The historical presidency: 'Rallying force': the modern presidency, social movements, and the transformation of American politics.

Author:Milkis, Sidney M.
Position:Report
 
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This article explores the relationship between the modern presidency and social movements, an uneasy but critical alliance in the quest for both liberal and conservative reform during the past half-century. Focusing on Lyndon Johnson's relationship to the civil rights movement and Ronald Reagan's collaboration with the Christian Right, we explore the idea, born of the Progressive era, that the presidency is inherently disposed to ally itself with major reform movements. Presidency scholars, like many citizens, regularly perceive occupants of the Oval Office as leading agents of change in a labyrinthine political system that can be difficult to navigate. Social movement scholars, in turn, associate social and political transformation with organized, collective insurgencies of ordinary people motivated by common purposes or social solidarities. By definition, social movements are, to borrow James Jasper's words, "conscious, concerted, and relatively sustained efforts by organized groups ... to change some aspect of their society by using extra-institutional means" (1999, 5).

Although both presidents and social movements have played leading roles in the development of major legal and policy innovation over the course of American political development, the respective literatures on executive power and insurgency rarely intersect. Salutary efforts to probe the subject tend to emphasize the inherent conflict between a centralizing institution tasked with conserving the constitutional order and grassroots associations dedicated to structural change (e.g., see Riley 1999; Sanders 2007). To be sure, the relationship between presidents and insurgents is fraught with tension; nonetheless, it has significant formative potential given the ambition and capacity of both actors under opportune conditions to transform the political order. For all of their differences, the ambitions and work of presidents and movements are sometimes complementary rather than antagonistic.

Our central point is that the emergence of the modern presidency recasts in important ways the relationship between executive power and social movements. Constrained by constitutional norms, the separation and division of powers, and a decentralized party system, the disruptive potential of executive power was often limited until the twentieth century. With the advent of the modern presidency during the Progressive era, however, the White House was more likely to challenge the existing order of things. To be sure, modern executives regularly have shied away from close relationships with controversial social movements and sometimes openly attacked them (Tichenor 1999, 2007). Nonetheless, the consolidation of the modern presidency during the New Deal realignment invested the executive with powers and public expectations that made it a critical agent of social and economic reform (Milkis 1993). Once the White House became the center of growing government commitments, its occupants were more likely to profess support for the same high ideals that prominent social movements in their camps championed (Miroff 1981, 14).

The idea that the executive office might act as a spearhead for social justice--a rallying point for democratic reform movements--reached a critical juncture during the Johnson presidency. The nation received glimpses of the transformational possibilities of presidential-movement collaborations during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John E Kennedy. But they also demonstrated the deep conflicts of interest and ideology that inherently divided presidents and movements. Only with Lyndon Johnson was the full panoply of modern presidential powers--political, administrative, and rhetorical--deployed on behalf of insurgent interests and demands. Johnson claimed broad authority to transform domestic policy on his own terms at a time when Congress and parties were subordinate to a "modern" presidency at high tide and a national administration unprecedentedly expansive. This also was a period when the civil rights movement's ability to blend and balance disruptive collective action and conventional political pressure was at its zenith. Consequently, Johnson and the civil rights movement formed a more direct, combustible, and transformative relationship than was true of previous collaborations between presidents and social movements (Milkis and Tichenor 2011). The result was both a historic body of civil rights reforms and enormous political fallout for Johnson and the Democratic Party.

A little more than a decade later, a new executive-insurgency alliance spurred a national conservative offensive. Like Johnson, Reagan commanded a strong and active presidency that reshaped national law and policy commitments, but he sought to deploy modern executive power to achieve conservative objectives. Some of these purposes, most notably a more aggressive anti-Communist agenda and the protection of "family values," required the expansion rather than the rolling back of national governmental responsibilities. Moreover, by the time Ronald Reagan became president, cultural forces unleashed by the Great Society had created a more polarized political environment. Reagan's contribution to the development of a decidedly right of center modern Republican Party, pledged to advance issues of critical importance to Christian conservatives, made the GOP an attractive venue for the forging a strong bond between the White House and Christian Right. As we shall see, the fact that Christian conservatives were less suspicious of executive power than civil rights activists had been might have diminished the Christian Right's reformist potential. Yet with their impressive march through American political institutions, these religious movement activists joined with Reagan in advancing a more centralized, polarized, and programmatic party system that defied national consensus and enduring reform, and appeared to issue, instead, a rancorous struggle between conservatives and liberals for control of the modern executive office.

The two cases examined in this article thus shed light on important developments in American politics. Johnson's alliance with the civil rights movement and Reagan's ties with the Christian right mark critical episodes in the confluence of executive prerogative and insurgency that both infused politics with moral fervor and sharpened conflict between liberals and conservatives. By the end of the 1980s, these new strains had formed into a novel form of party politics that joined presidential prerogative, grassroots mobilization, and partisan polarization. We seek to take account of this transformation of American politics in the conclusion, suggesting that the critical, tense alliances presidents have forged with social movements over the past half-century have advanced reforms and visions of an alternative political order--but at the risk of weakening the means of common deliberation and public judgment, the very practices that nurture a civic culture.

Seizing the Moment: Lyndon Johnson and the Politics of Race

When Johnson assumed the presidency, he had instrumental reasons for taking a strong civil rights stand. By this time, the Solid South was no more, as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon had won substantial support below the Mason-Dixon line. The best hope for establishing an executive-centered liberal coalition lay in expanding the black vote. Moreover, black voters were suspicious of a southern president, as were many northern liberals who had become strongly committed to the civil rights cause after the demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington in 1963. Johnson felt the need to prove himself to the growing civil rights movement by carrying out--indeed surpassing the civil rights--program of the Kennedy administration.

Moreover, Johnson wanted to make his own historic mark on the presidency, and he viewed civil rights reform and an alliance with the leaders of the civil rights movement as critical to the success of the Great Society. In the view of Johnson and aides like Richard Goodwin and Bill Moyers, the social movements that emerged in the 1960s suggested that ideas and practices that were marginal during the Progressive era and New Deal might become the foundation of a new reform program. "Johnson intended to align himself with the cause of blacks and women and consumers," Goodwin has claimed, "and he saw their causes as evidence that the country was ready for leadership committed to social change." The civil rights movement, especially, "demonstrated not only the power and possibility of organized protests, but the unsuspected fragility in America to liberating changes" (Goodwin 1988, 275).

Viewing the growing civil rights movement as an opportunity for the White House to build a new reform coalition, Johnson as vice president scorned the Kennedy administration's caution on questions of racial equality (Conkin 1986, 164). Kennedy did make use of executive orders to advance civil rights; for example, he and Johnson agreed during the 1960 campaign that Johnson would head a new President's Committee on Equal Employment, which required government contractors to take active measures to achieve equality in job opportunities. But seeking to protect and nurture a fragile liberal coalition and riveted by the heightened tensions of the Cold War, the Kennedy White House kept its distance form the civil rights movement. In the wake of the Birmingham violence, Kennedy's aides began to acknowledge that their efforts for reform were hampered by the White House's failure either to "make an all out fight" for legislation or to engage the civil rights movement in the cause. (1) Johnson was determined not to make the same mistake. His more aggressive approach on civil rights was readily apparent when he delivered a widely praised speech to the Georgia state legislature in...

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