The Presidency, Social Movements, and Contentious Change: Lessons from the Woman's Suffrage and Labor Movements

Article excerpt

No less than other specialized research fields in political science and history, presidency scholarship can exemplify many conceits regarding the causal power and transformative effects that its primary subject, the executive office, bestows on American politics. Studies old and new portray the institution of the presidency as perhaps the most crucial engine of contentious change in U.S. political development. "In presidential government, Americans have established one of the most powerful political institutions in the free world," James MacGregor Burns asserted in 1965. "They have fashioned, sometimes unwittingly, a weapon that has served them well in the long struggle for freedom and equality at home."(1) In one of the most important recent works on the presidency, The Politics Presidents Make, Stephen Skowronek similarly depicts the executive office as a "blunt disruptive force" whose "deep-seated impulse to reorder things routinely jolts order and routine elsewhere." Although Skowronek does not embrace Burns's vision of a heroic presidency, he does find that the institution "routinely disrupts established power arrangements and continually opens new avenues of political activity for others."(2) These studies place the presidency at the vanguard of change in American politics, a governing institution whose occupants are compelled to persistently challenge and remake the existing political order.

A growing literature on the executive office and racial politics contests this portrait of a transformative presidency. Far from being agents of contentious change, presidents are depicted in this scholarly work as staunch guardians of prevailing economic, social, and political arrangements. In a sweeping study of the presidency and race, Kenneth O'Reilly argues that the imperatives of elections and majoritarian politics in the United States made incumbents reactionary opponents of civil rights reform. "At root, it is nothing more than a belief that presidential elections can be won only by following the doctrines and rituals of white over black," he notes. "The pecking order has stayed that way through the death of slavery and Jim Crow, and notwithstanding Lincoln and Johnson, our presidents have in nearly every other case made it their job to keep that order."(3) According to scholars such as Russell Riley and Thomas Langston, executive caution and resistance on questions of racial justice also reflect the presidency's role as a "nation-maintaining institution" whose occupants "portray themselves ... as the embodiment of the whole nation."(4) For most of our presidents, they argue, social movement challenges to prevailing racial structures do not fit comfortably with executive imperatives to secure domestic tranquility and national unity. In contrast to the transformative model of the American presidency, Riley concludes that the presidency "is fundamentally a change-resistant institution."(5)

These contrasting portraits of the American presidency raise enormously important theoretical questions. Most obvious, does executive power and leadership propel or frustrate major change in American politics? In particular, what is the relationship between the American presidency and efforts to secure greater freedom and equality of democratic citizens in the United States? Finally, if the presidency is in fact a cautious institution resistant to contentious change, then how do we account for episodic bursts of presidential activism on behalf of controversial reforms that enhance the freedom and equality of citizens?

This article begins to answer these daunting questions by investigating two illuminating cases of presidential activism that helped produce major social and political breakthroughs, episodes that capture profound tensions between the presidency and social movements for greater democratic equality. The first case examines the uneven relationship between the Woodrow Wilson administration and the woman's suffrage movement, and the second case focuses on the labor movement and its engagement with the Franklin D. …