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Party Movements

Summary and Keywords

Party movements are organizations that have attributes of both political parties and social movements. Like parties, they desire a voice in the decisions of legislative bodies. Like social movements, they challenge existing power and advocate change, often using non-institutionalized means for expressing their message. They appear in the space left open by the failure of existing political parties and social movements to adequately represent their interests and achieve their goals. They may become independent parties or work within existing parties. Party movements can be found in most political systems. Their impact is felt whenever they are able to introduce new issues onto the political agenda, force traditional political parties to take account of their grievances, or change the contours of the party system.

Keywords: protest parties, third parties, social movements, contentious politics, party movements

A student of politics, interested in learning about party movements and beginning with a Google search, would come away with two impressions. The first is that party movements are the same as third parties in the United States, that is, relatively small parties that emerge to challenge the two dominant political parties. The second is that only two specific party movements deserve coverage—the Tea Party and the Progressive movements—despite the fact that neither is or was a third party, although the Progressives did form their own short-lived third party. If the search continued in Wikipedia, the results would be identical. Switching to a more serious examination of social science databases to look for mentions of party movement produces hundreds of scholarly references. Yet, beyond adding a number of cases from countries outside the United States, the results are not very different from what can be found with Google.

From these results one could infer that, as a general concept, party movement is not widely used nor has it been consistently defined. Although that inference would be correct, it would be a mistake to then conclude that infrequent use or lack of consistency means that the concept is unimportant to the study of politics. To the contrary, as the words themselves convey, a party movement is a distinct phenomenon, occupying the space between a conventional political party and a social movement. Reasons for the occurrence of that space provide an entry to constructing a definition of party movement that differentiates it from both political party and social movement.

Once there is clarification on meaning, we can go on to identify the forms party movements may take, including those that have been subsumed under different rubrics. That leads to an examination of the Tea Party movement, a task justified by the amount of attention it has received and the differing ways in which it has been categorized. This article concludes with an assessment of party movements in respect to their frequency, durability, and political impact.

Constructing a Definition

A definition of party movement first requires defining its two adjacent political organizations based on the functions they perform and the ways these provide openings for party movements. A political party is an organization with the goal of gaining governmental office through competitive elections (e.g., Sartori, 1976, p. 64). Some states have only a single party, and questions have been raised whether the latter, in fact, deserves to come under the rubric of political party (Schwartz & Lawson, 2005, p. 267). But given that, once in office, states with such parties often stage elections in which there is no more than token opposition, the inevitable reelection signals some relation, however weak, between political parties and elections, and that is what counts. A party is any group that places, under its own name, candidates who contend for electoral office.

Among the typical activities in which political parties engage, two stand out because of how they affect possible openings for the emergence of party movements. One relates to the mobilization of voters and the other to the advocacy of policies, issue stands, or ideological positions. For some parties, the link between those they mobilize and the ideology they espouse is very close. The prototype is found in democratic socialist parties—what Duverger (1963) termed mass parties. Mass parties represent selected demographic and class interests whose participation in the party organization is a critical component in making such parties truly representative of their constituencies. Kirchheimer (1966) saw such mass parties declining in the face of social and political changes after WWII, which limited the translation of single class appeals into governing office. Instead, mass parties were being replaced by catch-all parties, encompassing as broad a social base as possible and, consequently, producing a diverse and centrist policy platform. The more recent kind of party change observed is termed the cartel party (Katz & Mair, 1995), one that uses its connections with the state to further its own interests.

This appraisal of party types in competitive political systems, though cursory, permits us to see how catch-all and cartel parties could arouse dissatisfaction over the absence of representation that would give a voice to particular groups and their issues. Kitschelt (1993), for example, attributes the emergence of “new” social movements in the 1970s and 1980s to the failures of established parties to respond to new issues that are not the customary economic and distributive ones, and to demands for direct participation in party decision making. Tormey (2015) goes further by arguing that representative politics is in crisis. That crisis does not even benefit radical political parties, because new forms of political activity are taking over outside of the parties. In other words, Kitschelt sees alternatives to the shortcomings of conventional political parties in social movements, and Tormey, in instant politics, direct action, and insurgent politics. Although neither mentions the potential for party movements, their descriptions of weakened political parties is sufficient to account for the political opening that weakening gives to the rise of party movements.

As distinct from political parties, social movements are forms of collective action with some durability over time, aimed at fostering or countering societal change. This orientation to change is presented to both followers and opponents as a clear purpose and agenda, embodied either as frames or formal ideologies for interpreting events and justifying actions (Oliver & Johnston, 2000). Movements are sustained by highly committed supporters who are attracted to the movement by its objectives. It has long been the practice to see social movements as operating outside of institutionalized politics, using strikes, demonstrations, and street protests, along with more conventional forms of political activity, to offer “a sustained challenge to power holders” (Tilly, 1999, p. 257). Although social movements may have a profound effect in bringing about change (e.g., Gamson, 1990; Meyer, 2003), they do so while facing major difficulties both inherent in their nature and from the opposition they arouse. Difficulties include finding adequate resources, sustaining member enthusiasm, and countering efforts to coopt or suppress them, all while trying to demonstrate the success of their efforts (e.g., Costaine, 1990; Gamson, 1995). The problems of social movements then become opportunities for party movements.

The space created out of the inadequacies of political parties in fulfilling their representative roles and of social movements in sustaining viable organizations while achieving their goals is the entry point for party movements. By making their presence felt in the political arena, movements adopt a highly attractive strategy with some likelihood of success in bringing about change (Klandermans, 1997, p. 152; Tarrow, 1989, p. 24). Once they are able to occupy that political space, party movements will have an opportunity to acquire an electoral presence where they can present the issues that concern them through candidates they sponsor or endorse either under their own name or under that of an existing party. At the same time, they reveal their movement face through wholehearted commitment to specific issues, policies, and groups, demonstrated by an enthusiasm undeterred by pressures to compromise (Schwartz, 2006, pp. 7–8).

Party Movement Forms

Although the concept of party movement may not always be employed, its characteristics are apparent in many different kinds of political organizations. In reviewing the survival capacity of party movements in the United States and Canada, Schwartz (2006) categorized them according to their origin, organizational autonomy, and electoral strategies. Some begin as social movements that, wanting to ensure that their objectives become part of the political agenda, go on to form independent political parties. An example is the prohibition movement that emerged in the United States in the early 19th century (Schwartz & Tatalovich, 2015). One of the byproducts of the Great Awakenings in Protestantism, the call for prohibition was made under the leadership of evangelical clergy. It also mobilized women into assuming new activist roles in local organizations. Soon the movement experienced major tactical disputes: could prohibition be achieved through moral suasion, or did it require legal measures? The latter became the more attractive option as local referendums were successful in prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages and both U.S. political parties responded favorably to the movement’s pressure. But, to those most strongly committed to the movement’s objectives, some of whom were now organized into the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, nothing less than their own party was adequate. The result was the founding of the Prohibition Party in 1869 (Pegram, 1998; Storm, 1972).

Applying Keuchler and Dalton’s (1990, pp. 189–190) criteria, the Prohibition Party would be an example of a “movement party,” the partisan arm of a social movement. But Kitschelt (2006) gives a different emphasis to movement parties by viewing them as a transitional phase in which political entrepreneurs move social movements into the institutional setting of political parties. Gunther and Diamond’s (2003) perspective on movement parties also sees them emerging from social movements but emphasizes the connection with new movements, that is, with either left-libertarian or post-industrial extreme right ones rather than with ones representing class interests. In their comparison of Green Party movements in Western democracies, Lucardie and Rihoux (2008) adopt Poguntke’s (1993, pp. 136–148) emphasis on grass-roots internal democracy as their core characteristic. That emphasis produces a new type of party—the amateur-activist party. This concept captures both the social movement and political party aspects of European Green parties. However, it underestimates alternatives to internal democracy in right-wing party movements, such as Golden Dawn in Greece. After mobilizing support through the provision of services and the use of violence against presumed sources of danger to supporters, the structure of Golden Dawn remains rigidly hierarchical and under the control of a strong leader (Dinas, Georgiadou, Konstantinidis, & Rori, 2016).

Still another way to categorize party movements in response to the decline of traditional class interests is as “virtue parties” (Demker, 2014, p. 195), which appeal to young voters eager for full access to all information sources while concerned with their own privacy. The prototype is the Swedish Pirate Party (Demker, 2014), whose impact has led to the founding of similar parties elsewhere in Western Europe.

New political parties, formed after the contours of the party system have been set, are often called third parties, regardless of their actual number. This conceptualization can be tied to Duverger’s (1963, pp. 214–228) argument that the competition for executive leadership and the tendency for most political issues to bifurcate into pro and con positions leads to the ascendancy of a two-party system. But, if all new parties are third parties, regardless of actual number, it does not follow that all third parties are necessarily party movements. For them to be party movements, third parties must also exhibit social movement characteristics. The Libertarian Party (Schwartz, 2006, p. 10) appears to be an example of a third party missing a movement component. It is also difficult to attribute movement characteristics to the Catalan Party, Ciudadanos, a centrist party begun by intellectuals that favored the Spanish language and identity (Teruel & Barrio, 2015).

Origin as a social movement characterized the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) of Minnesota (Vallely, 1989). It began as a movement of small farmers and urban workers, whose lives had been disrupted in the aftermath of WWI. There was some debate in the movement about whether electoral politics was the best pathway to remedy the suffering of both groups, and, initially, the movement exerted its influence through participation in the primaries of the Republican Party, then the strongest party in the state. But pressure mounted for the movement to form an independent party, which it did in 1922 (Valelly, 1989, p. 36). Such a connection between one or more distinct interests and the party it forms resembles what Yishai (1994, pp. 198–200) calls “interest parties,” although she restricts them to ones representing single interest groups, like the Pensioners’ Party in Israel. In the case of the FLP, it gave most of its attention to elections for state-level offices. But it soon became clear that the concerns represented by the movement could only be fully dealt with at the national level, leading candidates under the FLP banner to run for Congress. In 1924, the FLP supported Robert M. Lafollette, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party, itself a short-lived party that represented movements of workers, farmers, and other progressive interests (McGerr, 2005). When that relationship failed to produce the desired results, the FLP supported the Democratic candidate for President in 1932 and 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But then, when the FLP merged with the Democratic Party in 1944, it demonstrated still another form a party movement can take, that of a component or faction that has carried over its objectives and commitments into one of the two dominant parties.

Party movements that move from one electoral venue to another are hardly confined to the United States. As Kitschelt and McGann (1995, p. 99) point out, municipal elections can provide an opening for movements opposed to the political mainstream to gain a foothold before seeking a national arena. It was exactly this route that Golden Dawn followed by first contesting the 2010 Athens election (Dinas et al., 2016). A similar concentration on local settings characterized the National Front and British National Party in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2010, p. 5).

Another possibility is that of a party movement with both its party and movement characteristics emerging more or less together. This can arise from a situation of internal dissent within an established party, when insurgents mobilize in opposition to prevailing policies. They often are represented by a dynamic leader who articulates an alternative ideology. When such insurgencies are not able to influence policy positions, their leaders will often take them outside of their existing home to form a new party. Examples of insurgency within the Democratic Party include pro-segregation southern Dixiecrats, under the leadership of Strom Thurmond; opposition to the Cold War and demand for more progressive policies, led by Henry Wallace; the countermovement against civil rights identified with George Wallace; and the anti-Viet Nam movement, in which Eugene McCarthy assumed leadership (Schwartz, 2010, p. 593).

Contrasts between U.S. and Western European political institutions point to the greater ease with which movements can quickly become parties in the latter. This outcome may have increased as electronic communication has allowed the rapid mobilization of technologically- savvy young people. Examples of the effects of such mobilization in creating party movements include the Pirate parties of Sweden and Germany (Bolleyer, Little, & Nostitz, 2015) and the Five Star Movement in Italy (Natale & Ballatore, 2014). In the case of the Five Star Movement, under the leadership of comedian, provocateur, and blogger Beppe Grillo, a fan base was readily mobilized to enter the electoral arena (Bordignon & Ceccarini, 2013).

The simultaneity of party and movement can also be present in “flash parties” that have an electoral impact but may be confined to a single election (Rose & Mackie, 1988, p. 538). In addition to the European examples given by Rose and Mackie, U.S. presidential elections provide a fertile setting for such third parties (Rosenstone, Behr, & Lazarus, 1996, p. 6-7). Groups mobilized around a single leader, like Ross Perot in the 1992 election, or John Anderson in the 1980 election, were able to capture voter discontent in ways that incorporated the desire for change that is characteristic of social movements (Schwartz, 2006, p. 8).

A social movement could form within an existing party by becoming what Heaney and Rojas (2015) call “the party in the street.” The latter emerges from the interaction between a party and one or more social movements, mediated by the primary identities of the actors who participate in either or both. The authors provide evidence that the anti-war movement, formed after September 11, 2001, was dominated by activists with prior strong identification with the Democratic Party. Out of office, Democratic Party elites could cultivate opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the Republican administration as a means to mobilize discontent among voters, many of whom were, in fact, normally Democratic voters. But once the Democrats gained office, the anti-war component of the party in the street lost its relevance as party identifiers found other issues of greater concern. The latter finding points to the instability of the party in the street compared to the established organized party itself.

Justification for subsuming varied forms, origins, and terminology all under the rubric of party movement comes from their common features. As social movements, they all share discontent with some aspect of the world in which they live and offer a program to bring about change based on some underlying principles. They are made up of adherents committed to their cause even in the face of setbacks. Although, as social movements, they are willing to use non-institutionalized means to achieve their goals, they recognize the importance of participating in electoral politics. At the same time, they can earn the simultaneous label of party in a number of possible ways. The most straightforward is through the formation of an independent political party that participates in one or more elections. A second means is through existence as a faction within one of the established parties. A faction may begin as an insurgent movement within such a party or be the result of a merger between a third party and the latter. Alternatively, a party movement could participate in the electoral system through its influence on one of the dominant parties, becoming an anchoring movement welcomed by a party as a source of stable support and dedicated workers (Schlozman, 2015). In the United States, that influence could be achieved through participation in primaries or caucuses. In other kinds of electoral systems, influence could be exerted through participation in nominating conventions. The intent could be to take over and remake the party or, less drastically, to ensure candidates who are committed to or at least compatible with the party movement’s goals. More tangentially, a movement could demonstrate the importance it accords to elections by publicly endorsing and working for those candidates of an existing party who have pledged to further the movement’s program.

Where Does the Tea Party Fit?

As noted at the outset of this article, a search for mention of party movements in publicly accessible sources produced the bulk of references to the Tea Party movement. At the same time, none of the scholarly literature explicitly used party movement to classify the Tea Party. Moreover, given the variety of forms that party movements can take, it is unlikely that the Tea Party (or any other single entity) could serve as a prototype. Yet, despite the absence of a conceptual link, wide coverage and differing interpretations of the Tea Party’s nature and impact make it worthy of separate attention, with the view to honing our understanding of the origins and strategies of party movements.

The Tea Party arose from within Republican ranks in response to the 2008 election of President Obama and a Democratic Congress. Some attribute the trigger to a fiery speech given by NBC commentator Rick Santelli (2009), which was followed by numerous protests and the creation of local groups made up of people with flexible schedules who had not previously participated in political groups (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). Those groups received funding from prominent conservative groups and individuals (Lo, 2012). Van Dyke and Meyer (2014) suggest more spontaneous origins among those already united by their fiscal conservatism and existing support for Ron Paul, twice a contender for the Republican presidential nomination and a former presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. In other words, Tea Partiers were already identified with the Republican Party. That connection led then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to dismiss the Tea Party as a grassroots movement and to instead label it as “astroturf” (Arceneaux & Nicholson, 2012, pp. 701–702). DiMaggio (2011) also dismisses the social movement qualities of the Tea Party, arguing that it is indigenous to the Republican Party, evident from its leaders and the wealthy businessmen who fund it. Arceneaux and Nicholson (2012, p. 702), who make no overt assumptions about social movement qualities, affirm that Tea Party supporters are also highly likely to identify as Republicans.

All of the evidence cited points to the connection between the Tea Party and the Republican Party, beginning with the former’s origins. Moreover, there are signs of continuity between the Tea Party and other conservative movements that had arisen earlier within the Republican Party. Williamson et al. (2011, p. 35) note how some Tea Partyers explained their enthusiasm by relating it to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, a campaign that generated a movement that persisted long after the event (e.g. Schwartz, 1990, pp. 188–189).

If the Tea Party is an example of an insurgency within the Republican Party, are there grounds for also identifying it as a social movement? Some say not. The major reason given by those who dismiss its movement claims is that it originated and was funded by big business, specifically the Koch brothers, and hence had no grassroots’ origins (DiMaggio, 2011; Montriot, 2010; Zuesse, 2013). How one responds to this position depends on how much weight should be given to equating a social movement with a social base made up of relatively powerless, ordinary people. In the working definition given earlier in this article, the principal elements of a social movement were collective action that protested events or prevailing conditions, held together by a set of beliefs advocating change. From such a definition it can be easy to assume that those objecting are currently without power and therefore must express their challenge through non-institutionalized forms of protest. But the rationale and basis for identifying party movements came about whenever social movements themselves recognized that the achievement of their goals required participation in conventional electoral politics. It is not intrinsic to an understanding of party movements then that they necessarily represent the interests of the less privileged. Even though it is often the case that social movements mobilize those suffering disadvantage and opposition to such movements may take the form of counter-movements, the latter are simply another form of movement (Meyer & Staggenborg, 1996). As McVeigh (2012) points out in his review of Skocpol and Williamson (2012) and DiMaggio (2011), conservative movements like the Tea Party are fully deserving of our attention because of the questions they raise about the nature of collective grievances and the impact of the solutions they offer. It is these latter arguments that make clear that the Tea Party is, in fact, a party movement.

Further support for treating the Tea Party as a party movement comes from evidence supplied by those who have studied its adherents. Followers were not only Republican identifiers or voters, but ideologues, who supported a common agenda of fiscal conservatism and proposals to limit government. Their objective was to remake the Republican Party to reflect that agenda by ensuring that Republican officeholders held to its principles (Arceneaux & Nicholson, 2012; Perrin et al., 2014; Skocpol & Williamson, 2012; Williamson et al., 2011). To that end, Tea Partyers played an active role in party primaries and had some success in unseating incumbents or in preventing the election of candidates allied with the Republican establishment (Libby, 2014). Those activists prepared to take on the Republican establishment were, in fact, the Tea Party’s grassroots, similar to other activists participating in party movements, or, as Heaney and Rojas (2015, p. 218) term them, the party in the street.

In all respects, then, the Tea Party movement fits comfortably into the category of party movement. In effect, the controversy over its classification reinforces or presents new insights about the nature of party movements. Given that the Tea Party shows some continuity with earlier movements allied with or within the Republican Party, it also demonstrates that party movements, in the form of insurgencies within the same established party, can arise multiple times. When they do, they signal serious discontent with how that party represents the views of its supporters. Discontent, in turn, can mobilize partisans across the ideological spectrum and not just those who are economically disadvantaged or politically powerless. Finally, all movements require multiple resources to sustain their organization and its activities. Although the Tea Party was able to obtain support from a small number of wealthy individuals and publicity from sympathetic media outlets, it still needed large numbers of dedicated activists. Those activists were the necessary ground troops, to be mobilized into public demonstrations and as participants in primary elections and party caucuses. Without them, the Tea Party, like all party movements, would be powerless to affect political outcomes.

Assessing Party Movements

An assessment of party movements raises three questions: Are party movements a common or a rare phenomenon? How does the tension between party and movement qualities affect durability over time? What is the political impact of part movements? The answers to these questions allow us to evaluate the political significance of party movements.


Examples of party movements can be found in virtually all political systems. All that is required is space to operate, which means some degree of freedom to organize as a protest movement. Beyond this general opening condition, variations arise from the political environment associated with particular national settings. Most relevant are the ease with which third parties can form and the openness of existing and dominant parties to the influence of party movements.

The Canadian and U.S. political environments illustrate some of the contrasts present in competitive party systems (Schwartz, 2006). The fragmented nature of the Canadian social and political milieu has allowed for the emergence of numerous party movements and for the ease in which they can transform themselves into third parties, able to compete effectively in provincial and federal elections. In the process, those parties have transformed the Canadian political system into a multi-party system. In the United States, similar party movements, though they could enter the electoral arena as third parties, have often found this a less attractive alternative. Instead, they are much more likely to make use of the two dominant parties as the venue for satisfying their electoral needs. This is possible because of what Epstein (1986) considered a unique property of U.S. parties. “Each major party is porous, or permeable, in the sense that it is readily entered by individuals and groups who want its electoral label” (p. 5). The result is that the two U.S. parties are often highly factionalized. When Britain is added to the comparison, we see another ostensibly two-party system that has been reshaped by party movements, most of which, like those in Canada, have become freestanding third parties. Research on India (Desai, 2003; Tillin, 2011) further illustrates how historical legacies and institutional practices effect the assumption of electoral roles by party movements. This article has also documented the emergence of party movements that soon become independent parties in countries with such varied political histories as Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Greece

The link between party movements and contentious politics more generally (Tarrow, 2012, pp. 93–114) is illustrated by those instances of protest movements that operate outside the law and are then incorporated into the electoral system. Along with becoming legitimate political parties, they still retain their movement characteristics. Examples include Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland and the Muslim Brotherhood, at least for a period, in Egypt. De Zeeuw’s (2008) edited volume presents eight additional case studies; Ishiyama and Marshall (2015) contribute an analysis of the kinds of candidates recruited by former rebel movements; and Zaks (2015) expands on the organizational qualities that allow transformation into parties. All these cases substantiate Goldstone’s observation on the closeness between movements, including rebellious ones, and parties: “The notion that there are in-groups and out-groups, and that the latter engage in protests while the former engage in politics, is a caricature with little relation to politics” (Goldstone, 2003, p. 9).


Durability is a special problem for party movements because of their dual roles as parties and movements, each of which has its own, often incompatible, goals and activities. As political parties seek office, the expansion of their electoral base to enhance those chances can lead to dilution of their original policy stances. If they win legislative seats, they may be persuaded to enter coalitions and thus compromise movement objectives. Presence in a legislature, particularly if a party forms the government, brings new responsibilities and new pressures to make rapid decisions. These kinds of pressures helped transform, for example, the nature of Solidarity, in Poland (Perdue, 1995). Movements, however, retain their integrity by continual emphasis on a set of guiding principles and deference to the preferences of movement members. The two roles may diverge as they did, for example, when the prohibition movement remained focused on its desire to spread prohibition across the United States, while the Prohibition Party came to resemble traditional political parties as it encompassed a broader policy agenda (Rosenstone et al., 1996, p. 78). This tension between parties and movements is also picked up in disputes about the nature of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor party, the New Democratic Party (NDP). The CCF emerged in the Canadian West through the activities of farmer movements supplemented by support from urban workers (Lipset, 1968), while the NDP had a stronger connection with the labor movement and its base in Ontario and British Columbia. Some continued to recognize the CCF/NDP’s social movement origins translated into a party movement (Morton, 1986, p. 3; Schwartz, 2006; Wiseman, 1979; p. 28; Young. 1969, p. 3). Others, however, and these were likely to be academics who were also party supporters, complained that its movement characteristics, particularly those that had allowed for rank and file participation, had been suppressed in favor of obtaining political power (e.g., Zakuta, 1964).

Michels’ (1949) famous answer to the organizational dilemma of party movements was to affirm an inevitable transition from member participation to dominance by a small and entrenched ruling group. Using a broader historical canvas, Panebianco (1988) sees more variation in how parties develop in relation to their movement components but still gives primacy to their evolution into electoral-professional parties. But there is also contrary evidence. A comparison of Green Parties in a number of Western democracies examines their ability to retain movement qualities, conceptualized as remaining “amateur-activist” parties, that is, parties in which members actively participate and retain control over party decisions. Rihoux and Frankland (2008, p. 267) conclude that, out of the ten countries examined, Greens in three countries—France, Germany, and Switzerland—were relatively more institutionalized. Yet even those still kept some of their amateur-activist character, although it was not as pronounced as in the other seven. Moreover, if the quality of a party movement is viewed as more dependent on adherence to longstanding principles and less on member participation in decision making, then its persistence can be found in numerous settings and successor parties, even when the name of the original movement is no longer invoked (Schwartz, 2006, pp. 204–206). Support for adopting this emphasis on movement ideology is justified by the equation of that ideology with the core identity of a movement (Schwartz, 2010, p. 602).


Party movements are important because their very presence has an impact on the political world. They give voice to dissatisfactions with existing political parties and institutions and demonstrate by their actions that conventional political avenues are not working effectively. The publicity that party movements generate about their complaints can lead to the addition of new issues on the political agenda.

Looking only at third parties in the United States, of which most qualify as party movements, Rosenstone et al. (1996, p. 181) describe how the deterioration of the two major U.S. parties “when they neglect the concerns of significant blocs of voters, mismanage the economy, or nominate unqualified candidates” invites voting for third parties. Then, once these party movements begin to participate in institutionalized behavior, specifically by voting, they, almost paradoxically, reinforce the legitimacy of the political system (Rosenstone et al., 1996, p. 9). But this is not an issue unique to U.S. politics. For example, Offe (1998) and Hirsch (1998) take somewhat opposing positions on the dilemmas of the German Greens in both achieving their goals and strengthening existing parliamentary traditions.

Although he speaks more generally of social rather than party movements, Goldstone’s (2003, p. 4) conclusion about the growing dependence between them and parties applies even more clearly when the social movements are understood as party movements. We can make this connection as long as we keep in mind that not all social movements are party movements; that is, not all social movements have political objectives that can be met through legislative actions. But for those that are party movements, Goldstone’s examples are especially pertinent. They include the importance of the Christian Right in the United States in helping the Republicans win elections (Green et al., 2006). Conversely, they include those party movements whose ability to exist and further their goals depends on their receiving help from established parties. This was true for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, supported by the Labour Party; the Italian peace movement, supported by the Communist Party (Maguire, 1995); and the anti-Iraq war movement in the United States as long as it was supported by the Democratic Party (Heaney & Rojas, 2015).

Movement-party interactions may also have their costs. McAdam (2015) makes the argument that the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and the segregationist counter-movement it generated led to a sharply bifurcated two-party system that has come to impede progress in easing race relations as well as other issues that can be linked with race. The civil rights movement quickly became identified with the Democratic Party, partly as a faction within the party and partly in its capacity as the party in the street. Traditional southern support for the Democrats was then actively pursued by the Republican Party and, along with it, the assumption of white Southern biases (Carmines & Stimson, 1989). Both parties, and especially the Republican, moved away from centrist positions to become more coherently ideological. Whether, in fact, the current divide between the two U.S. parties can be blamed entirely on the actions of the civil rights and segregationist movements, the incorporation of those movements and their agendas into the two major parties also suggests several other options that could mitigate the bipartisan conflict. One avenue would be through the creation of more third parties able to contest elections. Another would be through more social movements that adopted party-like roles. That is, conflict could be reduced if there were multiple rather than only two avenues for expressing dissent. But that leaves us with an untested hypothesis.


Party movements, that is, collective actors that exhibit attributes of both political parties and social movements, are common in all political systems that allow them space to emerge. They arise in response to new issues and concerns unmet by existing parties and movements and mobilize the discontented to press for change. The more they become involved in normal electoral politics, the greater the likelihood they will come to resemble traditional political parties. If they resist such institutionalization, party movements could lose their capacity to remain politically relevant. Yet many party movements retain a lengthy presence through their capacity to sustain a set of principles or ideals with long-term relevance. They highlight existing weaknesses in the political system by revealing areas of discontent. They have the potential to alter the party system by introducing new parties or by forcing existing parties to respond to their concerns.

Further Reading

Dalton, R. J., & Keuchler, M. (Eds.). (1990). Challenging the political order. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Frankland, E. G., Lucardie, P., & Rihoux, B. (Eds.). (2008). Green parties in transition: The end of grass roots democracy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Gamson, W. A. (1990). The strategy of social protest (2d ed.). Homewood, IL: Wadsworth Publishing.Find this resource:

Giugni, M., McAdam, D., & Tilly, C. (Eds.). (1999). How social movements matter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Goldstone, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). States, parties and social movements. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Gunther, R., & Diamond, L. (2003). Species of political parties: A new typology. Party Politics, 9(2), 167–199.Find this resource:

Heaney, M. T., & Rojas, F. (2015). Party in the street: the antiwar movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Kitschelt, H. (1993). Social movements, political parties, and democratic theory. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 528(July), 13–29.Find this resource:

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