What is the Resistance? Part III: Weaknesses By Eric van der Vort

What is the Resistance? Part III: Weaknesses By Eric van der Vort

I have previously argued that the anti-Trump movement known as the Resistance is impactful and has unique strengths. Difficulty passing ACA repeal is perhaps the largest policy impact of The Resistance to date, and these efforts show no sign of abating.

That said, its current strength and degree of impact will be hard to sustain. The lifecycle of social movements bend toward decline, and The Resistance has a unique set of challenges and weaknesses to go along with its strengths. I explore three of its particular weaknesses here.

The Resistance is ideologically diverse. Maybe too diverse.

Observational data tell us who is in The Resistance. The majority of its participants are predominantly women, Democrats, and Clinton voters. This data also tell us what drives Resistance participation: progressive causes. Issues that animate Resistance activity align strongly with traditionally liberal issues like reproductive justice, racial equality, and environmental issues. It is probably not too strong a claim to say that most (or all) of those involved in The Resistance share at least an interest in one or more progressive issues.

Shared causes may be enough to bring The Resistance together for now, but they are unlikely to be sufficient to overcome deeper divisions. The Resistance covers a spectrum of liberal or left ideologies, ranging from centrist to deeply Marxist.  

Much of its organizing is broken into silos, with the Democratic Socialists of America, the Green Party, and Indivisible groups resting in the same broad field but undergoing little crossover. The existence of a broad range of ideas (and accompanying organizations) can enrich a social movement, but it can also lead to harmful fragmentation as competition between different factions takes siphons energy from the movement.

The Resistance requires long-term energy.

Some organizers discuss movement building in terms of “high tide” and “low tide” moments. High tide organizing takes places in environments of high interest (e.g. around a cause or campaign). This high tide brings attention, people, and resources. Low tide organizing is a more frequent state for most movements, when attention runs low, people are less likely to show up or volunteer, and resources diminish.  

The Resistance so far has been in a series of high tide moments, driven by the shock-and-awe of the Trumpian news cycle and by substantive debates about policy (particularly over the fate of the Affordable Care Act). How sustainable is a constant high tide, though?

This is hard to know. The closest corollary of a partisan social movement in recent years is the Tea Party, from which Resistance groups borrow tactics. That movement shifted the polarity of American politics with smaller numbers than the Resistance can marshal, but its activists were also more ideologically consistent and more electorally oriented. The high tide/low tide dichotomy may not adequately describe a movement with as many component parts as the Resistance, but Resistance organizations of all sorts are confronting the challenge of sustaining involvement right now.

The Resistance has no clear uniting goals.

The lowest common denominator of the Resistance is its anti-Trump ethos. Other things bring people to the table: progressive causes, a desire for revolution, political ambition. These alone are not enough to build a vision for the movement. Indeed, its roots are as an oppositional movement.

The Resistance as we know it now was born from the loss of Hillary Clinton in November 2016 and the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017. Without those events, it is unlikely that a strong social movement dedicated to progressive politics would emerge.

As The Resistance turns six months old, it is worth noting that it has no clear organizing principles. There is some level of agreement on basic political principles among most Resistance participants, but those values may be weighed or understood very differently from person to person.

One core weakness of The Resistance is that its size and ideological/organizational diversity make it difficult to articulate (1) a clear uniting goal and (2) a clear vision of the world beyond its opposition to Trump. The most successful social movements (or any campaign) offer visions and alternatives. To be fully successful, the Resistance must move beyond simply resisting. Its ability to do so remains an open question.


Eric van der Vort is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at The Maxwell School of Syracuse University.


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