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How Middle-Aged Women May Save American Democracy

Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol argues the conservative takeover of the federal government has a silver lining for liberals: It is inspiring more activism.
A woman takes part in the Women's March on January 21st, 2017, in New York.

A woman takes part in the Women's March on January 21st, 2017, in New York.

Why did the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School inspire so many protests and demonstrations? Why did the public anger erupt to the point where 16 states to date have toughened their gun laws?

Most people point to the fierce and principled advocacy of student survivors. But Theda Skocpol, a longtime professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, argues that's only part of the story.

"I think part of the reason were these networked women's groups everywhere," she said in a recent interview. "They provided a little more oomph behind what the younger people wanted to do. I know of a bunch of conservative places where the existing Resistance networks provided support for a group of high-schoolers who wanted to do something."

Democrats are despondent at the moment, reeling from the realization they are powerless to prevent the very conservative Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court. But Skocopol, who has been studying the American political scene for 40 years, sees a silver lining for the left.

She argues liberals are beginning to see that their preferred method of political success—controlling the presidency and the courts—is no longer effective. It's time, she says, to get back to old-fashioned political organizing—which is precisely what the grassroots groups she studies are doing.

Skocpol described her findings, and what the Democrats need to do in the short run to regain momentum, in a telephone interview late last week.


You argue that Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court is almost certain, and that Democrats can make things worse for themselves by pushing swing-state senators into "suicidal grandstanding over abortion." How do Dems make the case against Kavanaugh without enflaming culture-war battles that have the potential to backlash?

The Kavanaugh appointment actually opens up a lot of lines of questioning. I expect senators from different states will pursue different aspects of his record. I think it makes sense to dramatize the stakes, which are very high. But unless something surprising comes up in the confirmation process, I think Kavanaugh will be confirmed, probably by 53 or 54 votes.

I also think Democrats shouldn't engage in extraordinary delaying tactics. The closer [the confirmation fight] gets to the election, the more time it eats up. The Democrats need to move to a broader set of arguments that speak to people's lives. Their task is to win a majority in the House of Representatives and hold onto as many Senate seats as they can.

I can't count how many times I've heard a politician say, "This is the most important election of your lifetime." Do you believe that is really true this year?

Yes. It will be one of the most pivotal elections in history.

I believe the Republican Party has been radicalized into a party that is not particularly interested in anything approximating majority democracy. If the Democrats are able to make up ground in the House, along with key governorships and state legislatures, it will be the beginning of a turnaround. By that, I mean a break on the project of trying to lock in radical minority rule.

If, on the other hand, this Republican Party holds onto the House and extends its control of the Senate, I think it will double down on voter-suppression tactics, which will make defending American democracy even harder than it already is. Also, there is a real danger that Trump will make a couple more appointments to the Supreme Court. The possibility of that will be vastly increased if the Republicans pick up additional seats in the Senate.

Many are currently lamenting that we have entered a period of minority government. They argue an essentially unfair system, in which bodies such as the Senate and the Electoral College, has produced a government that does not reflect the actual will of the people. In your view, to what extent is this the result of an unfair system, and to what extent is it the Democrats' fault for not navigating it effectively?

I'm from the Bill Belichick school. You find out who the referees are, and you play to win with the referees you want—even if they're not fair. Reforming the Electoral College is never going to happen. There are legal strategies to be pursued to limit gerrymandering, but that is somewhat overplayed. About half of the current disadvantage Democrats face in translating votes into legislative seats has to do with their very strong appeal in big cities and their weak presence outside of them.

Voting-rights issues are very important. Finding a way to ease access to the ballot is critical. I think that's the one procedural issue that a lot of attention needs to be paid to. Otherwise, there's no point in talking about how unfair the system is. Democrats really blew it in the 2016 election.

At this point, the danger for Democrats is their most vocal supporters are concentrated on the coasts. But piling up votes in New York, Massachusetts, and California is not going to do it. Voters in those states need to recognize that they should not be waving around silly slogans like "Abolish ICE" that make it harder for Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to get their message across. It makes it harder to win those crucial seats.

If they keep their eye on the ball—such as emphasizing health care, which is a broad, cross-cutting concern—I think the Democrats have a good chance of taking the House of Representatives and holding their own in the Senate. But that's just the beginning. They need to take the presidency in 2020, and hold their own in 2022. Only then will the country's politics begin to shift.

Theda Skocpol.

Theda Skocpol.

You argue that this is the end of an era in which liberals invested heavily in the idea of winning in courts, regardless of who controls Congress or state legislatures. You contend that was never a strong way to proceed. Are court-won victories, like Roe v. Wade, easier to overturn than those won through laws?

They're easier to peck away at. I don't think Roe has ever been fully accepted in the country. I remember being a meeting at Harvard many years ago, in which a woman from a pro-choice organization said, "I've learned in Washington that you can get what you want from the courts, and through lobbying, without winning elections." I stood up and objected. I think that's a terrible idea.

For understandable historical reasons, liberals in the past 50 years have been heavily invested in the presidency and the courts. That produces a style of politics that emphasizes expertise, professionally run advocacy organizations, and spending money on court cases. That has come at the expense of organizing in the states and localities. You have to have the ability to win elections.

That is the silver lining I see in this. I believe that has already begun to turn around. It's highly likely the Supreme Court is going to be in very conservative hands for the next 20 years. Well, maybe it's time for another round of tax-and-spend liberalism. Democrats need to make the case to the public that we need to spend more through the public sector to ensure opportunity and security for everybody. They can use both state legislatures and Congress to change the tax structure, and expand Social Security and Medicare.

If the Supreme Court eviscerates the Affordable Care Act's regulatory structure, the obvious next step is to let people buy into Medicare. That would be very popular, and there's no way the Supreme Court could overturn it. There are a whole series of things that could be done that would have a transformative impact. But you have to have legislative majorities to do that.

That requires getting your people to vote in every election—local, state, and national—which is something Republicans have been much better at than Democrats in recent decades.

That's beginning to happen now on the center left. A lot of local groups, like Indivisible, are doing just that. People need to recognize that, even if things go well this November, a lot of Democratic candidates are not going to win. But you keep on it; you have to do exactly what the right has done.

When they get into office, liberals need to pay attention to things like expanding voting rights, and setting up policy debates that are going to be to their advantage down the line. If there is a turnaround, that's how it's going to happen.

I think a flip has occurred, at least among educated, middle-class Americans. I studied the Tea Party; now I'm studying some of the Resistance groups. They use practically the same language eight years apart. The quotes [from activists] are eerily similar: "I used to vote. Now I realize my country could be lost, and I have to do more." That's what many of these Resistance groups, which are mainly led by white women, are saying now.

Let's talk about those grassroots anti-Trump groups you have been studying. You write that they defy many clichés, in that most are based in suburbs or smaller cities, are not particularly leftist, and are run by middle-aged and older women rather than young firebrands.

I think these are the key to revitalizing the Democratic Party outside of the most liberal areas of the country. It's not being led by Bernie Sanders people. These are middle-class women's networks, with some men in them. They turned around public opinion on the Affordable Care Act. They were behind Conor Lamb's victory, along with the unions. They're everywhere, and they have made a real difference. They're likely to be the key to congressional victories, if they happen.

What drives these women?

They're not likely to be highly ideological. They care about good government, health care, education, decency toward immigrants and refugees. A lot of them got involved through church networks. There's not only a religious right. There's a religious center left.

A lot of them are progressive, but they're also pragmatic. They don't insist on the leftmost candidate. They'll get behind any reasonable Democrat. In many cases, they are revitalizing local Democratic parties. A lot are involved in voter-registration and voter-outreach efforts. They're certainly running new people for office.

If the Democrats can't pull this off, and we are entering a long period of minority rule, do you fear the people will lose faith in the government, which could lead to social unrest?

I do think there's a real possibility that the United States has passed a turning point and is permanently in decline as a relatively inclusive democratic nation. If that's true, the fallback will likely to be an increasing pulling away of the liberal regions of the country. California has practically declared its independence!

The youngest, most vibrant parts of the U.S. are not going to be on board with what the Supreme Court will be pushing over the next 20 years. Good luck enforcing some of those rulings in Massachusetts and California. It just won't work.

But wouldn't that result in great instability, making the U.S. a weaker nation?

Yes. The chances that the Trump presidency, especially if it last two terms, will put the U.S. in a post-imperial decline are about 85 percent.

That should be a strong incentive for young people to get politically active now.

There's a danger that young people on the left believe participating in a demonstration, or tweeting, is politics. It is, but it sure isn't going to make a difference. The only thing that will make a difference is people going to the polls this fall.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.