Saving America Once Again: Comparing the Anti-Trump Resistance to the Tea Party01-03-2020
By Theda Skocpol
Good morning, everyone. I’m very grateful for the invitation to speak at Bard College—this is my first visit—and at a conference in honor of a remarkable thinker, Hannah Arendt. And I’m very appreciative of the introduction from Professor Peter Rosenblum and the chance to hear Dean Deirdre d’Albertis and Professor Roger Berkowitz speak before me.
What I’m going to do today is to talk about two remarkable upsurges of self-organized citizen activity that have spread across the United States in just the last decade. I’m going to be talking about the Tea Party from 2009 to 2011—although there are still some Tea Parties meeting—and the anti-Trump grassroots resistance that has self-organized across many communities in the country since the November 2016 election.
I want to begin with two quotations my colleagues and I heard from organizers of local groups in the Tea Party and the anti-Trump resistance. Notice the remarkable similarities. An Arizona Tea Party husband and wife that my coauthor and colleague, Vanessa Williamson, met in 2011 explained to her:
We’ve always voted, but being busy people we just didn’t keep up, keep as involved as maybe we should have. And now we’re at the point where we’re really worried about our country. I feel like we came out of retirement. We do Tea Party stuff to take the country back to where we think it should be.
That’s the kind of message we heard from all of the grassroots Tea Party participants and organizers we met and interviewed and observed in different parts of the country in 2011—in Arizona, Virginia, and New England.
More recently, I’ve been traveling around the country to study what’s happening in counties that went for Trump in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; and one of the Wisconsin organizers of a local resistance group that I met told me in 2017,
I had always been a consistent voter and donated to my party and some select candidates; but I had not been super-involved. Then the presidential campaign of 2016 became more and more ridiculous and frightening, and our very worst nightmare happened. My life changed overnight. My peace of mind was robbed from me. I was called to action. I feel like a soldier in a war trying to save this country, my children’s future, the climate, and the list keeps growing.
The anti-Trump resister is a little more wordy than the Tea Party people, but it’s very much the same message of being called to action by a startling national electoral event.
Before I proceed, let me just say to everybody here that protest and civil disobedience are important, but voting is the single most important thing a democratic citizen can do. I read in the New York Times today that only one-third of young people are getting ready to vote in the November 2018 election. It is perhaps the most important election in my lifetime, and I’ve been around for a while. Vote as you choose, but make sure you’re registered and make sure you vote, and tell all your friends and relatives across this country to do the same.
What I’m going to do today is to compare the Tea Party upsurge after 2008 to the anti-Trump grassroots upsurge that happened after 2016. I’ll talk a little bit about what we’ve learned, my colleagues and I, about the scope and the type or organizing that happened in the grassroots Tea Party and in the grassroots resistance; I’ll talk about who leads and participates in the local groups that have been formed by the thousands around the United States; and I’ll mention a little bit about Presidents Obama and Trump as focal points of the organizing on the two sides, as well as the centrality of battles over health-care reform, the relationship between bottom-up and top-down forces in these two loosely connected upsurges of organizing activity, and their relationship to the two parties at the two ends of the political spectrum. I’ll be drawing on a whole series of studies. A lot of the work right now, including some I think you’ll be hearing about at this conference, talks about the current resistance situation in terms of national movements and nationally organized advocacy efforts.
The research that my colleagues and I have done—particularly Leah Gose, a graduate student in sociology at Harvard who has worked with me on this work—looks at locally organized voluntary groups, not professionally run advocacy operations or even national internet operations; so that’s what makes our research different. The evidence we have answers the question: how widespread is the grassroots anti-Trump resistance beyond big cities and liberal places? The evidence is based on field observations and interviews, most of which I’ve conducted as part of a study that was launched by three female professors at Harvard right after the election.
Within days of the November 2016 election we got together and decided that we would regularly visit eight pro-Trump counties, one a medium-size city area, a swing area; the other, a smaller, more conservative place—two apiece in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. My part of that work involves traveling to those places, staying in Quality Inns or Comfort Inns, and getting to meet with local newspaper editors, the heads of the Democratic and Republican county parties if they exist, any surviving Tea Party heads. Also with business group leaders and civic leaders of various kinds. In addition, somewhat to my surprise, as my husband (who’s a retired physicist) and I drove thousands of miles across the country, I discovered in all of these places self-organized, anti-Trump, grassroots resistance groups and got to meet their leaders and organizers. In some cases, we attended meetings just as Vanessa and I had attended meetings of local Tea Parties eight years before.
In addition to that, Leah Gose and I have gotten to know the organizers of a kind of umbrella group, Pennsylvania Together, which has dozens of resistance groups affiliated with it across the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. We persuaded them to fill out questionnaires about the origins of groups and the reasons people participated. So that gives us one entire state where we’re not just looking at pro-Trump areas but all kinds of areas, including the suburbs around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The last part of the research is to compare our experiences with the resistance groups with the work that Vanessa Williamson and I did when we visited local areas around the country in 2011, when we observed Tea Party meetings and sat down for face-to-face interviews with the leaders and key participants in self-organized local Tea Parties.
Let me just start by reminding us about the events then and now. Barack Obama was elected the first African American president in 2008, with a surge of liberal Democratic support, youthful support, support by minorities; and it was only six weeks into his presidency when a nationwide Tea Party protest organized and kicked off. It actually started a month into his presidency. In many ways the national spark event was the CNBC commentator Rick Santelli calling for Tea Party protests against, of all things, the mortgage assistance programs of the fledgling administration. But that was picked up by Fox News, by right-wing talk radio hosts, by various advocacy groups, who spread the idea of holding Tea Party protests far and wide. When I met local Tea Partiers a year later, many of them told me they heard about it on the radio or simply by watching television, and then started taking action themselves without anybody actually telling them what to do in any detail.
By April, tax day, of 2009, there were protests involving half a million to a million protestors in 542 counties around the country. Some of these were major regional demonstrations; those were the ones that got the most coverage, particularly on Fox, but also on the main networks at that point. But you can see how widespread the Tea Party self-organizing was at that point.
And it didn’t stop just with protests, with older people dressed in colonial costumes and carrying signs denouncing President Obama as a fascist or a communist, or both. From 2009 through 2011, at least 900 regularly meeting local Tea Parties—this is really the innovation in this period—were created. Our research since then suggests that we may have underestimated by about four or five hundred. There were regularly meeting Tea Parties, meeting once a month, sometimes as often as once a week, all over the country in those crucial first years of the Obama presidency.
Eight years later, in 2016, another controversial president is elected, and in fact the anti-Obama: Donald Trump. It didn’t even take a month in this case for citizen organizing to spread. Instead the organizing started right away after the November 2016 election, and on January 21st, the day after the inauguration, there was a massive women’s march in Washington, D.C. More to the point and of more interest to me, there were six hundred marches across the country, including in very small and conservative parts of the country, joined by more than an estimated 4.2 million people—so an even quicker and more massive response eight years later.
Immediately after the 2016 election Democrats started saying that they were going to become more politically active than they had been before. And I don’t have a comparable slide for Republicans after the Obama election, but I think the same was true back then.
In the case of the anti-Trump resistance, interestingly enough, some commentators started appearing MSNBC or in publications like the Nation talking about the lessons that anti-Trump resisters could learn from the Tea Party organizers eight years before. So there’s a certain amount of learning across time, imitation of tactics, and we know that several congressional staffers who organized the Indivisible effort sat down and wrote a guide that went online in late 2016, and that guide explicitly referred back to local Tea Party organizers. It delivered a message that liberals really needed to hear in the United States: if you want change, don’t just contact Washington. At that point there wasn’t really anybody to contact in Washington. Organize locally and start doing things like community events, contacting the local office of your elected representative to express your views.
There are some very important parallels in the process by which these two upsurges emerged. But a big question in our research, especially for me, has been whether in our partisan, polarized country the anti-Trump resistance would simply organize in already liberal areas. Would it be concentrated around the big cities that gave overwhelming margins to Democrats in 2016 but absent in other parts of states where Hillary Clinton lost by massive margins, much more massive than Obama did? Or would it be spread out like the Tea Parties were spread out? And so we’re looking closely at the four states—and these are some results from two states—just looking to see how many counties in these states had one or more Tea Parties and one or more resistance groups listed on that Indivisible map that was put together as a guide for people to figure out what was going on in their area.
You can see that in both Pennsylvania and North Carolina these had both been very widespread voluntary grassroots mobilizing efforts. It’s not exactly the same counties, but it certainly isn’t a situation where all the organizing for the Tea Parties is outside the big cities and all the organizing for the resistance is in the big cities plus a few college towns. That’s not the way it is. Both upsurges are widespread.
Let me talk a little bit about how grassroots resistance groups have formed, as I learned in detail in my visits to the eight pro-Trump counties. It’s a fascinating process, and we asked people—I asked people—to reconstruct exactly how they went about organizing a local group, same as I did for the Tea Party when I talked to Tea Party organizers eight years before, because one of the big questions is, do Americans organize regularly meeting groups anymore? The political scientist Robert Putnam and others have argued that it happens much less than it used to. Since it has happened in both of these cases, how did that happen?
There were ten resistance groups formed in these eight relatively conservative-leaning counties—and in every case two to five leader initiators were the ones who took the call in hand to start organizing. Two of the groups split off from previously organized ones, but all of the originally organized groups started right after the 2016 election and their founding meetings were held in libraries or local restaurants, usually by March of 2017 at the latest. They got going pretty quickly. And of interest to me is that the organizers often met for the first time after the election; they weren’t necessarily friends already, although they’ve since become close friends. They might have met because they contacted each other through the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where a lot of people, mostly women, had signed up to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s election; then it turned into a mourning and support group operation right after the election, and the site added a feature that allowed people to find out who was in their area. Some people met that way. Others met (just as Tea Party organizers often did years before) on buses or trains on the way to regional or national marches and protests.
A lot of the groups that formed did take some tactical advice from the Indivisible Guide. They didn’t necessarily get any directions from a Washington, D.C., office. Indivisible staffed up and got millions of dollars and formed an office in Washington, D.C., by March of 2017; but most of the effect of Indivisible was through that guide that was online that people simply read and emailed or Facebooked to each other in the early weeks after the November 2016 election. A lot of the local groups did take some tactical pointers from that online guide.
They were all up and running by the spring of 2017. They had leaders, plans, projects, Facebook pages, and sometimes periodic newsletters, all led by leaders committing their time voluntarily and members coming to meetings on their own time. And when we collected the questionnaires for the thirty-six groups across all different types of communities in Pennsylvania, we found very similar patterns. Here’s what some of the groups look like in the smallest, most heavily conservative counties—I love these pictures. In Catawba County, North Carolina, you see them meeting for their founding meeting in the library. In Licking County, Ohio, you see them in the basement of the one liberal Protestant church in the town, and they are reciting for a YouTube video a credo, a citizen’s credo, that resembles the credo that liberal Protestants recite in church, but it’s adapted to politics. And in tiny farming-oriented Monroe County, Wisconsin, that’s a doctor leading the founding meeting.
Well, our questionnaires enabled us to pin down exactly who the people are that have organized this widespread voluntary grassroots resistance. I don’t want to disappoint some of the people in the audience who think that everything progressive comes from the young and people of color. The counties I’m visiting are overwhelmingly white places, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the organizers are white. But two-thirds to 90 percent of the leaders and participants in these grassroots groups are women, overwhelmingly white women, and usually older, from their fifties to their seventies; although it is the case that sometimes local anti-Trump resistance groups have mothers in their thirties or forties, sometimes with their children in tow. We never saw that in Tea Party meetings eight years before; we saw only grandparental-generation men and women, and sometimes they had a couple of unhappy grandchildren with them for the meeting; but the middle working-aged group was absent.
In today’s resistance groups, 80 to 90 percent of the participants and organizers are college educated, and about half of them have advanced degrees. They are teachers, or sometimes they’re professors or adjuncts at local or regional universities and colleges. They are health-care providers or service managers, and a fair number of businesswomen and nonprofit managers. Now, there are men in all of these groups, but they are usually the partners or husbands of the women who are kind of front and center. That is different from the Tea Party situation where the Tea Partiers were usually husband-and-wife couples. Often, we saw women taking the lead in organizing voluntary activities in Tea Parties, so the idea that Tea Parties are all male is not right; but there was certainly a higher proportion of male presence in the Tea Parties.
Just like Tea Partiers in the early Obama years said they were Republican-leaning or Independents who were to the right of the Republican Party, most of the resisters today say that they are Democratic identifiers of varying degrees of enthusiasm. They include certainly some Independents and the occasional disgruntled Republican, and there are Bernie supporters as well as Hillary supporters in these local groups; but they’re not spending any time arguing about the kinds of things that the Democratic National Committee is arguing about.
We asked people to say what their reasons were for participating in organizing and populating these local resistance groups. You can see that opposition to Trump is a very important reason: forty percent of the respondents to all of our questionnaires in both the eight counties groups and the groups across Pennsylvania—there were 436 respondents over all; we allowed them to give more than one reason, or we coded more than one reason—40 percent of them certainly mentioned opposition to Trump. But notice that saving or improving the country and American democracy is also very frequently mentioned by people. And the barred lines give the percentage of all of the 765 reasons that we coded; and once again, saving American democracy is very prominent in the motivations.
People are also finding community with others—that’s especially important in very conservative places where the desire to reach out to like-minded other people when you’re in a sea of red is very motivating for the women and men who participate in resistance groups. Electing Democrats and Progressives is there, but it’s not the most prominent reason; and you can see some of the others. And you can read some of the detailed reasons that people give in their own words.
I’d like to make a series of comparisons of these two upsurges starting in 2009 and 2016. They were both triggered by an event that is actually pretty rare in American democracy but doesn’t seem rare these days, and that’s the election of a president who’s backed by his own political party winning both houses of Congress at the same time. That is a particularly frightening event to partisans on the other side. I mean, I remember how frightened everybody was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when George W. Bush was, I don’t know, declared the victor—I’m not going to say “won”—the 2000 election. Suddenly people woke up and realized that an Evangelical Christian conservative from Texas backed by his own party was going to be controlling Washington. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, that’s a deeply shocking event. So people did what many of the Tea Partiers told me they did after Barack Obama was elected with Democrats: yelled at the TV a lot.
But the Tea Partiers went further. They self-organized. And the same thing has happened in the Trump presidency after the shock of Trump’s victory happened at the same time that Republicans remained overwhelmingly in control of the House and the Senate. The anti-Trump resistance emerged, self-organized, as much out of fear and loathing, I would say, as out of hope.
Now, what the controversial presidents exactly connote to the people who have organized in opposition to them is a little different in these two cases. Based on my face-to-face listening to Tea Party people in the past and even now, Barack Obama symbolized un-Americanness. You know, in an interview nobody is going to tell a Harvard professor right out, “I hate him because he’s black,” or, “I hate him because he’s an immigrant.” They do say they hate him because he’s a Democrat—there’s no hesitation there—and that they fear him because he might have a Muslim father. That’s for sure. But he simply symbolizes un-Americanness, or as one gentleman said to me, “There’s something that doesn’t add up there.” Obama was scary to Tea Partiers because of all of the things that he represented—his race, his immigrant father, his urban background, the fact that he’s a professor. Being a professor is a very bad category in Tea Party land. And, of course, his Democratic Party affiliation.
To resisters, Donald Trump is equally horrifying, but I think for slightly different reasons. He’s seen as lacking the character and the qualifications to be president, and he represents disrespect and hatred in their minds toward women, minorities, and immigrants. And above all, I think, he activates people because he represents a selfish disregard for the public good. So that’s very much tied to that sense of saving American democracy that is a prominent reason many resisters give for organizing.
These presidents resonate with what each party, each movement, represents. The Tea Party, Vanessa and I found in our discussions with activists, was not mainly about economic suffering. They were mainly middle class, older white people who were not suffering the most in the economic downturn of 2009. They resented the changes, the sociocultural changes, happening in the country and feared them, not just the racial and ethnic changes but also the arrival of immigrants—that was the top issue everywhere we talked with people and why, even in 2011, many of the Tea Partiers who we interviewed were fascinated by Donald Trump because he had emerged on the public scene challenging Barack Obama’s citizenship.
But Tea Partiers also worried about young people and the direction the country was going with young people, including young people in their own families. They were fiercely opposed to the idea not just that Democrats and Barack Obama would accomplish changes that they found frightening, but that the Republican Party, which they also resented at the time, might compromise too much with Democrats in Washington and the states.
Today’s resistance thinks in terms of threats to good government, rolling back of policy gains in the Obama presidency. There’s a difference here because most resisters actually liked the Obama presidency; most Tea Partiers disliked the George W. Bush presidency by the end and were not so enthusiastic about John McCain either by the end of the election. So resisters see Trump and all that’s happening as a threat to previous good government, to democracy, and to public policies that include diverse and less privileged people, even if they themselves are white and relatively privileged.
Despite the different beliefs of activists, the local groups have a lot of similarities across these two periods. I’ve already talked about how they were formed by organizers who often met for the first time, sometimes at rallies or on the way to marches. A couple of Tea Party organizers back then met when one of them read an op-ed by another one and looked her up in the local area; but they didn’t know each other before they started organizing together. The internet and social media mattered in both cases; but it was the Meetup internet site that was used by Tea Parties, and it’s Facebook that’s used by today’s older resisters at the grassroots.
Tea Party groups usually met monthly, and their programs usually featured speakers provided by outside advocacy groups, with often people sitting there with remarkable patience through lectures that I considered to be incredibly dull. But they sat right there. As for resistance meetings, at least at the beginning they also happened about once a month, and even now continue to be pretty regular in most places. But they have a different feel from Tea Party meetings. They’re a little bit more like sort of let’s-get-down-to-business; people say, “Here are reports from the various subcommittees, let’s decide how we’re going to take the next steps.” There’s less listening to outside speakers, but there is some of that in the resistance group meetings.
Resistance groups are now meeting less frequently than they were at first, and that is probably a reflection of their greater willingness to form subcommittees and task forces to focus on different issue areas or different challenges in what they see as a constant barrage of challenges coming from Washington, D.C. In addition, the resistance groups now are much more interested in federating with other groups around the Democratic Party in their area, not necessarily with the party but with unions, with the NAACP, with churches, with immigrant-protecting groups or refugee-serving groups; whereas the Tea Parties were often kind of focused on themselves. Maybe they federated a little bit with each other, but mostly they were stubbornly autonomous and self-assertive in their own terms.
Both the Tea Party back then and the resistance now fought long battles over the Affordable Care Act that passed in 2010. The Tea Partiers were mobilized to oppose the Affordable Care Act as it was being debated in Congress, and they also fought very hard against a cap and trade and other efforts to deal with global warming. The first year of the resistance, probably the single policy struggle that was most consistently mobilizing for local grassroots groups was the fight over whether the Affordable Care Act would be repealed in Washington. And I think that was pretty important, because it kind of resonated with the concerns about the community and about health care that so many of the women organizing these groups had. This fight to save the health-care law gave them things to do – for example, they would send delegations once a week to congressional offices, almost always Republicans in most of the areas, usually with some cupcakes to give to the staff, very polite to staff people but with a constant message: don’t repeal the Affordable Care Act. In addition, they would hold community protests, they would hold various die-ins—look at the die-in there in North Carolina using pro-life language to fight the Affordable Care Act’s repeal, and in the Action Together Stark meeting you see them at a GOP representative office near Canton, Ohio. And you see a street demonstration in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, of various local resistance groups.
Obviously, in the end the grassroots resisters didn’t persuade very many Republicans to back off repeal. Repeal almost happened. But what did happen during the course of that year was American public opinion went from being negative about the Affordable Care Act to being in favor; and so I think all that local organizing managed to finally do what Democrats had not done for eight years, which is to communicate to ordinary people what was in the Affordable Care Act and why they and their neighbors had a stake in it. So it made a huge difference in my view. This is what happened with public opinion. You can see that in the early years of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2013 and 2014, public opinion in the country was negative. Most Americans didn’t know what was actually in the law, and Democrats never talked about it. Their consultants told them not to talk about it because it wasn’t popular. But in the last year, as these local groups talked in detail about the stakes, public opinion shifted.
Many of you may be thinking, well, didn’t those Tea Parties get organized by the Koch brothers? The answer is no, they didn’t. And I can prove it. I won’t bother you with the statistics, but my research group studies the Koch network. We know how they operate, we know what a tremendous effect Koch efforts have had. But we have not found close correlations between Koch efforts and the growth of Tea Parties. These were two separate forces. Top-down funding and activist-manipulating operations intersected with bottom-up self-organized groups, and the bottom-up and the top-down leveraging each other to push the Republican Party. You cannot collapse one into the other, and if you do, you will not understand what is going on out there.
Similarly, the resistance against Donald Trump is composed of top-down operations, some of which have been professionally organized or beefed up since the Trump presidency, others of which have received millions of dollars from liberal and progressive donors to staff up at the regional and national levels. But a lot of the action is more bottom up, in these self-organized voluntary grassroots groups. They, too, the grassroots groups like the Tea Parties of yore, are taking bits and pieces of ideas, and resources, and speakers, and maybe some help from the top-down forces. But the local groups are kind of choosing from a menu and taking whatever they want from different places.
Meanwhile, the top-down groups both then and now put themselves in front of the cameras on Fox News or on MSNBC and tell us all that they’re in charge. Well, they’re not actually in charge. They don’t control nearly as much as they think they control, and they don’t control nearly as much as they tell their big donors they control. There are real tensions between top-down and bottom-up groups about policy priorities. For example, Tea Partiers back then cared mostly about resisting immigration into the United States and cracking down on law and order issues. And if they were Christian Right people they also cared about fighting abortion access and gay rights. The top-down groups in the Koch network and beyond that said they were orchestrating the Tea Party went on TV and told us that the Tea Party was about cutting Social Security and Medicare. I can assure you, it was about no such thing. The Tea Party activists were all on Social Security and Medicare! And they considered them, like most Americans consider them, to be earned benefits that are their right. . . .
Similarly, some of you maybe remember that there was a big fuss about the DACA protections in the fall of, I believe it was 2017, and there was a lot of pressure from MoveOn.org and national advocacy groups tied to the resistance on Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to supposedly go to the wall to shut down the government over DACA funding. As a political scientist I can tell you, the Senate Democrats had no such power really, but that was what the top-down groups were pushing. And the national Indivisible organizers, who usually don’t make this mistake—I think they understand that they are sitting on top of a self-organized collection of grassroots groups—they put somebody on TV to claim that Indivisible around the country, all the groups were demanding the closing down of government over DACA funding. Well, I checked in with my fellow researchers, and we went back to all our local groups’ Facebook pages, and not a single one of them was demanding any such thing. In today’s resistance, just like in the Tea Party, there are tensions between top-down and bottom-up organizations, and it’s best to think of both of these movements as mutually jostling sets of organizations, not as one big organization or one big authoritative effort.
Finally, I’ll talk about the two major U.S. political parties. We asked the resistance groups across Pennsylvania to tell us about their relationships with the local Democratic Party. Now, I need to point out that in some places there was no local Democratic Party in 2017. One of the counties I visited, nobody had been able to get the local Democratic chair to return an email, a phone call, a message—I mean nobody, not even the local newspapers. And, of course, he didn’t respond to me either when I tried to set up an interview. The one time I did get him on the phone I’m pretty sure he was in a Trump rally. So there might not have been an actual local Democratic Party in a lot of these places in the sense of an office and a set of people that could be contacted, and groups of people who were actually doing things.
But to the degree that there were, the relationships with the self-organized resistance groups ran the entire gamut. In some cases, particularly where pairs of women were in charge of both the party and the resistance, they might just join each other’s efforts and push in the same direction. In no place did the local resistance groups want to collapse into the Democratic Party. That’s partly because they were trying to reach out to people who didn’t think of themselves as regular Democrats, either to the left or to the middle. But often in those cases there was a lot of cooperation between the local parties and the local resistance groups, particularly around things like registering voters or fighting to save the Affordable Care Act.
But in other cases, especially if local Democratic parties were led by old-boy establishments that were mainly there to make sure that in low-turnout elections they were reelected to local government offices, they were outright hostile to these new groups. Now, that was then. By this spring, I would say across Pennsylvania many of those old-guard people have been swept out of office in the local Democratic parties, or local Democratic parties that had not much of a presence have had their committee people replaced, in many cases by resistance organizers. The parties and resistance groups continue to be separate efforts, overlapping separate efforts; but I think there’s real change coming to the Democratic Party at the grassroots, at least in the places I know about.
Yet the impact of the grassroots anti-Trump resistance on the Democratic Party and its governing agendas is going to be, I suspect, quite different this time around from the impact of the Tea Party on the GOP some time ago. The Tea Parties were organized by activists who considered themselves solidly to the right of the Republican Party establishment at the time, and were angry at Republicans for any kind of governing compromises. Over time, many of those Tea Party groups studied the rules of the Republican Party at their local and state levels and took over offices; so in some cases, the Republican parties now are Tea Party people. In other cases, they’re not. There are surviving Tea Parties in two out of the eight counties I’m visiting, and I’ve gotten to know their leaders; but the Republican Party itself has changed a lot in the interim, and is now much less compromise oriented and has moved far to the right on the issues of concern to Tea Partiers.
Resisters are not consistently on the left side of the Democratic Party. They are not Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution organizers. I didn’t find a single piece of Our Revolution in the places I visited. People would say, “Oh yeah, there’s a Bernie guy who stands up in our meetings and gives speeches.” But for the most part, individual Bernie and Hillary people are simply getting on with it, and in a fairly pragmatic way that is not necessarily going to drag the Democratic Party as a whole to the left.
Now, let me be clear here: I think most of these resistance groups—they’re liberals, they’re unabashed liberals or progressives, and they are prodding the Democrats to become more grassroots oriented and to run candidates even in places where they have not run candidates. And in most places you could say those candidates are to the left of what was there before, because what was there before is, in most places, Republican. But over all it’s not going to be like the impact of the Tea Party on the Republican Party, which was to drag it further to the right, particularly on social- and immigration-related issues, in the process of remaking it. In today’s resistance, I think there’ll be a remaking, and perhaps a new rooting, local rooting, of the Democratic Party through the efforts of these approximately two thousand resistance groups across the country. But the outcome will not necessarily push the Democratic Party consistently to what on a national level or in a conference like this we would consider to be “the Left.”
There’s no question that voting was already being stressed by the time the second Women’s Marches occurred in 2018. You can see, “Grab ‘Em By the Ballot, Grab ‘Em By the Midterms “was another very common theme. And we’ve seen out of both of these movements, the Tea Party and the resistance, a remarkable upsurge of people running for office. These offices are not just the U.S. House but local and state legislative positions as well. For the resistance groups, this is something new, because Democrats had tended to neglect running for office at the local and state level in many of the states I’m visiting.
There was an upsurge of people running for office around 2010 on the Republican side, and a comparable upsurge this year on the Democratic side. What’s different is that on the Democratic side it’s overwhelmingly women running for office—not only women, because in many cases it’s men backed by these women going door-to-door, knocking on the doors, like for Anthony Delgado, going door-to-door. So it’s not as if men are excluded or in any way discriminated against; it’s just that there are more women who are organizing and more women saying, “If they won’t do it right, we’ll do it.” I think that’s very much like somebody—one of the articles I read drew an analogy to the housework: if your husband can’t fold the laundry right, you’ll just do it. You’ll roll your eyes and do it instead. And I think this is very similar. It’s a pragmatic upsurge. We’ll see how many of these women win. Many of them are going to lose. But losing is also important as long as there is a presence, and as long as there’s somebody there to organize around and to make the arguments. Hopefully it will persist (I say that speaking in my citizen capacity).
The November 2018 midterm elections will be pivotal. They’ll help us begin to answer the question of whether the widespread resistance that has emerged since Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans took over Washington will help the Democrats overcome what for them is a very different problem from what the Republicans faced in 2010, because Democrats usually don’t turn out in midterm elections. It’s a higher mountain to climb to see whether this resistance upsurge will help Democrats overcome their usual midterm turnout decline. And not only will they have to overcome it; they’ll have to overcome it by a lot to take enough seats in the House, and enough seats in state legislatures, and enough governorships, to really make a difference.
I’m not sure what the impact of the recent Kavanaugh struggle will be. I do know that most of the women organizing in the local groups I talked about were not doing it mainly around #MeToo issues or mainly around abortion access issues. Like women have throughout American history, they were organizing around the full array of policy issues. And I think it may turn out that the Kavanaugh struggle has less of an immediate impact than we think.
Will grassroots voluntary resistance groups remain active if Democrats win the House and make state and local gains? Equally important, will they remain active if Democrats lose, as they will in many places? We don’t know yet. It remains to be seen. My research group will be continuing to monitor the situation, and we’ll see whether the impact of this round of citizen organizing is comparable to the last round that the Tea Party sparked in 2009 to ’11. The Tea Party persisted, and it remains to be seen whether today’s resistance will too.