The Trump Resistance And America's Institutional Legitimacy Problem

The dangers presented by the Trump administration are rapidly testing America's capacity for an inclusive opposition movement.
05/10/2017 05:40 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017
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The #Resistance is working ― at least according to liberal media outlets, and even some Republicans. While the movement is still finding its footing, early signs are promising: a stalled Obamacare repeal effort; a blocked travel ban; a robust congressional inquiry into Trump-Russia collusion; competitive congressional elections in formerly deep red districts. Middle-class activists are marching on Washington, calling and writing their representatives, suing in the courts, facilitating resistance schools at major universities, donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood ― and they’re getting results. But the inclusivity of the movement, which is fundamental to its long-term legitimacy and success, remains an open question. Trendy t-shirts proclaiming “Protest is the new brunch” remind us that, for all its claims of social and economic justice, this movement is currently dominated by affluent, white Americans and their institutional allies.

The other high-profile progressive movement of our day ― #BlackLivesMatter ― burst onto the scene in 2014 with palpable energy and a powerful message of its own, but with a sharply divergent demographic composition and course of action compared to the #Resistance. This movement’s tactics appear more subterranean; instead of relying primarily on elected representatives, the court system, or K Street to achieve their aims, they have mobilized decentralized networks of activists who are organizing demonstrations in their local communities to protest police abuse and to call attention to institutional racism.

What accounts for the divergent pathways these two movements have taken? Why aren’t activists within each drawing on a common, proven repertoire of tactics to achieve change? Race and class are clearly implicated. The 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising reminds us that race and class inequalities have long shaped the manifestations of social movements. But precisely why race and class are correlated with communities’ organizing tactics ― and consequently, their success ― remains unresolved.

For many years, sociologists and policymakers have zeroed in on “social capital” as a key factor driving differences in the channels communities use to achieve their aims. The basic argument goes something like this: if people spend more time building and nurturing relationships with friends and neighbors and less time in isolation, they are more likely to become civically engaged. Due, in part, to residential segregation and lower-income, minority Americans tend to be more socially isolated ― especially from citizens of other race/class backgrounds ― and therefore less engaged in traditional forms of civic activism.

The conclusion: if we could build communities where people interact more with one another ― especially across class and race lines ― people would be more engaged in their communities and more likely to engage in the traditional political process. This has also been the basic focus of voter registration programs, which attempt to “engage” voters by making them feel part of something bigger than themselves. These are all excellent ideas ― indeed, our society would be better off if more people engaged directly with one another and with our political system.

However, the social capital lens illuminates the symptoms rather than the underlying cause of differing approaches to organizing. The roots of race and class differences in activism tactics are deeper; they go to the core of the institutional legitimacy that middle-class Americans have often taken for granted.

Consider one example: low-income residents of Detroit. In the fall of 2014, we traveled to Detroit with a hypothesis, informed by prior research, that low-income Detroiters might exhibit some degree of social engagement, but that any social capital that existed would be limited to a core set of activities: attending town meetings, sports leagues, or going to church. Instead, we found that many low-income Detroiters were civically engaged – just in ways that most academics and policymakers, or even middle-class Americans, may not have anticipated. For example, several respondents reported participating in neighborhood crime watch systems to alert their neighbors of suspicious behavior. We went back in the summer of 2015 to conduct a broader survey, asking people from Mexicantown and Detroit’s East Side neighborhoods whether these kinds of systems were widespread. Indeed they were.

Setting up an informal crime watch system may not be the kind of action ― voting, protesting, or showing up to town meetings ― that many of us have in mind when we think about civic engagement, but it is civic engagement nonetheless. The difference between these neighborhood crime watches and tactics often preferred by middle-class Americans is that the crime watch systems are “informal”; they take place outside of institutions.

It is easy to see why non-institutional forms of activism are preferred in these communities. Until recently, police response times in Detroit could be as long an hour for the most urgent calls (and, speaking of institutional trust, these city-reported statistics have now been called into question). When police do respond to crimes in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, residents fear that it may only serve to escalate the situation. In this context, substituting a neighborhood crime watch for a police presence may be the best available option for a community to keep itself safe.

Detroit today, and Los Angeles in 1992, remind us that the schism in organizing tactics – embodied in the divergence between the #Resistance and #BlackLivesMatter – did not come out of nowhere. In fact, lesser known organizing around racial and socioeconomic justice has been happening for decades (Think, for example, about Cesar Chavez and the Delano grape strike.) But instead of unfolding primarily in city halls and school board meetings, a lack of faith in American institutions (or, in some cases, a lack of access to them) has pushed many of these networks and organizers “underground.” Arising from institutional distrust, it is likely that such a network would reinforce institutional distrust.

If institutional (dis)trust, rather than social capital, is the reason for the divergence in organizing tactics, then building movements across race and class lines is unlikely to be achieved via conventional methods like voter registration drives, online petitions, and town hall meetings. A broad-based Resistance requires a more critical look at the basic assumption that democratic institutions are inherently legitimate. It requires a commitment to understanding the reasons behind institutional distrust among large swaths of the country and recasting the movement in a way that responds to and learns from those anxieties. Calls to action must take a broader set of forms – for example, organizing in local communities rather than in city centers – if they are to galvanize those who have good reason to question the legitimacy of the electoral process, the reliability of elected officials, and the fairness of the criminal justice system.

Donald Trump may very well threaten the legitimacy of institutions sacred in the eyes of middle-class Americans. But Resistors need to acknowledge that threats to institutional legitimacy have been glaring to lower-income and minority Americans before Trump – and these groups have little reason to believe that the same issues won’t persist long after his departure. Saving our institutions from Trump in the short-term won’t preserve their legitimacy in the long-term. That is a much a taller order – one that, at a minimum, will require broad-based social movements that appeal to, and activate, both the rich and poor, white and nonwhite alike. And with the foundation of a pluralistic democracy on the line, it’s time to get to work.

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