DiscoverDemocracy WorksHow the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics
How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

Update: 2020-01-20
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Since 2008, the Tea Party and the Resistance have caused some major shake-ups for the Republican and Democratic parties. The changes fall outside the scope of traditional party politics, and outside the realm of traditional social science research. To better understand what’s going on Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Strategy at Harvard and Director of the Scholars Strategy Network, convened a group of researchers to study the people and organizations and at the heart of these grassroots movements.


Skocpol joins us this week to discuss their findings and the new book Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance. Her work in particular focuses on the Tea Party and includes interviews with Tea Party members across the country. We also discuss the Resistance and whether these oppositional forces to the party in power are likely to continue after November’s election.


Additional Information


Upending American Politics from Oxford University Press


Skocpol on the Scholars Strategy Network


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The democracy rebellion happening in states across the U.S.


Episode Credits


This episode was engineered by Democracy Works host Jenna Spinelle, edited by WPSU’s Chris Kugler, and reviewed by WPSU News Director Emily Reddy. A huge thank you to Abby Peck in Theda Skocpol’s office for arranging the interview and providing technical support.


Interview Highlights


[6:45] How did we arrive at our current moment in American politics?


Well, I was surprised in the early Obama presidency by the sudden emergence of the Tea Party and perhaps I wasn’t surprised for exactly the same reason that a lot of other people were. First there were some demonstrations, but then there were hundreds of regularly meeting local groups of tea partiers and that attracted our attention because we realized that since the 1960s a lot of the organizing on the civic side in the United States had taken the form of national advocacy groups and maybe some local things, but usually not very connected into anything national.


Then if you fast forward eight to 10 years later, the same thing happened when Trump was elected and in both cases these were presidents that shocked the other side, elected at the same time as Congress was controlled by their own party. And the grassroots resistance emerged even more quickly after the Trump election, which was an even bigger shock to the people on the other side.


[10:01] What was it about Barack Obama’s election that changed the paradigm?


It’s in Americans’ DNA to organize when something strikes citizens as needing action and both grassroots tea partiers and the grassroots resisters, now they faced a shocking event and that event is probably very important. I think social movement scholars often don’t pay attention to events. But it’s a pretty shocking thing in American democracy when a president who looks like they’re going to carry through radical changes is elected at the same time as a Congress of their own party.


And in the case of Barack Obama, of course it was an African American. He looked like he was coming to power at a moment of economic crisis that was going to lead to sweeping changes led by Democrats, and at that moment, a lot of grassroots conservatives just said to themselves, we can’t depend on the Republican Party to do anything. We don’t trust the Republican Party. Who’s going to do it? We’re going to do it. And so they started organizing face to face.


[12:15] How does today’s organizing relate to older styles of civic engagement and civil society?


In the Tea Party it was more men and women often married couples together, but women were more present than you might think and more present than you would think for conservatives because women tend to do things and these are almost always in both sides people who’ve had experience organizing in their workplaces, their churches, maybe they’ve been part of the local political party or a local civic movement on the left or the right. And so in a way they do remember older fashioned ways of organizing and then they will usually pick up some of the new internet techniques and kind of meld them together with what they know.


[16:46] Tell us about the “uneasy marriage” in the Republican party


I personally write about the dual roots of Republican party extremism and they really are quite different. I mean the Koch Network and other multimillionaires and billionaires have organized since 2004 really with roots going back even further than that to try to persuade Republican Party politicians in office or running for office that they should ruthlessly pursue more and more tax cuts that benefit the very, very rich, i.e. the people who are doing the organizing and block any kind of environmental or global warming response through government, disable unions, labor unions, that’s a top priority and deregulate business at all levels.


The Koch network likes immigration, makes labor cheaper, but the grassroots tea parties were angry that Hispanic immigrants in particular, central Americans and Mexicans were coming in large numbers and changing the cultural composition of the society that they thought they grew up in or that they did grow up in.


[21:25] How does Donald Trump benefit groups like the NRA and the Fraternal Order of Police?


When Donald Trump appears before actual groups, ongoing organizations, they tend to be the gun rights groups, the NRA, the Christian right conventions or the values summit that the Christian right holds every year. Or we saw that he also visited fraternal order of police lodges where he would routinely give a speech saying those black lives matters. People are being backed by the Democrats to attack our hero policemen and I’m with you and we can be sure that they’re doubling down on all of that. And that’s very advantageous to Donald Trump because it gives him networks that reach into just about every community in every state that he needs to carry in the Electoral College.


[23:06] How does the Resistance compare to the Tea Party?


The Resistance and the Democrats face a harder set of tasks. Because the Tea Party, when it organized at the grassroots in 2009 and ’10 it formed probably about a 1,500 groups spread all over the country. They didn’t engage in a lot of voter registration efforts that we could observe at the time. And they didn’t have to because they were older, conservative minded whites, angry at Democrats and an African American president and they sort of knew that their friends and neighbors were going to vote because old people vote in this country and conservatives vote very, very regularly and Christian evangelical conservatives really vote regularly. So it was more a matter of changing the agenda, changing the public discussion, creating a sense of urgency and fear, which a lot of people that were there surrounding them of like minded people already felt.


[26:14] Will organizing against the party in power become the norm moving forward?


It’s very likely that if a Democrat wins the White House this time, that the Democrats will hold the house but not take the Senate. And they certainly will not take most of the state legislatures and governorships. So in that scenario, I expect the right not to stand down in any way. We’ll see the same kind of fierce and unremitting opposition that Barack Obama faced. The outcome might be a little different this time because Barack Obama and many Democrats in the Congress spent three years thinking they could work out compromises with people that weren’t about to compromise with them.

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How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy Group