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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gose and Skocpol: New Grassroots Groups Are Transforming Progressive Politics

In his New York Times column, “When It Comes to the Senate, the Democrats Have Their Work Cut Out for Them: Regaining control of the upper chamber may lie just outside the party’s grasp, but it is not out of reach,” Thomas B. Edsall provides a source-rich exploration of Democratic prospects for winning a Senate majority in 2020. Edsall checks in with several of the most perceptive political analysts, and concludes,

Leah Gose and Theda Skocpol, sociologists at Harvard, have been tracking on-the-ground mobilization efforts by over 100 resistance groups in Pennsylvania and they are more optimistic about Democratic prospects in 2020.

In “Resist, Persist, and Transform: The Emergence and Impact of Grassroots Resistance Groups in the Early Trump presidency” Gose and Skocpol argue that anti-Trump efforts “have remade American civic life and politics since 2016.”

The two observe that the anti-Trump mobilization has not been “restricted to liberal states or to ‘blue enclave’ areas where voters mostly support Democrats” but extends into “places where Democrats or liberals are a beleaguered minority.”

Skocpol sees little or no letup on the part of local resistance groups. In an email, she wrote:

Almost all groups plan to be very active going into 2020. The national media obsesses with the presidential horse race and the impeachment argument, but local groups are keeping at the fundamentals in many places.”

Democrats who have been frustrated by Republican control of the Senate — from 1995 to the present Congress, Republicans will have been in the majority for 19 years to the Democrats’ nine — had better hope that Gose and Skocpol are right.

If not, Democrats can bank on more years of staring at what Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, described as “Mitch McConnell’s democracy-crushing smirk” while McConnell presides over a Republican majority that has become the fervent ally of a president determined to embrace and embolden a white America hostile to immigrants, committed to an immoral racial hierarchy and eager to eviscerate the social progress of the past 60 years.

We encourage TDS readers to take the time to read the entire Gos/Skocpol paper, including their appendices, references and other notes. Their research not only provides a hopeful guide to successful progressive organizing projects in current context; they also shed light on how new groups can form and add to this all important coalition. In the paper’s abstract, the authors explain:

The November 2016 election sparked the creation of thousands of local groups committed to resisting the new Trump administration and Republican Congress. Our paper uses online surveys and interviews as well as evidence from fieldwork and web searches to analyze the development, demographics, and activities of such groups operating since late 2016 in eight non-metropolitan counties in four states as well as in dozens of cities, towns, and suburbs spread across the state of Pennsylvania. Local groups were founded through friendships and social media contacts and most of their members and leaders are middle-class white women. Often networked across states and regions, grassroots resistance groups have reached out to surrounding communities and generated and supported new candidates for local, state, and national offices. During the 2018 midterms and beyond, they are challenging and often remaking the Democratic Party at the local level.

Skocpol and Gos note that “Describing and analyzing the characteristics and activities of these widespread grassroots resistance efforts has been a challenge for scholars, because they are not part of any one big national organization, their participants are not flagged in national surveys, and their leaders and activities are only sporadically featured in the national media.”

Focusing on key swing states, the authors used “innovative forms of data collection – via fieldwork in multiple states, interviews, online surveys, and tracking of the Facebook pages of local groups – to offer the first comprehensive description and analysis of grassroots resistance organizations formed from late 2016 in four states and dozens of communities across North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and (most extensively) Pennsylvania. Specifically, we ask: how did anti-Trump resistance groups form, grow, and sustain themselves at the local level from November 2016 to early 2019? Who formed and joined these groups and what have they done?” Among their insightful observations:

…Research concentrated on street demonstrations and other mass public protests cannot not get at the heart of what makes recent electorally sparked popular upsurges in the United States so consequential…Grassroots resistance groups were built by citizens who found other like-minded people nearby. For those who set up and went to resistance meetings, attendance was about more than political engagement because it provided emotional support and community-based opportunities to connect, organize, and act at what they felt was a shocking moment for America.

in a section entitled, “The Social Characteristics of Grassroots Resisters,” Gose and Skocpol note,

According to responses to our online individual questionnaires (see Appendix D) – and what we see with our own eyes when attending local meetings around the country – most participants in resistance groups are middle-aged or older white college-educated women. Our largest set of individual responses comes from participants in the pro-Trump counties who fit a consistent profile. Nine of every ten are women, and our field observations suggest that male members of local groups are often husbands or partners of the female members. Furthermore, the leadership teams for groups found in the eight counties are either all-female or (in two instances) include a woman teamed up with one or two men.

Nine of ten respondents report their race as white (compared to 8% who identified as nonwhite and two percent who do not indicate a category); and the respondents are even whiter than the surrounding populations in these overwhelmingly white non-big city areas. As for age, these resisters are mostly older adults ranging upward from their 30s into their retirement years (plus one 19-year old). The overall median age is 55 years. And they are highly educated people, with 37% reporting college degrees and another 46% holding advanced post-graduate degrees. Some of these participants are retired. Among both retirees and those still at work, the most frequent occupations cited are school teacher or university professor; health care positions; work in retail or human services jobs; and business management positions.

In addition to the demographic portrait, a sense of interpersonal conection and community is clearly a leading factor in activist participation:

Many resisters also placed high value on camaraderie and joint action with other local people who share their views and want to join forces to create “strength in numbers.” Social ties formed in local resistance groups and projects are crucial, as we have learned. Leaders and participants who did not previously know one another told us they have become close friends while working together in these groups. This dynamic can have a downside, of course; if one friend pulls back, that can reduce the other’s motivation. Yet at the same time, as the months have passed, people often tell us that they are remaining involved despite feelings of burnout, precisely because they value the fellowship. As one female co-leader in North Carolina put it in an email to the authors explaining why she is sticking with her group while another exhausted leader pulled back, “Working with our community makes me happy. I grow appreciative of the interconnectedness we share. I learn about myself and my world. Indivisible members have been a great blessing to me.” Attachments to fellow participants were apparent in many questionnaire responses. As we suggested earlier, the grassroots resistance has created and reinforced interpersonal social ties in the course of drawing volunteer citizens into new levels of activism.

In one of the most hopeful observations, Skocpol and Gose write, “we wondered at the onset of this research whether local resistance groups would tend to cluster in the most liberal states and in the more liberal cities and college towns of conservative “red” states. But that is not what we find. Similar grassroots groups have emerged all over the United States, in and across every state…Indeed, we find many indications in our field visits, interviews, and questionnaire responses that centrist and liberal residents of conservative counties may have felt an even stronger need to come together than their counterparts in liberal-leaning areas.”

As for issues of particular concern to the activists,

Virtually all were horrified at threats they perceived from the Trump administration and the GOP Congress; and most wanted to fight to try to save the Affordable Care Act from repeal once Trump and the Congressional leadership made this a top 2017 priority. But beyond that, various subgroups of resisters cared most about the environment, or were especially determined to push for gerrymandering reforms, or were worried about education spending cutbacks at the local and state as well as national levels.

Almost every one of the several dozen groups we have followed devoted a lot of participant energy to the early year-long fight to save the Affordable Care Act. That fight was ideal for a combination of local organizing and national purpose, because it involved repeated critical junctures as each house of Congress took steps toward repealing or eviscerating the landmark 2010 law that extended health insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Resistance efforts on this front were especially intense and relentless during the spring and summer of 2017 – when local groups used tactics like letter writing and “post card parties,” calls or visits to elected officials and their staffs at district offices, writing opinion pieces, and holding public demonstrations and “die-ins” (for accounts, see Griffin 2017, Weigel 2017, Zremski 2017). Defending health reform was a common challenge around which disparate local resisters could organize, build ties, and hone skills. Members of grassroots resistance groups were engaged at all levels and quite intensely; and even as efforts across many places were nationally attuned, local networks of resisters could take steps to inform their neighbors and local news outlets about what the Affordable Care Act does and what would be lost if it were repealed. Because this “all hands on deck” struggle went on for quite some time, it taught local members and regional networks ways to engage the media and press their representatives on other issues.

Finally, the fight to block health reform repeal boosted the widespread resistance because it ended up “winning” in two important ways. Congressional votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act ultimately fell just short in the Senate, and grassroots efforts at least contributed to this outcome. Those efforts prodded the GOP Congress to keep trying different variants of repeal over many months. And they pushed Maine Senator Susan Collins to become one of three Republican senators who blocked repeal (Cassidy 2017; Levin, Greenberg, and Padilla 2017b). What is more, in a larger sense, during 2017 U.S. public support for the Affordable Care Act shifted from net negative to net positive (Kaiser Family Foundation 2018). Whether or not widespread local resistance agitation directly caused either the Congressional repeal failure or the shift toward more favorable public views of health reform, these coincidences were encouraging to resistance members. Vital lessons were learned about how to act locally to affect national outcomes.

Gose and Skocpol also provide some cogent insights about burnout, attrition and ‘group persistence’ and note the important role of social media, particularly Facebook, in sustaining the activist projects. They also explore the sometimes problematic relationships between the groups and the local Democratic party and Democratic campaigns. They conclude,

Whatever unfolds, our research so far suggests that movement sparked by the Trump election will not push U.S. liberal politics toward the uncompromising far left. The kinds of grassroots resistance groups we have discovered and studied do not espouse the sorts of purist ideological stances sometimes taken by professionally run progressive advocacy groups. Grassroots groups have strong local connections, and their participants are closely engaged with candidates and officeholders with varied backgrounds and views. If these female-led voluntary groups persist as an important part of center-left politics in the United States, they are unlikely to further uncompromising ideological polarization. As before throughout American history, women’s civic activism may revitalize democratic engagement and promote a new birth of responsive government in communities across the land.

The research of Skocpol and Gose provides hope that the new ‘resistance’ activist groups can indeed help steer America in a more progressive direction. How effectively Democrats support and interact with these groups may also help the party win the presidency, secure working majorities in Washington and in state legislatures across the nation.

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