The Tea Party and the Resistance: No, They’re Not the Same

To most of the media, the Tea Party and the Resistance were mirror images of each other. Wrong. The differences are far more illuminating.

By Theda Skocpol Caroline Tervo

As Democrats assume narrow control of the federal government, some anticipate a possible repeat of what happened in 2009 and 2010, the last time Democrats briefly gained control of the presidency along with both houses of Congress only to face a Tea Party explosion that stymied liberal gains and set the stage for huge GOP comebacks. Over the last decade, Tea Party forces have also remade Republican Party politics, pushing GOP officials and candidates to refuse normal governing give and take and propelling some right-wingers into outright authoritarianism. Yet a simple replay of the post-2008 story is not now likely because U.S. politics has also been recently reshaped by another upsurge of activism, this time center-left Resistance efforts launched immediately after the November 2016 election of Donald Trump. This upsurge made it possible for Democrats to gain control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and helped Joe Biden deny Donald Trump a second term in the White House.

Indeed, the 2020 election saw a veritable tsunami of voter and activist engagement from both sides of America’s increasingly wide partisan divide, in large part because the two precursor movements had set the stage for a visceral clash over the future of U.S. democracy. Sparked just eight years apart, the Tea Party and the Resistance movements both included nationwide protest rallies, all-out mobilizations by partisan advocates and donors, and most remarkably, widespread grassroots organizing by conservative and liberal-minded volunteers in all 50 states and most local areas. The movements worked for diametrically opposite partisan goals and fought for opposite understandings of American democracy, yet they have similarly boosted active citizen engagement on right and left alike.

Observers often fear (and assume) that mobilizations of these sorts necessarily fuel further polarization and government gridlock. But our research underlines that such presumptions are in this instance only half-correct, helpful for understanding what has happened on the right but not the left. By the time the Tea Party reaction against Barack Obama and congressional Democrats burst on the scene in 2009, most GOP-aligned elites had already embraced an unpopular ultra-free-market agenda, and professional advocates who jumped on the new protest bandwagon kept pushing such policies. But grassroots Tea Partiers had their own priorities, and their organized activism pushed the GOP toward culturally exclusionist measures and an increasingly authoritarian style of politics. Since 2016, there have also been tensions in the Resistance, but in this instance most grassroots efforts have tempered rather than reinforced polarization.Because the grassroots Resistance has included ongoing groups and networks spread across thousands of places, it has helped to expand the voice of U.S. liberalism and revitalize participation in and around local Democratic organs, including in places far from traditional liberal strongholds. Non-metropolitan groups and networks launched after Trump’s shocking victory in 2016 have pushed back against the Trump-GOP on their own and, just as importantly, have allied in key states with longstanding grassroots networks, for example those centered in African-American churches and in surviving labor unions.

Making Sense Of Two Civic Upsurges

To unpack tensions between elite and popular forces in the Tea Party and the Resistance—and understand how each set of forces has influenced party politics on the right and left—our research conceptualizes each movement as loosely coupled fields of national and grassroots organizations. Our organizational approach goes beyond earlier studies that have mostly focused on public protests and on the characteristics of individual movement participants.

Scholars have documented how the Tea Party was propelled through more than 600 Tax Day rallies held in mid-April 2009 all over the United States, followed by recurrent rally waves later in 2009 and beyond. Analogously, studies of the post-November 2016 Resistance show that it gained national prominence through more than 800 Women’s Marches held in Washington, D.C. and cities nationwide on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Using national surveys and field studies, scholars have learned that activists on both sides were mostly middle-class whites. Grassroots Tea Partiers have generally been older white men and women, with relatively substantial incomes and at least some college education. Resistance activists have been overwhelmingly middle-aged to older white women, usually middle-income with basic or advanced college degrees. Yet valuable as these previous studies have been, they take us only so far. To understand political impacts, we need to examine ongoing collective activities.

Organizations are vital players in social movements, not only because they help to orchestrate protest events but also because they influence elections and governing agendas by deploying paid staffers or committed volunteers to raise money, shape and disseminate messages, coordinate activities, recruit participants, manage media relations, and build alliances. Through much of U.S. history, civic life centered in volunteer-led federated membership associations grounded in vast networks of local chapters and dues-paying mass memberships.Major mid-twentieth century social movements usually included such membership federations able to influence U.S. government and political parties at local, state, and national levels. After the 1960s, however, the civic center of gravity shifted toward nationally centralized, professionally led organizations, including issue advocacy groups, think tanks, lobbying operations, and fundraising organizations, mostly headquartered in Washington, D.C. or other major U.S. metropolises. Lacking wide networks of chapters, these entities rely on wealthy donors and foundations for funding and recruit citizen adherents, if at all, initially through mass mailings and later via email or social media. They exert political influence through media outreach, lobbying, policy research, and legal filings. Now, many important American civic operations do not even have physical headquarters. Like the well-known MoveOn organization, they may operate entirely through virtual staff connections and Internet communications with mass adherents.

Oriented to this new civic world, most researchers presume that professionals operating from (virtual or brick and mortar) national headquarters can use mass communications and occasional training sessions to inspire ground-level individual activists, regardless of where they live. “Distributed organizing” is the moniker for this approach, seen as dominant in the social media era. But this model is a misleading guide to the Tea Party and the anti-Trump Resistance, because both have included ongoing local groups operating in most communities and congressional districts, groups that are not always responsive to the directives of national professionals. In the next two sections, we portray the top-down and bottom-up players in turn.

National Conveners and Professional Advocates

From the start national organizations were prominent in both the Tea Party and the anti-Trump Resistance—some newly formed (usually as nonprofit 501cs or c4s), others previously functioning advocacy organizations, electoral operations, or think tanks that revamped their activities to ride the new waves of civic energy.

After CNBC television commentator Rick Santelli sparked interest with a February 2009 call for “Tea Party” protests against the Obama Administration, an initial “steering committee” of advocates and bloggers orchestrated protest waves through the mid-April 2009 Tax Day rallies. Thereafter, the steering coalition gave way to formal organizations, of which the most important has always been FreedomWorks, aD.C.-based free market advocacy and lobbying operation set up in 2004. Latching its fortunes to the new 2009 activism, the professionally managed organization proceeded to co-sponsor national Tea Party rallies, convene activist training sessions, and channel movement support into key GOP election races for November 2010 and beyond. A kindred advocacy supporter was Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded and staffed federated organization within the political network directed by multibillionaire right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch. Always tightly focused on free-market priorities, this operationcooperated with Tea Party groups for specific purposes, especially in key states like North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and Wisconsin, where paid AFP state directors were in place before the Tea Party bloom.

During the late winter and spring of 2009, various other new and repurposed national organizations jumped onto the Tea Party bandwagon. Prior to 2009, an operation called ResistNet had offered social networking services and run conservative Internet petition drives. In 2009, it turned to building lists of movement supporters, sending “blasts” against President Obama and congressional Democrats, and promoting Tea Parties in state capitols. By late 2010, ResistNet claimed 142 local chapter followers in 34 states and relabeled itself the Political Action Network. Another pre-existing California-based Republican political action committee called “Our Country Deserves Better” similarly relabeled itself Tea Party Express and proceeded to run Tea Party bus tours and make donations to GOP candidates running against Democratic incumbents. Finally, several newly launched Tea Party organizations set up websites and signed up local activists to further ethno-nationalist and religious-conservative priorities. These players included the 9/12 Project run by radio and TV host Glenn Beck; the 1776 Tea Party; and a Tennessee-headquartered organization called Tea Party Nation.

Since 2016, there have also been tensions in the Resistance, but in this instance most grassroots efforts have tempered rather than reinforced polarization.

By far the most important newly created national organization was and remains Tea Party Patriots (TPP). Launched on March 10, 2009 with encouragement from FreedomWorks, it styled itself as an umbrella coordinating body to push constitutional, limited government and “faith in the Founding Fathers.” At first, TPP was a relatively low-budget and lightly staffed operation that raised small donations to pay for travel by the directors and commission consultants to do further rounds of fundraising from followers. Later it became a major co-sponsor and convener of high-profile Tea Party protests. By 2012, TPP had one of the largest web-enrolled lists of individual Tea Party activists all over the country, and by 2015 it also boasted very large Facebook and Twitter followings. Although TPP’s national leaders originally seemed content to spark public protests and enroll individual supporters, from the late spring of 2009 the Atlanta headquarters encouraged emerging local groups to register on its website. By fall, TPP was regularly updating its expanding online list of local Tea Parties classified by home states.

Top-down players in the Resistance movement have also included a mix of preexisting and start-up organizations. But a wider array leaped into the post-2016 fray—in part because the preexisting universe of left-leaning national advocacy organizations was already densely populated and also because U.S. liberals suddenly faced a constricted opportunity structure. Back in 2009, conservative elites could count on the Senate filibuster to obstruct the full Obama agenda for six months, until after the contested Minnesota Senate election was settled; but after the Trump-GOP sweep of November 2016, there were no Democratic powerholders in Washington, D.C. to whom Trump opponents could turn. Outside action was the whole ball game, so literally hundreds of groups could therefore be considered “Resistance aligned.” We focus here on only the most prominent.

Soon after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, women who had earlier signed up on the Facebook site Pantsuit Nation grieved and contacted one another via tools added to the site.Meanwhile, a formal national Women’s March organization was established, misleadingly portrayed by some analysts as the primary orchestrator of the overall Resistance movement because it assembled dozens of organizations into a huge sponsoring coalition. Only a few, such as Planned Parenthood, contributed essential staff and funding support. With or without prior organizational ties, millions of liberal-minded Americans were eager to join protests.

Other Resistance-aligned organizations looked to the next elections or turned to policy battles. Startups such as Swing Left, Flippable, Sister District, and Run for Something deployed Internet-facilitated means torecruit new candidates, especially women, and channel money and volunteers into Democratic campaigns. Established left advocacy, lobbying, and legal organizations found themselves suddenly flush with eager new volunteers and millions of additional dollars. MoveOn, especially, became a regular convener of anti-Trump protests and lobbying campaigns. In orchestrating activist pressures, this well-established network was often joined by the Working Families Party, other progressive, civil rights, and pro-immigrant groups, andby a new organization called Indivisible, perhaps the most important new Resistance organization to take to the field after November 2016. The leaders of Indivisible sought to offer national inspiration, coordination, and support for local Resistance efforts, much as Tea Party Patriots had done in the earlier right-wingmovement.

Eventually formalized in a twinned 501c4 and 501c3 formation, Indivisible got going in mid- December 2016, when two former Democratic congressional staffers who had experienced 2009 Tea Party protests gathered a group of peers to write an online “Indivisible Guideto help alarmed liberals organize together locally in opposition to congressional and Trump administrative initiatives. At first, the “Guidewas just a Google document that went viral, but the authors soon created a website and a map where activists could list local Resistance projects. Soon the Indivisible founders quit their previous jobs and set about fundraising to build their own nonprofit organization staffed by D.C.-area professionals.

By the fall of 2017, the national office employed more than 40 professionals in communications, development, policy, politics, digital and regional organizing, and (with considerable exaggeration) the organization claimed close to 6,000 affiliated “chapters” present in every congressional district. The D.C. office sent regular alerts about congressional twists and turns and issued calls for local resisters to protest and lobby against the Trump-GOP regime’s efforts. Local groups did not always heed D.C. urgings, and many either have never formally affiliated with Indivisible or dropped out after a time. Nevertheless, Indivisible became the most important newly formed national Resistance organization because, like Tea Party Patriots back in 2009, it served as an umbrella in touch with local voluntary groups across the country. This model appealed to many wealthy liberal donors and foundations who, in 2017, 2018, and 2019, poured nearly $40 million into Indivisible’s coffers. Most of the new resources were spent to hire and support professional staffers, 75 to 100 of them by 2019 (substantially larger than the TPP at its height). As had happened earlier with Tea Party Patriots, only small dribbles of the tens of millions raised by D.C. Indivisible flowed to subnational groups or networks, which continued to rely on their own volunteers and small dollar donations.

The Spread of Local Tea Parties and Resistance Groups

Since the 1960s, protest waves in the United States have proved ephemeral or transmogrified into new donor-funded rounds of professionally managed advocacy politics. Such tendencies have also happened in the Tea Party and the Resistance, yet to a remarkable degree committed citizen volunteers in both efforts turned to organizing regularly meeting local groups that sustained participation over months and years. Despite clashing values and goals, local Tea Parties and Resistance groups have many similarities. In both movements, volunteer group founders, middle-class men and women living in the same areas, often did not know one another until they met electronically or while traveling to early protests. Local group organizers took inspiration but never detailed direction from national organizations—including affiliated umbrella organizations such as Tea Party Patriots and Indivisible. Both sorts of local groups meet in similar kinds of places—public libraries, back rooms of restaurants, church basements—but Tea Party meetings start with participants standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and perhaps a prayer before attendees hear from a visiting lecturer or plan attendance at lobbying days or regional protests. Resistance meetings usually move directly from informal socializing to reports from leaders and subgroups engaged in ongoing activities like voter outreach, lobbying elected officials, or special community projects. Tea Party meetings attract more married couples, higher shares of men, and many active or retired small businesspeople and military veterans, while Resistance meetings feature mostly female teachers, health-care professionals, public-sector employees, and owners of creative businesses, with the occasional male partner or friend in tow. Both sets of groups give participants many chances to learn about the nitty-gritty of U.S. politics, the doings of local government, the mechanics of running for office, the timing of state legislative decisions, and tactics for pressuring Congress.

Elsewhere we have said more about local group activities, but here we address more challenging macroscopic issues: How and when did these local voluntary groups take shape and accumulate; and where did Tea Parties and grassroots Resistance groups spread across the vast U.S. social and political landscape? To track trends in numbers of local Tea Parties and anti-Trump Resistance groups, we have worked, in the first instance, from dated website lists of groups affiliated with Tea Party Patriots and Indivisible. These lists are not entirely parallel, because Indivisible used an Internet map that recorded all sorts of local projects, only about half of which were groups, whereas the early Tea Party Patriots website included state-level associations and some allied organizations as well as local Tea Party groups. With appropriate cleaning to remove errors and duplicates and after making other adjustments, we find some striking patterns.

Although both Tea Parties and local Resistance groups proliferated fairly quickly, the accumulation of local Resistance groups happened sooner and faster. By February 2017, there were already between 1500 and 2000 Resistance groups operating in all 50 states. Eight years earlier, local Tea Parties had proliferated more slowly following the April 2009 Tax Day rallies. By August 2009 there were about 175 groups spread across two-thirds of the states, and at the six-month mark (late fall of 2009), local Tea Parties accumulated to about 750 across all 50 states. Beyond these initial periods of local organizing, we believe that the overall number of Resistance groups reached between 2,000 and 3,000 within one year and persisted at that level into year two, while the ranks of local Tea Party groups grew to more than 1,600 during the first year and seem to have peaked between 2,000 and 3,000 in the second year. After the first two years in both movements, the numbers of locals receded somewhat, as some groups closed down and others merged.

Both sorts of groups meet in similar kinds of places—public libraries, church basements—but Tea Party meetings start with the Pledge of Allegiance and perhaps a prayer. Resistance meetings move directly from socializing to updates on ongoing activities. 

Sheer numbers aside, we wondered whether grassroots Resistance organizing occurred across as much of the United States as did earlier Tea Party organizing. In this era of sharp U.S. partisan polarization, voters have sorted by places of residence, with Republicans spread across counties in rural, small town, and exurban areas, and Democrats clustered tightly into a relatively small share of counties, homes to big cities, some metropolitan suburbs, and scattered university or college towns. We were not surprised that Tea Parties took shape in most counties and congressional districts, because all national movements achieve at least some presence in state capitals and big cities and, beyond that, Republicans are prevalent everywhere else. However, it seemed plausible that the grassroots Resistance groups launched after November 2016 might tend to cluster in the same very blue enclaves as Democratic voters. Maybe, we thought, the grassroots Resistance would simply turn out to reinforce left activism in places like San Francisco or Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But to our surprise, the geographic distributions do not simply line up with current distributions of partisan voters. For one thing, both local Tea Parties and local Resistance groups popped up all over the United States. By late 2010, local Tea Parties had formed in all 50 states and in all but three dozen congressional districts; and by late 2017 we see actual local Resistance groups in all 50 states and in all but eight congressional districts. This similar wide distribution tells us that the Resistance just as much as the Tea Party involved people almost everywhere. Beyond that, it turns out that partisan tilt is more pronounced toward the right than the left.

When we look across the states, the late 2010 distribution of Tea Parties (normalized per 100,000 voting-age population) correlates moderately (0.36) with the two-party presidential vote shares won by GOP contender John McCain in 2008. When we look more closely at the distribution of Tea Parties across congressional districts, we find an even more pronounced correlation (0.46) of Tea Party numbers with McCain’s 2008 vote shares. Even if we assume our current local Tea Party data slightly overstate the local level rightward tilt, we still conclude that more Tea Party groups formed in very conservative districts than in other types. Our findings resemble what another scholar, Rachel Blum, finds about the rightward skew of local Tea Parties as of 2013, when the movement was several years old.

Importantly, we do not find a comparable local-level leftward tilt in the distribution of grassroots Resistance groups at a correspondingly early stage in movement development. Using our carefully cleaned late 2017 list of local groups, we find that, just as 2010 Tea Parties were more prevalent (controlling for voting aged population) in more Republican states, so were Resistance groups as of 2017 more prevalent in pro-Hillary Clinton Democratic leaning states (correlated 0.33). But when we bear down to look at congressional districts, we do not find a liberal partisan tilt; local Resistance group density had close to a zero correlation with Clinton’s 2016 two-party vote shares in such districts. In short, local Resistance groups have not been as densely clustered in liberal Democratic voting strongholds as local Tea Parties have been clustered in conservative GOP strongholds. Although both types of groups were organized pretty much everywhere across the country, Tea Parties achieved their strongest presence in very conservative GOP areas, whereas local Resistance groups operate more evenly across the partisan landscape.

Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up

These findings matter because, as citizen-initiated groups, both Tea Parties and Resistance groups have created popular clout on behalf of values, policy priorities, and styles of politics that are at times quite different from those favored by professionally managed national Tea Party and Resistance-aligned organizations.

In the Tea Party, the most resourceful donor-funded and professionally staffed operations—such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Express, and Tea Party Patriots—have always pushed ultra-free-market priorities such as defunding social programs, weakening business and environmental regulations, curbing labor unions and regulatory protections for workers, and—above all—slashing tax rates for the wealthy and big businesses. More often than not, grassroots Tea Party groups and activists also back such goals, but maybe not with great passion—and sometimes local Tea Party people speak disparagingly about the likes of Koch network operatives. Local Tea Party participants often care most about restricting immigration and using government to enforceconservative Christian authority andfamily ideals. Elite and grassroots political styles also diverge. Like other free-market advocates, elite Tea Party organizations are willing to advance policy goals via legislative bargaining and inside lobbying, bolstered by occasional televised protests or orchestrated campaigns where individuals on email lists are asked to contact legislators. In contrast, grassroots Tea Partiers are more inclined to mount angry protests and decry any governing compromises. Grassroots Tea Partiers believe they alone are true “patriots” working to “save America” from the evils of liberalism and a squishy GOP establishment. They demand that aligned advocates and GOPers take hard stands to advance right-wing ethnocultural as well as free-market priorities—and because Tea Parties are densely organized in the most conservative districts, such pressures hit already very conservative GOP solons and candidates the hardest.

In the Resistance, tensions also exist between advocacy professionals and grassroots groups, but they have less to do with values or policy goals than with differences between places and age groups. Most national Resistance organizations are headquartered in big cities and liberal states and are run by paid professionals who tend to be racially and ethnically diverse college graduates in their late twenties to early forties. In contrast, grassroots groups exist in communities of all sizes and partisan compositions, and their volunteer leaders and devoted participants are mostly older white women who might be (and sometimes actually are) the mothers or grandmothers of the youthful metropolitan advocates. Resistance professionals think of themselves as leftist “progressives,” while many local participants are mainstream, longstanding Democratic liberals who want to cooperate with neighbors whose views, they know, range from disgruntled Republican to left-progressive. Resistance groups often do quite different things depending on the partisan lean of their districts.

Unlike in the Tea Party, elite advocates in the Resistance are the ones less prone to compromise. Moralistic in outlook, youthful Resistance professionals spend lots of time networking with each other in Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston, or San Francisco, collecting signatures on public letters and negotiating among themselves about ways to pressure elected Democrats to move further left. Resistance advocates often bash congressional Democrats for accepting governing compromises on morally charged issues like immigrant rights or police reform; and these advocates also hope to remake the party by endorsing leftist primary challengers to officeholders deemed overly moderate. Grassroots Resistance groups, in contrast, focus as much on local and state issues and elections as on national controversies and often willingly back moderate candidates and officeholders, if those are the only kinds of Democrats likely to prevail in their areas.

Parallel and  Divergent Political Dynamics

The intra-movement tensions just described in broad brush have waxed and waned. During the first two years of the Tea Party and the Resistance, all participants pushed in the same directions against the presidents and Congresses they reviled. After pivotal midterms in 2010 and 2018, though, internal tensions grew, creating new cross-pressures for aligned party politicians.

Pushing Together at First 

From early 2009, Tea Party advocates and grassroots activists denounced and fought against everything the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats did—pushing Republicans to oppose economic recovery measures, labor protections, and efforts to fight global warming. Front and center for all Tea Party participants was dogged opposition to comprehensive health reform, dubbed “Obamacare,” which national and local Tea Party groups opposed for different reasons. Free-market advocates like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity feared new taxes and business regulations and worried that new social insurance measures would redound to the political benefit of Democrats, whereas many grassroots Tea Partiers believed that this measure, backed by a Black President, would tax “real Americans” like themselves to give health care to “freeloading” low-income people, including undocumented immigrants. In recurrent and protracted battles through March 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, all Tea Party players found it easy to push together against this measure, by lobbying the congressional GOP, mounting public demonstrations, and harrying Democratic representatives at their town hall meetings with constituents.

Unlike in the Tea Party, elite advocates in the Resistance are the ones less prone to compromise.

In an eerie way, a similar interplay between congressional and movement politics played out in reverse during 2017. This time, professional advocates and grassroots groups in the burgeoning Resistance waged nine months of protests, media efforts, and lobbying campaigns to keep congressional Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act. Again, Resistance players had various reasons for engagement. Most national advocates and some grassroots participants would have preferred to push for Medicare for All rather than wage a rear-guard effort to save Obamacare, but a shared fight against the first big move to reverse the Obama legacy by a hated President and GOP Congress overrode disagreements about how to expand health-care coverage. In the end, Congress came one vote short of repealing Obamacare, and Resistance forces claimed that their coordinated pressures on senators in Arizona, Maine, and Alaska contributed to this victory.

Focused Efforts Give Way to New Divisions

As congressionally centered battles played out in 2009 and 2017, each movement’s professional advocates, big money donors, and grassroots activists also looked ahead to the next special and midterm elections in which ballot-box rebukes could be dealt to the incumbent President. In this phase, we see telling differences as well as continuing parallels.

In the 2010 cycle, both Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks endorsed and provided support to (somewhat different sets of) Republican candidates—some engaging in primaries, others sticking to the general election. In the 2018 primary many national Resistance organizations did the same from their end. D.C. Indivisible leaders joined some other advocates to back primary challenges by left-progressives, but most local groups and national organizations such as Swing Left kept the focus on helping Democrats beat Republicans in November. Perhaps even more important, the opposition movements inspired record numbers of new candidacies. In the crucial fights to flip control of the House of Representatives, the 2010 cycle saw a surge of conservative GOP contenders, many touting Tea Party ties, and the 2018 cycle brought an even higher surge of Resistance-aligned Democratic contenders, disproportionately female and more racially and ethnically diverse than earlier candidate cohorts. Of course, not all new contenders won, but many did. In November 2010, Republicans netted six governorships and 675 state legislative seats, and also reduced the Democratic Senate majority and flipped 63 House seats to install a new GOP speaker. Eight years later, Democrats buoyed by the Resistance also scored major advances (despite needing to win more votes for every seat in highly gerrymandered state legislative and congressional districts). In 2018, Democrats netted seven new governorships and 309 state legislative seats. While Democrats lost Senate seats up in conservative states, they nevertheless gained 41 House seats, enough to take control.

Grassroots Tea Parties and Resistance groups may have played somewhat different roles in the 2010 and 2018 midterms. Although local Tea Party groups sometimes endorsed conservative 2010 candidates and convened candidate forums, as far as we can tell local Tea Party members usually did not mount big voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts. Because older U.S. whites reliably vote in midterm as well as presidential elections, local Tea Partiers could spread messages while taking for granted that most of their neighbors and age peers would turn out in November. In fact, although Republicans turned out at greater rates in 2010 than they had in 2006, overall voter participation in 2010 was relatively low, as it typically is for midterms. Because just 45.5 percent of eligible U.S. adults went to the polls and many Democratic leaners stayed home, turnout ended up heavily skewed toward the older whites most receptive to Tea Party agitations.

Leading into 2018, Resistance groups focused doggedly on boosting voter turnout. Often in cooperation with labor unions, local party candidates and committees, and groups representing African Americans and Latinos, local and national organizations scrambled to register voters and persuade neighbors and coworkers to support Democrats running for local, state, and congressional offices. In early 2019, our research team used an online questionnaire to collect information from the leaders of Resistance groups operating in 49 of 67 Pennsylvania counties. Remarkably, leaders of all but four of the 82 responding groups said their members engaged in election activities, usually four to six types out of nine types of activities we listed—with “knocking on doors” the most frequent. Similar reports from many states suggest that Resistance volunteers similarly went door to door for weeks leading into the 2017 special elections and the 2018 midterms. Their efforts surely contributed to an unusually elevated 2018 turnout of 53.4 percent of eligible adults, including heightened participation by women, minorities, and young people.

If there had been no Tea Party or Resistance at all, would the two parties have done just as well in 2010 and 2018? Although causal impacts are very hard to pin down, two studies with sophisticated statistical controls show that districts with larger mass participation in the Tea Party’s 2009 Tax Day rallies and the Resistance’s January 2017 Women’s Marches subsequently registered higher vote shares to 2010 GOP candidates and 2018 Democratic candidates, respectively. In 2010, endorsements from national Tea Party organizations and sponsors may have given favored conservatives and the “Tea Party” label an overall boost, but in statistically controlled studies only FreedomWorks endorsements mattered above and beyond other factors favoring the GOP. One key study found that GOP candidates did better in districts with greater numbers of individual grassroots activists who had signed up on national Tea Party websites, including the FreedomWorks site. Analogous studies have not been done to parse any similar impact from activists who signed up with, say, MoveOn or other national Resistance organizations engaged in the 2018 election.

Interestingly, our counts of actual local Tea Party groups in 2010 and Resistance groups in 2017 suggest that both types were associated with boosting turnout and flipping control of the House of Representatives. Prepared with the assistance of our research collaborator Kirsten Walters, Figure 1 displays average numbers of local groups in congressional districts that did, and did not, change party hands each time. In 2010, local Tea Parties were most numerous in the 176 House districts where Republicans continued to hold their House seats, but by the fall of 2010 had also become very dense on the ground in the 66 “flipped” districts where Republicans defeated or replaced Democrats. Similarly, in 2017-18, grassroots anti-Trump Resistance groups were numerous both in districts where Democrats were reelected or replaced by other Democrats and also in the 41 flipped districts where Democrats displaced Republicans. Although these are correlations not causal findings, these counts along with available ethnographic findings are consistent with the idea that organized local citizens made a difference for their respective causes and parties by influencing local public opinion, boosting like-minded voter participation, or both.

Tea Party Elites and Grassroots Fuel GOP Extremism

After triumphs in the 2010 midterms, a markedly more conservative House majority took control, including dozens of returning and new Republicans who touted Tea Party loyalties or support. Thereafter, researchers tried to discern whether “Tea Party Republicans” voted differently than other GOP representatives, but such exercises usually find no statistically significant relationships—in part because there is no straightforward way to measure Tea Party membership, and also because most Republicans have stampeded together toward hard-right fiscal and cultural positions. The most convincing findings come from a uniquely nuanced study, “Reactionary Republicanism” by Bryan T. Gervais and Irwin L. Morris, that sorts GOP House members into subsets. One set has representatives with no obvious Tea Party ties, while other sets include representatives actively supported by national Tea Party organizations and/or who have taken active, public steps to court the movement (i.e., by joining a relevant House Caucus, attending public Tea Party rallies or events, or issuing press releases or Tweets that express Tea Party loyalties). This scheme recognizes that GOP officeholders and Tea Party organizations make their own distinct strategic choices (for example, officeholders may hope to avoid primary challenges and organizations may want to back surefire winners or cultivate up-and-coming conservatives).

Tea Parties achieved their strongest presence in very conservative GOP areas, whereas local Resistance groups operate more evenly across the partisan landscape.

With the aid of such distinctions, the “Reactionary Republicanism” researchers analyze congressional votes from 2011 through 2014 and find that “Republicans are quite fiscally conservative whether or not they align themselves with the Tea Party” and national Tea Party organizations do not allocate support based on policy stances. At the same time, “legislators who make an effort to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement have significantly more conservative roll call voting records than fellow Republicans who are not attached to the Tea Party.” Those courting the Tea Party often hail from districts where constituents are relatively more resentful of racial and ethnic minorities and more worried about immigrants than Republicans in general. Accordingly, their ultra-conservative voting records “stand out on issues related to fair housing, consumer protection, immigration policy, voter ID laws, health care, and programs providing support for the poor and working class,” policy areas that have a “disproportionate effect on minority communities… where the brand of conservatism espoused by Tea Party adherents in the general population is most clearlyapparent.”

These findings make sense if we recognize the often-different priorities of the top-down and bottom-up Tea Party forces. From 2009 on, national free-market advocacy organizations like FreedomWorks proclaimed that they spoke for the supposed fiscal priorities of the entire Tea Party. But actual grassroots activists and many local Tea Party groups were always equally or more passionate about blocking new social benefits for low-income people, and pushing religious conservatism as well as anti-civil rights and anti-immigrant causes. Unsurprisingly, GOPers in Congress who took the most active steps to court grassroots Tea Party supporters also voted in increasingly congruent ways on ethnocultural issues.

Fatefully, when the Obama Administration and a bipartisan Senate coalition tried to advance comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, Tea Partiers adamantly opposed to any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants successfully pressured the GOP House Republicans to kill the legislation. Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio, originally a Tea Party favorite, faced intense grassrootscriticism for his co-sponsorship of immigration reform, and thereafter shifted toward hardline stands. A year later, shock waves again rocked Republican officeholders when Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, a free-market-minded member of the House leadership, was defeated in a GOP primary by a grassroots Tea Party-backed upstart who stressed anti-immigrant stands.

Even as public approval for the movement declined, Tea Party influences persisted and grew in Congress. Soon those congressional Republicans most boastful of their Tea Party ties became prolific Tweeters of incendiary hyper-partisan messages, starting down a polarizing communication path that Donald Trump would later turn into an expressway. Both elite and grassroots Tea Party forces ended up pushing elected Republicans not just toward far-right policy positions but also toward bombastic politics and uncompromising governance. High-stakes fiscal standoffs ensued, and the 112th and 113th Congresses were among the least legislatively productive to date. After the 2012 elections, congressional Republicans fiercely opposed efforts by the second Obama Administration to deal with climate change or reduce deportations of undocumented immigrants. Free-market elites worried more about Obama’s economic measures, while grassroots Tea Party groups and activists passionately opposed his immigrant protections, but both pushed the GOP to avoid compromises. By March 2014, Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune reached a conclusion that describes both national as well as state dynamics. “The Tea Party,” he said, “got its start five years ago, and has become the favorite label for ano-compromises variety of conservatism…. standing not as a separate entity or movement so much as the label for the most energetic faction within the Republican Party.”

Resistance Tensions and Democratic Party Politics

If the Tea Party after 2010 essentially goaded the GOP toward ever more extremism and obstruction, the post-2018 effects of the Resistance have invigorated a “broad tent” Democratic Party while just modestly heightening tensionsbetween mainstream liberals and left progressives. The full complexity of post-2018 dynamics cannot be captured briefly, but we can gain insights from growing disconnects between local groups and professionals in the D.C. headquarters of Indivisible.

At an accelerating pace after the November 2018 midterms, Indivisible’s leaders turned to advocacy lobbying in alliance with other left-leaning progressive “partner organizations.” In early 2019, for example, Indivisible and other advocacy staffers formed coalitions to push the Democratic congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to threaten government shutdowns if Trump and the GOP Senate did not act to protect Dreamers, undocumented youth brought to the country as children. Even before the 2018 midterms, national Indivisible leaders decided to join with other advocates to press congressional Democrats toward bold, uncompromising stands on racial and immigrant issues.More such efforts would ensue, including participation in an alliance to promote a “Medicare for All” bill introduced in March 2019 by Representative Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. Speaker Pelosi did accede to progressive demands to hold hearings on this and other health-care reform bills, but little came from Indivisible leaders’ participation in other progressive advocacy campaignsbeyond briefly publicized letters, occasional appearances on MSNBC, and a constant stream of emails from D.C. headquarters urging local people to “contact your congressional representative” and to also, by the way, send a contribution to help fund the campaign du jour. The political opportunity structure for left progressives simply was not analogous to that facing the Tea Party after 2010—in part because most of the grassroots-backed Democrats who won new House seats in 2018 hailed from moderate or swing districts, not leftist strongholds.

Another tension grew from D.C. Indivisible’s determination to join left-progressive challenges in Democratic primaries. Leading into 2018 and again into 2020, Indivisible encouraged local groups to do such endorsements—but to little avail, because many local leaders worried that primary fights would unnecessarily divide their memberships. D.C.-orchestrated endorsement campaigns never attracted more than dozens of participating local groups. When the presidential cycle started in 2019, Indivisible’s D.C. leaders tried to cajole local groups and activists to get behind one Democratic contender (their preference was Elizabeth Warren). Again, most local groups resisted, and in fact Indivisible’s own internal canvasses always showed scattered preferences, with small pluralities of respondents from the national email list at various points favoring Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris, but some lining up for other contenders, including moderates. As Joe Biden began to rack up primary victories, Indivisible argued strongly against his nomination, denouncing him as anathema to “grassroots democratic values.”  Yet as soon as Democratic primary voters, especially African Americans, propelled Biden’s victory, most local Resistance groups moved quickly to get behind his candidacy. As in 2018 when “progressive energy helped moderate Democrats win,” local resisters everywhere were prepared to go all out for whichever Democrat could defeat the Trump GOP.

Both movements have invigorated American small-d democracy, with ordinary middle-class people upping their citizen participation beyond voting.

More disconnects happened in the wake of summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests against police killings. Virtually all Democrats and Resistance groups joined these protests around the country. Nevertheless, unity in June gave way over time to disagreement about the slogan “Defund the Police” amid nationally waning white support for ongoing protests. Even as Democratic candidates ran away from this provocative slogan, left advocates including Indivisible leaders continued to tout it, urging activists to call local officials and “tell them to defund your local police department.” Meanwhile at the grassroots level, many local Resistance groups worked for specific police reforms. For example, when their city council was about to vote on police funding, a group of college-educated white women in one North Carolina Resistance group responded to calls for action from young Black organizers in the area by contacting relevant officials about specific demands—including establishing a citizen review board, requiring body cameras and cultural competency training, and placing less priority on misdemeanor drug offenses. To further election efforts even during the pandemic, resisters also helped register voters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Within the overall wave of renewed activism in and around the Democratic Party, modest though telling divergences in policy goals and political styles are likely to persist. To be sure, disagreements remained in abeyance as all elements of the Resistance and the Democratic Party pushed together to achieve, in the end, their shared goal of defeating Donald Trump’s reelection and (albeit barely) flipping party control in the Senate. Nevertheless, splits are likely to keep flaring between, on the one hand, progressive advocates who want maximal policy changes and practice a moralistically uncompromising style of politics and, on the other hand, many of the party candidates and on-the-ground volunteer citizens who have to fight uphill for election victories and incremental changes in districts of many stripes. Unlike the Tea Party in relation to the GOP, the anti-Trump Resistance has not, overall, pulled the Democratic Party toward extreme styles and stands. But neither has this burst of intense national and local liberal activism overcome the internal tensions that inevitably challenge a party that must be geographically and ideologically inclusive to have any real chance at achieving and retaining national power. Whatever problems the current Republican Party is experiencing, it benefits from mutually reinforcing geographical and partisan biases in the current U.S. political structure. It does not have to bridge as many divides to claim election victories in gerrymandered districts or the U.S. Senate and Electoral College. Certainly, today’s GOP has not had to temper its extremes, even when they pose authoritarian or violent threats to democracy itself.

An Interim Bottom Line for American Democracy

The effects of the Tea Party and Resistance upsurges will continue to play out for yearsto come. Still, some reverberations are already clear enough—and they help us understand why both movements have spurred citizen political engagement, but to clashing ends and with quite different implications for the two major political parties that helm U.S. democracy.

The Tea Party was the first to give widespread, organized support to this non-compromising, demonizing, and fearful style of politics.

Widespread grassroots volunteer groups made both the Tea Party and the anti-Trump Resistance more potent and different from other political undertakings limited to urban street protests or professionally run advocacy operations. By virtue of including thousands of volunteer groups, both movements have invigorated American small-d democracy, with ordinary middle-class people upping their citizen participation beyond votingand drawing their fellow citizens into high-stakes, high-turnout elections and campaigns. These sets of activists and many of their neighbors, coworkers, and social contacts now see winning and losing elections as part of a visceral struggle to define America as a national community, shape a bright future, and fend off alternatives each side finds profoundly threatening. In some ways, this is salutary—as long as political conflicts remain nonviolent—because democracy does depend on consistent engagement by citizens who care about its future.

Yet beyond any parallel contribution to small-d democracy, the Tea Party and the Resistance have had contradictory impacts. On the right, the Republican Party has been transformed, first by the Tea Party and then by the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump—who expanded and centralized the ethnocultural and authoritarian tendencies fueled by that often originally fragmented movement. Fatefully, one of America’s two major parties, the GOP, is willing to ride this surging energy and is, by now, also committed to manipulating every institutional lever—to the edge of legality and beyond—to push threatening attacks on perceived political enemies, including elected officials who refuse to do what true believers want. Most of today’s Republican voters, and a large plurality of the party’s elected officials, are determined to ensconce right-wing rule, even without majority voter support. The Tea Party was the first to give widespread, organized support to this non-compromising, demonizing, and fearful style of politics, and by now many other networks and organizations have joined the broader authoritarian movement inspired and led by Donald Trump. The Tea Party and its message have thus turned out to be both a democratizing force and an anti-constitutional force—super-charging both economic and sociocultural extremism on theright.

Although still being told, the story seems quite different on the left. The anti-Trump Resistance has engaged more citizens in continuous collective action, boosted candidacies and voter participation in all types of elections, and—perhaps most important of all—extended the grassroots reach of the Democratic Party by creating new nodes of activism outside of blue strongholds and adding organized college-credentialed people, mostly women, to ongoing party alliances. At the grassroots, the anti-Trump Resistance simply does not function like “a Tea Party of the left.” Nationally organized progressive advocates have created new energy and engagement, too, but not as much as they believe. And many of the nationally organized Resistance advocates are the ones on the left who sometimes push polarization beyond the limits of majority understanding and consent, a not-so-democratic tendency.

Considered as intersecting fields of top-down and bottom-up organized efforts, the Tea Party and the Resistance have—together—furthered the increasing and asymmetric partisan polarization that helped give rise to both movements in the first place. Ironically, each movement’s internal tensions have contributed in opposite ways. In the Tea Party, organized grassroots activism has supercharged no- compromise extremism by adding ethno-nationalist fears into the free-market anti-government mix—indeed to the point of helping racist conspiracy theorists win seats in Congress. In the Resistance, some national advocacy elites have been more likely to toy with no-compromise, highly ideological styles of politics—putting pressures on elected Democrats that could make it harder for them to win and hold offices in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, though, most grassroots Resistance groups—by virtue of their widespread presence and outreach activities—have in practice reinforced pluralistic coalitions and muscular reformism. By expanding as well as invigorating liberal citizenship, the grassroots anti-Trump Resistance helped the Democratic Party win the right to govern in 2018 and 2020, and this kind of big-tent grassroots activism may give the new Biden-Harris Administration enthusiastic support for decisive yet broadly appealing governing measures. In the end, the new wave of center-left citizen activism unleashed in revulsion to Donald Trump and the Republican Party he and the forerunner Tea Party helped to transform may give the Democratic Party its best chance to come through this era of mobilized extreme polarization as a healthy center-left majority party prepared to govern and keep winning elections in a vast and diversifying nation.

Note: This article draws with permission from a chapter co-authored by Skocpol and Tervo with Kirsten Walters, forthcoming in Robert C. Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, and Kenneth M. Roberts, Democratic Resilience: Can the United States Withstand Rising Polarization? (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and the Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Also by this author

Middle America Reboots Democracy

Caroline Tervo is a research consultant in the Harvard Government Department and the co-editor with Theda Skocpol of the recently published book Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance (Oxford University Press 2020).

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus