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America's Reform Movements:

The Dynamics of Coalition Reform


This survey, in theoretical book proposal form, details a commonality in American

Reform movements. An excerpt on the 1980's "Reagan Revolution" illustrates this dynamic.  





Thesis- The Dynamics of Coalition Reform

American reform movements are characterized by the tendency of groups to mobilize into "associations", in order to achieve common goals, create alliances with other mobilized groups, and work to balance the interests of alliance members after a coalition has been established. Movements splinter or fall apart when a group loses direction over its primary "interest issue", the overall coalition is unable to adapt to changing circumstances, or one group within the coalition challenges the interests of an allied group. This model, with certain modifications, is able to explain the organizational dynamics of American reform movements.

In the past, when groups emerged to assert their interests, they had in effect, created a discrete "association" among founding members. As influence developed, group members aligned themselves to other like-minded "associations" and a larger alliance was established. As mobilization of these alliances continued, they soon encountered different "interest" alliances that shared similar concerns. If both alliances were receptive to one another, a regional or national coalition developed. If alliances within the larger coalition successfully balanced the interests of its diverse groups, then reform continued to move forward unimpeded.


The dynamics of this model must be applied to the relative circumstances surrounding each successive reform movement. For many reform movements, this model proves valid from a "grass roots" perspective. Farmers of the late nineteenth century aligned themselves into local "associations", which, in turn, united into state and regional alliances. In time, the Populist Party emerged from these Farmer's Alliances to seek coalition with the Knights of Labor.


Yet, this model is invalid if it is applied, in strict form, to the New Deal Era. In this case, the model is valid if presented from a "top to bottom" perspective. After his election in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt committed himself to lift America out of the Great Depression. With the support of key advisors, a Roosevelt "association" emerged. This association mobilized, rapidly creating an alliance with "associations" of like-minded Democratic congressmen from within the House of Representatives. Mobilization continued into the Senate and the Roosevelt associations secured an alliance with the overall Democratic Party. The Roosevelt alliance then pushed for legislation to aid diverse groups of Americans. For example, the Roosevelt alliance passed the Wagner Act, which ensured collective bargaining for labor unions. The Wagner Act ultimately brought organized labor into coalition with the Democratic Party. Similarly, other New Deal legislation aligned farmer and African American alliances under a 'Grand Coalition'.


In the case of the Progressive movement (which, began at a grass roots level), the definition of "national coalition", as demonstrated above, is no longer valid. Progressives entered into an alignment with labor, but this alliance did not produce, strictly speaking, the same type of national coalition later forged by FDR's coalition with labor. One could argue many Progressives were pro-labor, but this is not the same as stating the Progressives allied with the pro-labor Socialist Party on a national level. In this case, the model proves valid if one defines the Progressive coalition more broadly. The Progressive coalition entailed diverse "associations" and "alliances" from within the middle class. Progressives worked as advocates for many groups and causes. Social workers, labor organizers, social scientists, and politicians came forward to join forces in reform on the municipal, state, and national levels. Progressives worked toward this end, for a while, through a faction of the Republican Party.

The Progressive coalition, did, in time, manifest itself in the short-lived Progressive Party. However, Democrats co-opted the Progressive program and defeated the Progressive Party in the election of 1912. The displaced middle class Progressive groups, now under Woodrow Wilson's leadership, became disillusioned. The informal coalition, which Wilson inherited, withered.


Some mention should be given to defining the term "reform". Reform may be defined as the byproduct of collectivized (and democratic) activities intended, at least nominally, to secure the interests of concerned advocates, or the perceived interests of any given advocated group. This definition is valid when referencing the local cooperatives of the Farmer's Alliance, Progressive legislation at the state level, or the anti-Vietnam war platform of the late 60's New Left-Eugene McCarthy (that is, "New Politics") coalition.

Conditions that lead to coalition splintering or coalition demise can also be identified. In some cases, a coalition will fracture or fall apart if it loses its primary "interest issue" to another group. The Populists lost a primary interest issue to the Democrats when the latter co-opted the "silver issue" in 1896. The Populist coalition soon collapsed. In other cases, a coalition may splinter or fall apart if one association in a coalition attempts to dominate, or is perceived to dominate, another aligned association. The Grand (or "Popular Front") Coalition splintered when (pro-communist) progressives bolted the (increasingly anticommunist) Democratic Party in 1947. Despite their challenge to the Democratic Party in the election of 1948, the Grand Coalition remained largely intact, as the anticommunist "New Deal" coalition.


Chapters 1 and 2 survey the Populist and Progressive Eras. Chapter 3 addresses the New Deal. Chapter 4 deals with Kennedy liberalism and the Civil Rights movement. Chapter 5 discusses the Great Society. Chapter 6 surveys social, political, and economic radicalism in the late 1960s. Chapter 7 looks at George Wallace and Richard Nixon. Finally, chapter 8 addresses the "Reagan Revolution", and recent coalitions under Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.

An Excerpt from

Chapter 8: the "Reagan Revolution"

Credit is given to Lisa McGirr, which, in the fair-use paraphrase below, highlights this proposed section on California and national conservatives.


Old style conservatism, or paleoconservativism, flourished in California during the early 1960's. Economic prosperity, found in the emerging defense industry, facilitated a belief in economic individualism.1

60's conservatism was basically defined through libertarian and traditionalist influences.

Libertarians: This "association" developed during the 1964 presidential election, from within the Republican Party. Local California residents collected thousands of signatures to place Senator Barry Goldwater (AZ) on the state ballot. As with Goldwater, California libertarians disliked the increasing power of the federal government. They rejected social programs, due to costs. They also opposed economic regulation, which they believed damaged the economy.2

Social traditionalists: This "association" justified government activism in support of conservative, or religious values. 60's traditionalists advocated comprehensive laws prohibiting prostitution and
recreational drug use. California traditionalists also wanted to reinstate prayer in public schools (which had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1962). Both libertarians and traditionalists were avowed anticommunists.3

Ronald Reagan spoke at the 1964 national Republican convention, condemning big government (see video here). After Goldwater's defeat, Reagan and his associates sought to align themselves to California conservatives.


The Reagan "association" courted with conservative associations like the Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society.4

In 1966, while working with these groups, to varying degrees, the Reagan "association" forged an alliance with other California conservative associations, like the California Republican Assembly, to then secure the state Republican Party nomination and the governor's mansion.


Ronald Reagan forged a national coalition in his 1980 election to the presidency. The Reagan coalition included elements of the old New Deal coalition, some that had drifted away from the Democratic Party after the failure of the 1960's Great Society programs. Disheartened reformers, these anticommunist liberals had been increasingly alienated by the rift in the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War (1965-1973).

Liberals, aside from moral reasons, had waged the war in Vietnam, and domestically fought for African American civil rights, as a safeguard against communist encroachment and a means to further the advance of democracy. In opposition to them, the New Politics movement, from 1968 to 1972, successfully realigned the Democratic Party toward the anti-war platform, identity politics, and expanded welfarism of the New Left. The hawkish liberals, now in alignment with Reagan, would go on to make up much of the neoconservative presence in the contemporary Republican Party.

Anticommunist socialists, like the Social Democrats, USA, similarly rooted in the New Deal coalition, came to embrace neoconservatism. The SD-USA supported the military buildup against the opportunistic Soviet Union (like the old liberals, they rejected the dovishness of the post-Vietnam war Democratic Party). Many [
"new conservatives"] placed a premium on social traditionalism, and eventually embraced, or at least acquiesced to, a degree of fiscal libertarianism. A strong work ethic, and long-standing religious values, afforded Americans the best tools to weather, and prosper in, an imperfect free market system. The President worked with coalition groups, old and new, for a "Reagan Revolution" to streamline the size of the federal government and increase the strength of the military...


The Reagan Tax Cuts (ERTA, 1981 & TRA, 1986):
Reagan sought to stimulate economic growth through cutting the taxes of large corporations and the middle class. With a decreased tax burden, businesses could invest in the economy and create more jobs. New jobs, and with it, more money in the pockets of workers, would increase consumer demand for goods and services. The tax cuts, overtime, worked well, creating needed jobs, and an increase in consumer demand, improving the overall economy.

Balancing Interests in the Coalition:

Reagan cut spending for ineffectual government programs and affirmed the importance of Judeo-Christian values, fostering support for his military buildup against the Soviets.

Demise of Coalition:

After Reagan's departure in 1989, many Democrats left the coalition. The inability of Reagan's successor, President George H.W. Bush, to adapt to the changing circumstances of the economy led to the end of the Reagan coalition. Though now somewhat economically conservative, these voters found a voice in Bill Clinton, and moved the Democratic Party towards the fiscal right.

Relevance to Thesis:

The Reagan alignments are good example of a "grass roots" approach to coalition building.

Proposed Conclusion (May 2003)

As economic globalization, under NAFTA (1994), continues, new market opportunities develop. Yet, globalization disrupts American industries. It is likely future reformers will seek to protect domestic interests, drifting toward economic progressivism. Some of today's Democrats, like Al Gore and Howard Dean, advocate economic progressivism. The social, or cultural, views of these men reflects an implicit neo-progressivism, which emphasizes the identity politics of the late 1960's.

cited works, America's Reform Movements: here..
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