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‘The Resistance’ built grass-roots groups across the U.S. Will the Democratic Party put that energy to work in 2020?

Here’s what these women — and they’re mostly women — are doing in swing states.

- December 31, 2019

Donald Trump’s election sparked a host of marches, protests and new local and national groups dedicated to opposing his agenda and electing more Democrats. This social movement, which calls itself “the resistance,” includes thousands of citizens, many of whom are older, well-educated white women.

These groups have spent two years engaging politically, through everything from town meetings to voter registration drives to weekly protests. They have the potential to persuade undecided or disillusioned voters who will be key in battleground states. Will the national Democratic Party now draw on the resistance in its effort to defeat Trump — and if yes, how?

How ‘the resistance’ began

After the 2016 election, devastated Hillary Clinton supporters lamented together in the Pantsuit Nation group on Facebook. One post gave birth to the Women’s March. For some of the estimated 4.2 million people who participated, that march was just the start.

Local groups popped up all over the United States — in cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas, both “red” and “blue” — to capitalize on the post-election energy. By mid-2017 at least 6,000 Indivisible groups had formed. Many others organized under the Action Together umbrella, as outposts of the Women’s March, as local offshoots of Pantsuit Nation or in some other guise. In a recent study, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol and I found at least one “resistance” group in 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

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Who is part of the resistance?

Skocpol and I researched dozens of these grass-roots resistance groups in depth, focusing in particular on groups from eight nonurban counties — two each in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio. The 439 group members we surveyed are predominantly well-educated, older white women with strong ties to their communities.

Unsurprisingly, most identify as Democrats and are committed to progressive ideals. While many joined resistance groups because of their opposition to Trump, they’ve stayed involved out of a strong desire to be more politically involved and to speak up on behalf of vulnerable and disenfranchised groups.

What does the resistance do?

In the first three years of the Trump presidency, resistance group members have learned and honed political engagement skills. The year-long battle to save the Affordable Care Act was an extended exercise for these groups in how to engage the media and successfully push their congressional representatives, in town halls, phone campaigns, rallies and more. They continued these efforts on still more concerns, such as the environment and immigration.

Of the 82 Pennsylvania groups we surveyed in early 2019 about what they’d done in 2018, 62 reported that they had knocked on doors; 39 had registered voters; 36 had sponsored candidate events; and 34 had held phone banks. Groups also reported hosting postcard-writing parties to contact unregistered voters; calling and writing elected officials; and holding public protests.

Resistance groups are also collaborating with each other, working together within and across districts, and partnering to develop policy platforms and make decisions about which candidates to endorse. They also work with other organizations, such as local churches, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and local universities’ Democratic clubs, with which they frequently co-host events or voting drives.

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Will the Democratic Party take advantage of the resistance?

At the local level, we find these resistance groups working closely with the Democratic Party. In our 2017 survey of 36 Pennsylvania groups, 22 reported they had cooperative ties with local Democrats.

At that time, a significant number of resistance groups reported hostile or wary relationships with local party organizations. Because of that, at least some candidates bypassed local and state parties to engage grass-roots groups directly; for instance, using members for the local outreach campaigning efforts. In 2018, some resistance group members ran for and even won county Democratic Party leadership positions, shaking up local party offices. Resistance members have run for other open positions as well, including House of Representatives, state legislatures, county commissions and school boards.

Our 2019 survey in Pennsylvania revealed that resistance groups and local Democratic parties had been cooperating more, although that varied by group. Thirty-eight of the 82 groups reported positive relationships with their local parties, while 13 said their relationships had improved within the past year and only 12 said their ties were tense or hostile. One group leader chalked up improved relationships to the fact that so many group members had joined the party leadership or planning committees.

Today, resistance groups continue to support their own members for elections, sometimes seeking local Democratic Party support or endorsements along the way. One group we tracked in Ohio aims at having at least one member running for every open position at all levels of government up to the U.S. House in 2020. They are working closely with their district’s party.

We’ve seen less evidence that resistance groups are involved with state and national Democratic Party efforts. In 2018 in a few states, including Pennsylvania, the state Democratic Party worked to enlist resistance group members in canvassing during the midterms. None of the DNC’s current publicly announced efforts incorporate these grass-roots resistance groups. Instead, the DNC has primarily focused on hyper-localized digital awareness campaigns, opt-in educational libraries for interested volunteers, and a new effort focused on training campaign workers for the upcoming election. Organizing Corps 2020 is operating in eight battleground states, primarily training to-be college graduates, particularly people of color, for deployment once a presidential candidate is selected.

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Perhaps this will change. Both the DNC and the party’s presidential nominee (when chosen) could obviously try to build on these groups’ efforts. If they don’t, these grass-roots groups could suffer from a lack of outside investment in and enthusiasm about their political engagement. If the Democrats work with these groups, they might help ensure that these groups and their members stay politically active throughout 2020 working to register or fire up voters who wouldn’t otherwise show up to the polling booths.

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Leah E. Gose is a doctoral student in sociology at Harvard University and has recently published an article with Theda Skocpol on progressive grass-roots resistance groups.