On Tuesday, January 31, Democracy editor Michael Tomasky spoke with Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, co-author with Vanessa Williamson of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, about what the nascent anti-Trump movement can learn from the Tea Party. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michael Tomasky: Let me start with this question: We’ve seen all these demonstrations and protests, and the question on everyone’s mind is how this activity becomes an organized and disciplined movement. You co-wrote a book on the Tea Party that included a lot of info on how that exact process happened in 2009 and 2010. So what lessons can be drawn from that?
Theda Skocpol: In 2009 to 2011, it is very true that a Tea Party phenomenon grew up that ended up probably putting some extra wind in the sails of the Republicans in the subsequent elections and certainly pulling the Republican Party toward an uncompromising position. It sort of laid the basis at the grassroots level for Trump to emerge.
It wasn’t a single disciplined force. It was a convergence of top-down and bottom-up forces. And the bottom-up part of it, which Vanessa Williamson and I studied by not just gathering national data but going and talking to Tea Party people at the national level and in several parts of the country, was not simply created or directed from above, and it also wasn’t just about big media friendly public demonstrations.
I’ve heard recently some real misunderstandings on the left that big regional marches, marches on Washington, were the popular part of the Tea Party. And if that’s all it had been I don’t think it would have had much staying power, much ability to reorient the Republican Party. These grassroots activists, pretty much on their own, ended up organizing 900 regularly meeting local Tea Parties spread all over the United States. And a lot of the impact they had filtered up from local Republican Party committees, from pressure on elected representatives and candidates, and on the effect they had on galvanizing people to vote and participate in Republican primaries.
MT: So these 900 groups, these people sort of did this on their own, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: Hey let’s put on a show?
TS: One of the big issues in our research was whether these groups were relabeled versions of earlier things on the right, and sometimes they were. But mostly they weren’t. But what we found mostly by asking people how they got involved was that sometimes people met one another at demonstrations. Sometimes they read letters to the editor from people they didn’t know and searched them out, and at that time they used Meetup, which was an online “get in touch with people in your area” mechanism. A lot of times the local leadership groups—sometimes a local radio host played a role, so media played a role, but it didn’t direct or control things, the Koch brothers most definitely did not. And that myth is so persistent on the left, that the top-down groups that ended up putting their mugs in front of the cameras were the ones that locally organized. And that’s not true, it just wasn’t true.
These were mainly volunteer efforts. They were the kinds of efforts that this Indivisible set of, you know congressional staffers, have advised people to do. They’re right on in saying that widespread local organization matters. But here’s the problem in just imitating—even if you get it straight that it wasn’t the Koch brothers and it wasn’t all a bunch of marches, which were the least of it in some ways—it’s hard for the left now, for the center-left now, to imitate what the Tea Party grassroots people did. Because they were spread out across the country.
Conservative constituencies are spread out. You know we found the location of all these 900 groups that had this presence by 2011 and ’12. They weren’t in the poorest areas but they were in exurb and suburban, sometimes rural, areas, as well as in capital cities and stuff. So these Tea Parties kind of became aware of each other and to some degree were loosely coordinated under an umbrella group.
In many cases they did bubble up in lots of localities and the people who organized them were often stay-at-home moms, or small business people, people who have a little bit of flexibility in their schedule, or retirees. [On the progressive side], that kind of constituency is packed into big cities.
MT: Well that’s true, but if you look at the list of where they held marches on the first Saturday the 21st, they were all over the place.
TS: That was encouraging to me too, how spread out it was. And so one of the things, though, that center-left citizens have to realize right now as they engage in their own bottom-up organizing is that it’s not just a question of getting people to marches and getting them on MSNBC. I mean you’ve got Rachel Maddow out there announcing that big urban demonstrations are going to be the be all and end all. Well that’s easy for MSNBC to say. They want to televise them.
But you and I both know that’s not sustainable over time; you’re not going to be able to get every weekend 10,000 people, and even if you could, before long the Bannon crew is going to use those to demonize the left the way they did with Occupy. Occupy is an example of a kind of urban protest, media-focused strategy, and it didn’t work. It really did not.
So widespread organization is important; I think these women’s marches were a promising start but people have to realize that this is a marathon not a sprint, and they really do need to organize where they are. And I’ve been thinking a lot—people wrote to me after I published my piece in Vox about the Democratic Party and they said well, what can I do, I live in a blue state, I live in a blue district. And there, I think there needs to be some creativity. People need to sit themselves down and think: Well, who do I know who lives somewhere else? We all do—we have relatives, we have friends, we have coworkers—and establish an ongoing dialogue with them in which you’re providing them some kind of perspective on what may be unfolding on health care, or do you know people in your community with green cards who are frightened?
Get the stories out lots of places and maybe encourage and help people you know elsewhere to do their thing with their representatives, their local community. And the other thing is I think liberal cities, instead of forming a tie to some place in Latin America, should form a partnership, if you’ve got a local Democratic Party committee, form a partnership with a Democratic Party committee somewhere else. Have a partnership, get to know them, help them with resources, listen to what they say about the issues playing out in their area, because I think there is a liberal bubble and I am very worried, I am quite certain that Steve Bannon knows this and he’s going to try to get the left to go crazy.
MT: You mean in a red part of the country? A partnership of a sister city…
TS: Yeah, a purple part of the country. In other words, Cambridge, Mass’s Democratic Committee should be working with one in Iowa or one in Georgia. Or, for that matter, in western Massachusetts. You know, in a lot of these states like Pennsylvania, the Trump people are all over the place.
MT: So let me ask you a question about these Tea Party meetings. Once they organized locally and had these meetings, what did they do at them that can be learned from today?
TS: Well, the meetings were usually organized around some speaker that came in to talk. There wasn’t as much kind of honest discussion as you’re going to see in any center-left setting. Just because of the nature of the people, etc. But they kind of tried to familiarize themselves with certain kinds of issues and then they disseminated to their networks very specific and very powerful information about whose on what committees, when you would want to contact people in your state legislature or in Congress.
We were just bowled over, we said this in the Tea Party book, about how much these people knew, not about the content of politics—they were watching Fox News, and they had completely false ideas about what government was doing, etc. But they had really rich and specific information about the local Republican Party rules and how you could go and change that or which committees their state representatives as well as their Congress people were on and when you needed to contact them. They knew the nuts and bolts of local and state politics, as well as congressional politics. They were not simply focused on sending messages to presidents or presidential candidates, which is what Democrats tend to be. Democrats are obsessed with Washington, D.C. and presidential politics.
MT: Well that raises another question, which is that the Tea Party was really focused on the Republican Party. They hated Obama, that was a given, but their activism was focused on the Republican Party, which had not lived up to what they thought of as the conservative principles that they believed Republicans were supposed to be living up to. Hence the primaries against the Bob Bennett types and Richard Lugar, but this energy on the left now isn’t about that and isn’t going to do that.
TS: Well, I don’t know, if you go to Kos you’re seeing increasing demands that, for example, Sheldon Whitehouse and Elizabeth Warren shouldn’t have voted for particular [Cabinet nominees.] I will tell you that I think from the grassroots Tea Party interviews we did, we had the feeling that they were pretty damn sophisticated. On the one hand they wanted to push and, if necessary and in extreme cases, replace Republicans, but they never entertained the idea that they would do anything but turn out for them in massive numbers when it got to the general election.
I remember talking to people who, for example, hated Mitt Romney. Well boy, when it came time to defeating Barack Obama, we would ask people: What about a third party? Because these folks were not simply the old-time Republicans, the good old boys, the Chamber of Commerce. They would say: Well, we want to change them, we want to push them, we want to scare them into doing what they’re supposed to do, but no way we would ever splinter our efforts against the main enemy. They were pretty sophisticated about that.
I do worry about that on the left, because I think the prominent understanding of politics, apart from contesting presidential primaries and trying to figure out how to get the President to give the speeches you want when one is in the White House, is pushing on things, pushing a cause, pushing a constituency. Democrats are organized in a zillion different thises and thats and these folks who are in Washington right now are deliberately overwhelming the system.
I don’t know about your inbox, but my inbox is full of hundreds of requests from particular groups, personal advocacy groups, on behalf of their cause, and there isn’t anybody right now who’s in a position really to speak for the whole, I don’t know how that would work anyway, but citizens’ groups are going to have to be savvy about what battles they take up and how they take them up. And simply haranguing Elizabeth Warren to not vote for Ben Carson, that ought to be very low on the list.
MT: Here’s my last question: How important was the name “Tea Party” to the people in terms of just making them want to be a part of this thing, and does this movement need a name?
TS: I think it was important. It made them feel identified with rebels all the way back to the Revolution, and it was utterly vague. Here’s the principle that I invoke as a political scientist: People are always saying to me, especially on the left, let’s clarify what we mean here. Well, let’s not clarify everything. I believe in strategic ambiguity in politics, and the Tea Party label was great for that because it allowed for many strands of opposition to come together, and that opposition was focused on Barack Obama and the Democrats and their agenda. And certainly it also targeted Republicans, but mainly to get them to do that.
MT: It seems to me this movement needs a similar kind of name that can be both galvanizing and ambiguous.
TS: Yeah, probably does, but the urge to go out and hire a consultant to come up with one, that’s not going to work. It’ll either emerge or it won’t.
MT: Anything hopeful? What’s the most hopeful thing you see?
TS: Well I do think that the Women’s March was very hopeful, and it was hopeful precisely because it was spread out. I have some faith that women, probably not just Democrats or progressives, self-stylized, but women just who are upset at various things are going to be good at networking and forming some kind of oppositional groups and, you know, some of the things that are happening…There are certain issues that I think need to be front and center. Understanding exactly the implications of the huge transformations in health insurance that these people are proposing is a great one because it cuts across many kinds of districts and will involve many kinds of people. The immigration one is good in the sense that you can tell stories about affected families everywhere given the bungling focus. And I think that’s where the focus should be; the focus should be on telling the stories of actual people. Women may be good at that.
I think even women conservatives have been uneasy about the immigrant bashing. And then the other one, though, that the left has to think about: I don’t want to hear anything more about electoral college reform, getting money out of politics. All these procedural fixes that the wealthy on the left are fixated on…The horse has left the barn; it’s too late. Unless there’s electoral turn-around starting in 2017 and ’18, in which Democrats are winning, this thing could lock in.
So the number one thing has to be signing up people to vote and getting them out to vote. Assuming that the courts are going to fix the voting system: Forget it. I mean they’re not, not on the timescale that’s needed. So I don’t know, I’m talking to wealthy progressives and trying to convince them to stop giving all their money to this or that procedural fix. You know I was disappointed that Barack Obama framed it as gerrymandering reform. I hope you’re aware that the best studies show that only half of the problem of the mismatch between Democratic numbers and Democratic legislative results would be solved by gerrymandering reform if it happened universally and perfectly. Half of the problem is the concentration of Democratic constituencies in big cities.
MT: Okay, thanks.