Transcending Partisanship in the Age of Trump

And why activists may find it essential.

By Michael T. Heaney

Tagged Affordable Care ActDemocratsDonald Trumpgrassroots activismpoliticsProtestsTrump Administration

President Donald J. Trump has wasted little time so far in trying to install key elements of his agenda, through executive orders on health care, infrastructure, immigration, and many other issues. Meanwhile, resistance movements opposing Trump’s Administration have frantically sprung into action. The Women’s March on Washington, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, was among the largest protest marches in American history. Perhaps even more impressive were the spontaneous protests that erupted at major airports around the United States as an immediate response to the President’s executive order to “ban Muslims.” On February 20—the federal holiday officially recognized as “Presidents’ Day” and the one-month mark of the Trump Era—protests took place across the country, as many coined it “Not My President’s Day.” This was followed, on March 8, International Women’s Day, with a Women’s Strike, or, as it was also called, “A Day Without Women.” Considering the new Administration’s abrupt start, there is hardly any doubt that the next four years will be a highly contentious period in American politics.

Many political observers of United States are, therefore, asking: What will likely be the outcome of this struggle? Will nascent social movements play a role in successfully stalling Trump’s initiatives? Will they succeed in winning any political victories? Or, will they, at the very least, leave the balance of power relatively unchanged?

The answer to these questions rests heavily on whether movement leaders—and their followers—are able to move beyond the boundaries of partisanship, as they are currently defined. Indeed, partisanship is very much a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a tremendous resource for movements. If a movement can tap into people’s partisan feelings, then it can draw upon a well of strongly held beliefs about exactly how politics should, and does, currently work. To the extent that Trump is the anti-Democrat, the anti-Clinton, and the anti-Obama, resistance movements can tap into feelings of righteous, post-election anger, growing feelings of resentment, and partisan kinship among like-minded social networks, to drive many out into the streets.

Early indications are that anti-Trump movements are drawing heavily—almost uniformly—upon Hillary Clinton voters. A survey of 527 women’s marchers, by University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher, found that 90 percent of those present at the January 21 march in Washington, D.C. reported having voted for Clinton. I conducted a similar survey of 294 women’s marchers, finding a nearly identical result—89 percent claimed to be Clinton backers. Roughly 1 percent of respondents in both surveys admitted to voting for Trump, with the balance of respondents consisting of nonvoters and supporters of other candidates (such as Jill Stein of the Green Party). Disappointment over Clinton’s loss seems to have been a common element motivating initial opposition to Trump, though it remains to be seen whether this motivation will be sustained over time.

Strictly partisan opposition to Trump, however, is not necessarily a good thing.  The other edge of partisanship cuts just as sharply in the reverse direction. When a group consists almost entirely of one type of people, it is unlikely to organize itself in a way that allows it to reach outside of that group. Nor is it likely that the group will craft messages that appeal to a wider audience. Yet if these new movements are to help shift the balance of power back in their direction, they will need to draw support from the ranks of the nonvoters who sat on the sidelines on Election Day. Ideally, they would even find a way to turn some of Trump’s supporters against him. Yet an overwhelmingly Democratic movement is unlikely to move the needle in that direction. In fact, rallies that only focus on the broader theme of “Not My President” may serve only to amplify polarization by pushing away those who might, under different circumstances, have been convinced to join at least parts of the opposition. For example, some Americans may be interested in helping to maintain features of the Affordable Care Act and would join a movement that focused on such a goal. These activists may not adhere to the same basic political commitments that many other anti-Trump activists do and, therefore, might see attempts at denouncing the President altogether, or calling for his impeachment, as not particularly constructive and far too partisan.

In other words, a movement that lives by the partisan sword, dies by the partisan sword. Political parties have their own institutional interests that may sometimes align with movements, but they may also, at other times, cause people to quickly abandon the movements’ priorities once that party is in power. In our book, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11, sociologist Fabio Rojas and I found that the movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did benefit from the partisanship of Democrats, which meant they were most activated when the Democrats were not in power. When the Democrats finally returned to power, partisan loyalties steered the effort’s antiwar activists away from their primary concern: withdrawing troops from invaded countries. As a result, the Democrats did not face much grassroots opposition to their continuation of the foreign policies of former President George W. Bush.

The Trump presidency has made already-existing issues such as access to health care, the needs of immigrants and refugees, racism, and gender inequality appear much more acute. However, Trump himself did not create these problems (at least for the most part). If opponents of Trump are focused principally on him—as the embodiment of the Republican Party and all that is currently wrong in this country—then the mobilization of his opponents is likely to collapse once he and/or his Republican allies exit the public arena. There were few mass protests about President Obama’s large number of deportations, for instance. But if those opponents want to attack the root of these problems, they need to find a way to stay mobilized even after the eventual, and inevitable, passing of power back to the Democratic Party. Thus, the key to defeating Trump’s agenda lies in opponents actually turning their focus away from the President, per se, and toward the underlying social conditions and policy problems that they wish to address.

Refocusing a movement from an individual person to specific issues is much easier said than done. In reality, it may be very difficult to turn the attention of the opposition away from Trump himself as long as he occupies the Oval Office; this is true for several reasons. First, he is so inherently dangerous, infuriating, and unqualified that he provokes immediate feelings of outrage among many. That is tough to disregard. But, second of all, he is also a Republican. As mentioned, partisan identities weigh heavily into how he is judged. Third, mobilization focused solely on him—using frames that intentionally stoke anti-Trumpism—are likely to be successful in generating large crowds. Good organizers are hesitant to pass that by. Finally, Democrats, Republicans, independents, and minor party supporters may all come from different political cultures, which means they have different ways of doing things. Even if the Democrats at the heart of anti-Trump movements wanted to bring Republicans and others to the table, they are unlikely to do things in ways that would make these potential allies comfortable. For example, events organized by Democrats infrequently incorporate the patriotic rituals and rhetoric that are customary at gatherings organized by Republicans.

Although I recognize the difficulties of creating this kind of anti-Trump movement, one that is largely non-personal and non-partisan, I implore activists to find ways to do so nonetheless. Successfully defeating, blocking, and minimizing Trump depends heavily on transcending partisanship whenever possible. With that in mind, here are five tactics for building nonpartisan movements:

Ideologically balanced rhetoric. For every liberal, progressive, or humanitarian argument that a movement uses in favor of a given cause, it should strive to find a conservative, libertarian, or patriotic argument as well. If activists argue that we must help refugees and immigrants because it is our moral obligation to assist those in need, it may also be useful to argue, at the same time, that refugees and immigrants strengthen our economy by bringing in much-needed labor, particularly for those jobs that Americans are either unwilling or unable to do. If a movement argues that the Affordable Care Act is the only way for people with particular conditions to receive essential medical care, then that group might also be well served to argue that the Affordable Care Act provides a host of new business for two large and economically important industries: health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. If a movement argues that prisons treat people of color unfairly, then it could also argue that prisons are a form of wasteful government spending. Movements are likely to do better if they find ways to speak the political language of people across the political spectrum.

Single-issue organizing. As mentioned, resistance movements would be wise to organize around individual issue areas, rather than simply around the vague notion of “resistance” itself. Focusing on policy specifics related to individual issues may make it easier to draw some Republicans and independents into the movement. A lifelong Republican is unlikely to show up at a “Stop Trump” event, but could potentially be drawn into, say, a “Hunters and Hikers Together for National Parks” rally.

Look for consensus issues. When selecting which issues to concentrate on, movements would also benefit from focusing, to begin with, on topics that have the potential to unify rather than simply to divide. A large number of women, of all political stripes, could perhaps be persuaded to support a movement for pay equity or for harsher punishment in cases of sexual harassment, but are less likely to be as unified around the question of reproductive rights. My point here is not that reproductive rights are unimportant. In fact, empowering supporters of pay equity may, at least inadvertently, also galvanize supporters of reproductive rights. But movements would likely benefit from introducing new issues for which there are no preexisting partisan alignments, or at least where existing partisan alignments are more opaque.

Agree to disagree. Movements would also be strengthened by ensuring that new coalitions explicitly recognize the right of members to “agree to disagree” on issues of lesser relevance to the particular fight in question. If it is possible to build a wide-ranging coalition of individuals around the desire to increase background checks and keep guns out of the hands of criminals, for example, members should make sure that they don’t allow disagreements about, say, school choice to get in the way. Coalitions will be strongest when they can also involve leaders with differing political identities: Democrats, Republicans, and nonpartisan organizers should, ideally, be involved.

No demonization. When speaking to their own supporters, movement leaders should avoid demonizing Republicans or other political groups so directly. Instead, they would be well advised to appeal to their potential allies by emphasizing, as discussed, those common values that unite them in their fight. That is, rather than prompting anger and resentment, they should stress the value of understanding. This is essential since it is by identifying unusual alignments around narrow issues areas that the seeds of truly powerful coalitions are born.

Employing these tactics would likely yield less short-term mobilizing success than using explicit, and more clearly partisan, rhetoric. The fuel of partisanship burns more brightly, but also more quickly, than that of nonpartisanship; instead, the nonpartisan approach has the potential to shift the balance of power over the long term by attracting support from groups that were formerly unaligned or opposed. The potential success of this strategy depends heavily on both the skill of leaders and the openness of followers to experimenting with new approaches in this most unusual political era.

Read more about Affordable Care ActDemocratsDonald Trumpgrassroots activismpoliticsProtestsTrump Administration

Michael T. Heaney is Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Political Science at the University of Michigan. Along with Melody Shemtov and Marco Roldán, he is the creator, producer, and writer of a new documentary film, The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets. Find him online at

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus