How can we make sense of the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump? What forces moved American politics from the first African-American president and an all-Democratic Congress (2008) to ethno-nationalist rhetoric and GOP control of Congress (2016)? What do the reactions to these political events – the rise of the Tea Party and the Anti-Trump resistance – tell us about these, and future, presidential elections?
In their new book Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance
(Oxford University Press, 2019), Theda Skocpol
and Caroline Tervo
focus on changing organizational configurations – such as voluntary local citizens’ groups, elite advocacy organizations, consortia of wealthy donors (e.g., Koch’s Americans For Prosperity), and candidate-led political campaigns – to explain these radical shifts.
The book has a unique methodology: a rich mix of quantitative and qualitative data analyzed by a collaborative team of authors from political science, sociology, and history. The range is extraordinary, combining what is best about both field work and big data in the social sciences. The authors document the changing organizational configurations – at both the national and state levels – with an emphasis on the states that were pivotal in the 2016 election: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania. The book offer insights about national trends while capturing the importance of federalism – and attending to unique factors in swing states.
The authors excavate how top-down efforts (ultra-free market fundamentalism funded by groups like Americans For Prosperity) combined with bottom-up organizations (popular, local, and diverse groups who often channeled ethno-nationalist resentment) to push Republican politics to the right. Their analysis of progressive groups reacting to the Trump presidency reveals grassroots organizing that is both similar and different to the Tea Party movement. Rather than pushing the Democratic party to the left, the resisters work within the Democratic party (often energizing moribund organizations).
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013).