Deeply Divided: Social Movements and Racial Politics in Postwar America

Today, by any measure the United States has not been more divided politically, economically, and racially in the last hundred years. How has the U.S. gone from the striking bipartisanship and relative economic equality of the post-war period to the extreme inequality and savage partisan divisions of today which are evident in the currently ongoing American presidential campaign?

While all the focus today is on conflict within and between the two major parties, the origins of the current divisions are to be found in the ongoing interaction of social movements and parties. The Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and the white backlash it provoked reintroduced the centrifugal force of social movements into American politics, ushering in an especially active and sustained period of movement/party dynamism. Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president of the United States, despite massive opposition from the GOP establishment, is only the most recent example of this process.

Race and a resurgent racism are at the heart of the current conflict as well with growing opposition to immigration reinforcing a longstanding tradition of American nativism. Parallels with rising anti-immigrant sentiment and right wing extremism in Europe are as clear as they are troubling.

Douglas McAdam is the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology at Stanford University.