Governing Europe

By Jack Hayward; Anand Menon | Go to book overview

14 Contentious Politics in Western Europe and the United States

Sidney Tarrow

Modern European history began in contention: with the demand for constitutional rights that led to the French Revolution of 1789 (McAdam et al. 2001 : ch. 2). Even supposedly 'peaceful' Britain achieved something like its modern form during a notso-peaceful period of contention. As for the United States, it was created by the first anti-colonial revolution in history. Yet all was not overthrow of inherited authority; in all three episodes there was a mix of extreme and routine politics, transgressive and contained contention, rejection of institutions and the desire to correct them. Contention is the stuff of politics and takes a variety of forms within politics.

For most of its recent history, however, political science has relegated the study of popular protest movements to sociology—or worse, to abnormal psychology. Why is this so? One reason is that attention of most scholars of contention has focussed on social movement organizations—sustained and crystallized forms of contentious politics on the part of claimants or those who represent them in conflict with authorities, opponents, or rival groups (Tilly 1995 ; Tarrow 1998a : ch. 1) and has ignored less crystallized, more episodic, and more interstitial forms of contention. Another reason is that even when their goals were reformist, many of these movements attacked the state or at least adopted a language of militancy towards it. Rhetoric coloured analysis: by both friendly supporters and hostile critics, nineteenth century movements like the labour movement were characterized as being 'against' the system, even as they attempted to enter it. A final reason is the disparity between the methods developed to study contentious and routine politics. The public opinion poll or the study of aggregate election statistics sit poorly with the analysis of protest events or the content analysis of revolutionary discourse.

The inter-war period intensified this tendency to polarization, as a wave of anti-democratic movements from Bolshevism to Fascism rose to attack constitutional governments. Cold War and the establishment social science it fostered added a new aura of outsiderness to the image of popular protest. It was the movements of the 1960s that brought a new generation of activists, many from the incubator of the student

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