthday added “about 1 percent to an individual’s willingness to lobby when all other variables are held at their means or modes,” report Heaney and Rojas in a paper for the journal American Politics Research. “We did not find that sex, race, or occupational prestige make a difference in an individual’s propensity to lobby.”

In conversation, Heaney also mentioned a provisional finding that they are now double-checking. “The single strongest predictor of lobbying was whether an individual had been involved in the movement against the Vietnam War.”

It was while attending a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 that Heaney came up with an expression that has somewhat complicated the reception of this research among his colleagues. The city’s labor unions had turned out a large and obstreperous crowd to express displeasure with the president.  The crowd was overwhelmingly likely to vote for Democratic candidates, but Heaney was struck by the thought that it was a very different gathering from the one he expected would assemble before long at a Democratic national convention.

“I thought: this is more like a festival,” he told me. “It’s the Democratic Party. But it’s also the party having a party...in the street.”

This phrase – “the party in the street” – had a special overtone for Heaney as a political scientists, given one familiar schema used in analyzing American politics. In his profession, it is common to speak of a major party as having three important sectors: “the party in government,” “the party in the electorate,” and “the party as organization.”

The idea that mass movements might constitute a fourth sector of the party – with the Christian Right, for example, being a component of the Republican “party in the street” – might seem self-evident in some ways. But not so for political scientists, it seems. “We met a lot of resistance to the idea of the ‘party in the street,’” Heaney told me, “and to the idea that [it might apply] to the Republicans as well.” The paper in which Heaney and Rojas first referred to “the party in the street” ended up going to three different journals -- with substantial revisions along the way – before it was accepted for publication in American Politics Research.

Speaking of the antiwar protests as manifestations of the Democratic “party in the street” will also meet resistance from many activists. (A catchphrase of the hard left is that the Democratic Party is “the graveyard of mass movements.”) And according to their own surveys, Heaney and Rojas find that just over one fifth of demonstrators see themselves as clearly outside its ranks.

But that still leaves the majority of antiwar activists as either identifying themselves as Democrats or at least willing to vote for the party. “Like it or not,” write Heaney and Rojas, “their moral and political struggles are within or against the Democratic Party; it actions and inactions construct opportunities for and barriers to the achievement of their issue-specific policy goals.” (Though Heaney and Rojas don’t quote Richard Hofstadter, their analysis implicitly accepts the historian’s famous aphorism that American third parties “are like bees: they sting once and die.”)

“We do not claim,” they take care to note, “that the party in the street has equal standing with the party in government, the party in the electorate, or the party as organization. We are not asserting that the formal party organization is coordinating these activities. The party in the street lacks the stability possessed by other parts of the party because it is not supported by enduring institutions. Furthermore, it is small relative to other parts of the party and at times may be virtually nonexistent.”

As Heaney elaborated when we met, a great deal of the organizing work of the antiwar “party” is conducted by e-mail – a situation that makes it much easier for groups with a small staff to reach a large audience. But that also makes for somewhat shallow or episodic involvement in the movement on the part of many participants. An important area for study by political scientists might be the relationship between the emerging zone of activist organizations and the informal networks of campaign consultants, lobbyists, financial contributors, and activists” shaping the agenda of other sectors of political parties. “If they remain well organized and attract enthusiastic young activists,” write Rojas and Heaney, “then the mainstream political party is unable to ignore them for long.” 

Studying the antiwar movement has not exhausted the attention of either scholar. Heaney is working on a book about Medicare, while Rojas is the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. But now they have an abundance of data to analyze, and expect to finish four more papers over the next few months. In addition to crunching more than three years’ worth of survey data, Heaney and Rojas have been examining the antiwar movement’s publications online and observing in person how protests are organized.

I scribbled down working titles and thumbnail descriptions of the papers in progress as Heaney discussed them. So here, briefly, is an early report on some research you may hear pundits refer to knowingly some months from now....

“Mobilizing the Antiwar Movement” will analyze how organizations get people to turn out and which kinds of groups are most successful at it. “Network Dynamics of the Antiwar Movement” will consider how different groups interact at events and how those interactions have changed over time. “Leaders and Followers in the Antiwar Movement” will examine the survey data gathered at large protests, comparing and contrasting it with information about activists who participate in smaller workshops or training exercises for committed activists.

Finally, “Coalition Dissolution in the Antiwar Movement” will look at tensions within the organizing efforts. “There has been some work in sociology on coalition building,” as Heaney explained, “but there’s been almost none on how they fall apart.”

It’s worth repeating that all of this work on the antiwar “party in the street” could just as well inspire research on the relationship between conservative movements and the Republican Party. Perhaps someone will eventually write a paper called “Coalition Dissolution in the Christian Right.” I say that purely in the interests of scholarship, of course, and with no gloating at the prospect whatsoever.

                                       

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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