Year One: Resistance Research

Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters

People attending a bilingual healthcare town hall, Phoenix, Arizona, July 5, 2017

For the next few days, I’m not letting my joy be sullied by doubts. By Monday, I’m sure the high will have worn off. The good news is that the resistance has not only endured, it has worked. No longer a creature of big, splashy Washington marches, it has taken on the grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing—and proof of the success of that approach came on Tuesday, when city, county, and statehouse seats flipped from red to blue.

The resistance has moved into Trump Country, too. Indivisible has nearly six thousand groups—two in each congressional district, according to its website—and there are scores, if not hundreds, of groups in other networks, including Action Together, Swing Left, Flippable, and Pantsuit Nation. The Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, who co-authored, with Vanessa Williamson, the definitive study The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2011; updated 2016), has teamed up with the health-policy expert Katherine Swartz and the sociologist Mary Waters to study counties that went for Trump in four states that went for Trump: Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Skocpol says she was startled to find so many flourishing anti-Trump groups in these conservative strongholds. She thinks the resistance is at least as extensive as the Tea Party at its height (a quarter of a million to three hundred thousand active members, according to her estimates). It is certainly as energized. Skocpol hasn’t seen a liberal movement like it in decades, she says.

Skocpol is a longtime critic of the Democratic Party, which she says has fallen into the hands of big-data experts and professionalized advocacy groups that ignore voters in so-called flyover country except during presidential elections. The resistance, by contrast, is organic, hyperlocal, and “not directed from above,” she told me.

It mischaracterizes the resistance to call it the Democratic base or to say it’s pulling the party to the left. Ideologically, the resistance is all over the map. It contains former Hillary supporters and Sanders-istas and moderate Republicans. The Bernie-Hillary split exists but is relatively dormant for now. According to Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has been studying the resistance, it has largely kept its distance from the infighting between centrist and progressive factions that goes on at the national level. If the grassroots are pulling the party anywhere, it’s into suburban living rooms, from which anti-Trumpers are organizing districts friend group by friend group, precinct by precinct—something Democrats haven’t done for decades. It’s evidently effective, and a good way to test progressive pieties against regional realities. A $15-an-hour minimum wage might fly in big cities, but not in smaller ones. Abortion, it pains me to say, is a non-starter in a lot of rural communities. Many of these activists learned their skills in church—often a mainline Protestant church, not an evangelical one—and some of them use a Christian-inflected language that would make a coastal liberal blanch: “Health care is pro-life,” a member of a North Carolina Indivisible chapter told Skocpol.

Probably the greatest misconception about the resistance is that it’s a youth movement. By an overwhelming majority, the leaders of the groups are middle-aged women—middle-aged white women, to be exact. A great many of them have never been involved in electoral politics before. Many never even went to a protest before they got on a bus to the Women’s March back in January. All this describes the make-up of my own Indivisible branch—even though it’s in Harlem. Skocpol found the same general demographic profile among the groups she is interviewing in “Trump country” for her recent research (which is largely white to begin with).

Fisher, whose book American Resistance is being published chapter by chapter on her website, has been collecting data on all the large-scale Washington marches that have taken place since (and including) the Women’s March. She found that women were almost always in the majority at these marches. Their median age ranged from thirty-seven to forty-two, depending on the march. And they were highly educated. At the Women’s March, for instance, 53 percent of marchers had graduate or professional degrees. “Some people have criticized the resistance by saying that it’s still remarkably white,” says Fisher. But, she says, it is necessary to compare the percentage of non-white people in this highly-educated group with the percentage of non-whites in the highly-educated population at large, and then it doesn’t look quite so lacking in diversity. Many new groups have partnered with Black Lives Matter and other similar groups, but these are not the core of the anti-Trump resistance.

Admittedly, Fisher is studying protesters who came to the capital, not citizen-activists around the country. But after they marched, many of them went home, held meetings, invited friends to the meetings, started Facebook groups to get more friends to the meetings, called their Congressional representatives, held letter-writing parties, flooded Town Halls, and, finally, figured out which Republicans in their town councils or county governments or state legislatures or congressional districts they wanted to get rid of—and sometimes, which Democrats. In my Indivisible chapter, for instance, we’re training our (to me) impressively ferocious energies on eight rogue New York state senators who were elected as Democrats but serve as Democrats-in-name-only. They have formed a group called the Independent Democratic Conference, which conferences with Republicans, thereby handing Republican senators control of a legislative body that actually has a slim Democratic majority. You can’t imagine how hard it is to explain the twists and turns of this labyrinthine issue even to politically sophisticated Upper West Siders. It took me weeks to understand it. And yet, most weekends you’ll find us on street corners jabbering away, because we can’t turn our statehouse blue until voters throw these turncoats out of office.


Resistance groups usually revolve around “a pair of women who are friends,” says Skocpol. “Maybe they weren’t friends before, but they’ve become friends” since Trump’s election. Maybe they were in Pantsuit Nation, and when Clinton lost, they spent a month grieving, then went to the Women’s March. “One may be the charismatic one, and the other the nuts-and-bolts one,” says Skocpol. “They’re in touch all the time, they form a node that the others build around.” As parents and often churchgoers, they have broad networks of family and friends. Maybe they recently retired and have time on their hands. Their groups shrank a bit over the summer, but Trump’s belligerent tweets and reckless executive orders have served as a kind of reveille, rallying at least some of the troops back to the flag.

According to conversations I’ve had or lectures I’ve listened to (including a webinar about a nationwide Indivisible “listening tour”), the big issues for the resistance are health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money in politics, education, and the environment. (Voters in Virginia cited health care as their top concern in Tuesday’s exit polls, and Maine’s successful referendum to expand Medicaid suggests similar apprehensions.) Immigrant rights are on the list, although immigration activists tend to skew younger. On the whole, identity issues do not seem to be top-of-mind. Some of the women in anti-Trump groups in Trump country are “avowed progressive feminists,” in Skocpol’s words, but others see themselves simply as good citizens, and they resent national organizations coming in and trying to impose litmus tests of progressive values.

Skocpol told me anecdotally about a resistance chapter in one of her conservative counties that partnered with a feminist organization that advised the group to become female­ only and devote itself feminist causes. The locals refused. “The larger organization sent nasty emails,” Skocpol says. But the group “had men in their membership and they wanted to have a more populist, moderate approach to things.” Skocpol has also interviewed donors who insist that anyone taking their money talk about Planned Parenthood—which might be a good strategy for Boston, but would probably backfire in Bangor.

Another example involves a group called Run for Something, founded by a twenty-seven-year-old activist and endorsed by the Democratic establishment: the Democratic National Committee; Organizing for Action, the group formed out of Obama for America; and Hillary Clinton’s Onward Together. (According to a profile in Harper’s, Clinton met with the founder and asked her, “What can I do to help?”) Run for Something parachutes into local races and tries to recruit millennials to stand for election. Before giving them funds and access to fundraising and media experts, though, the group wants to hear the potential candidates say yes to the question, Do you consider yourself progressive? They also have to sign a contract promising to include Run for Something in all major decisions and to espouse the correct positions on universal health care, immigration reform, gun control, abortion, etc.

I don’t mean to imply that Run for Something is the most important or influential organization trying to cultivate emerging Democratic leaders; there are plenty of other such groups, like the much bigger and better-known Emily’s List. But this group’s methods are telling, and it depresses me to think that the Democratic big guns consider it a good idea.

“The Democratic Party is really good at misreading energy on the ground,” says L.A. Kauffman, the author of Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (2017). Why chase after millennials who are busy starting careers and vote in lower numbers than any other cohort—especially in midterm elections, according to polling data? Why ignore the salt-and-pepper-haired folks who have deep local connections and higher levels of engagement? But ignore them is what the Democratic money-funnelers appear to be doing. “I see a lot of people power” in the resistance, says Kauffman, “but I don’t see a lot of financial resources.”


I also fear that, come the midterms, the party will continue to do what it’s done for far too long, with the notable exception of 2008, when Obamamania sparked a grassroots movement—a grass-shoots movement, really, which, sad to say, the Democrats then stamped out. (In a recent investigative article for The New Republic, Micah Sifry chronicled how, in 2008, the Obama administration handed over the campaign’s huge and successful campaign operation, with its 2.2 million volunteers and 13 million email addresses, to the Democratic National Committee, which rebranded it as Organizing for America and essentially dismantled it.) In other words, I’m afraid that consultants will swoop in, vacuum up phone and email lists, import kids from Brooklyn to get out the vote, then vanish again. If people newly roused to political action are going to stay roused, then the Democratic Party had better pay attention and follow their lead. Whether the professional political class can bring itself to do that is still an open question, although, given what happened this week, there’s reason to hope they will finally reform.

This essay is part of a series reflecting on the first year since Donald Trump’s election as president. 

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