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Women Are Rebuilding the Democratic Party From the Ground Up

Not since the Tea Party wave in 2009 has America seen such widespread grassroots activism.

Illustration by Nicolas Ortega

Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one in the western Pennsylvania district where Lisa Boeving-Learned, a veteran and retired police sergeant with a wife and deep family ties in the region, is running for the state legislature. In western Wisconsin, networks of local grassroots activists are supporting a female, Native American former Marine running for state assembly in a region that swung hard for Donald Trump. And in Catawba County, North Carolina—which Trump won by 38 points—three Democratic women, including the area’s first candidate from the local Hmong community, are running for slots on a five-person county commission that has been Republican since the mid-1980s.

There has been much media coverage of the women running for office in 2018. Most of it centers on their personal motivations, presuming, for instance, that these women were inspired by the #MeToo moment or threats to abortion access. But these readings oversimplify the wide range of concerns energizing women candidates and activists. Most fundamentally, they overlook the key role of new groups and grassroots networks in making campaigns viable where political professionals thought they couldn’t be. Women (and some men), activated by the current moment and aided by civic groups of their own making, are heading out—into neighborhoods, church halls, and county party committees—working to oust unresponsive incumbents and rebuild participatory democracy.

Not since the Tea Party wave in 2009 has this country seen such a sharp uptick in the creation of local groups, activists, and candidates. And for the first time in a generation, this sustained political engagement is happening on the left, not the right. Our research (conducted in part with doctoral student Leah Gose) draws on in-depth observations and surveys of grassroots organizations in eight pro-Trump counties in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, as well as participant observation and interviews with three dozen grassroots groups in the Pittsburgh suburbs and small cities of southwest Pennsylvania. Local groups like the ones we study have revitalized existing local Democratic structures but also made it possible to cut around traditional gatekeepers, getting new candidates onto ballots and new supporters knocking on doors. This is the biggest story of the 2018 midterms—not the primary challenges from the left nor the surging poll numbers for blue candidates in red districts but the shared trend underlying both: The Democratic Party, long in retreat, is being rebuilt from below across a geographic spectrum that would have seemed impossible two years ago.

The Tea Party ultimately pulled the Republicans further toward the far right and away from the possibility of compromise. Will the new Democratic activists provoke the same result? Almost certainly not. They are, on the whole, more liberal-minded than the current, mostly Republican officeholders in their districts—but that doesn’t make them radicals. In rural areas, many are gun owners. In suburbs, they run their local Parent Teacher Organization. They are active in their churches and religious groups. And they organize vigils to protest family separation at the border, support youth who #marchforourlives against gun violence, and cheer candidates who demand health care for all. Their ideological and cultural range makes a mockery of the strategists and pundits who claim to know who Democrats’ “energized base” really is. Viewed up close, they offer little support for narratives of civil war or disarray. They’re too busy planning the next canvass.

On the eve of the 2016 election, barely half of the local Democratic committeeperson seats across the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania were filled. That’s an estimate: Party leaders were not even attentive enough to the structures of local participation to keep systematic track of whether or not they had been filled.

This was the result of a generation-long decay within the party, driven not just by broad social trends (the collapse of union membership; the decline of civic “joining,” especially in working-class communities) but by crucial, divergent national choices. In 2008, a campaign-orchestrated mass movement drove Barack Obama into the White House. But that infrastructure was left to rot. “Organizing for Obama” went through various iterations, but none kept the citizen momentum going or channeled the hands-on participation of 2008 into a newly active, widely present Democratic Party.

Since the 1970s, Republicans have done a much better job of organizing their grassroots. The GOP relies on conservative church networks, National Rifle Association affiliates, and local business groups, along with powerful networks such as the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, to give their organizing efforts shape (and cash). After Obama’s election, close to 1,000 volunteer-led Tea Party groups popped up, in all 50 states. Republican donors and activists invested heavily and reaped the electoral rewards. The Democratic failure to match their efforts produced massive state house losses (some 900 seats between 2009 and 2016) that left them unable to fight to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act or fend off right-wing attacks on labor union rights, reproductive health access, education spending, and more.

Today, with the federal bench and Supreme Court remade by conservative appointments, these same state legislative bodies, which Democrats have left virtually uncontested in GOP hands, will be the policymaking frontlines for the foreseeable future. Some national groups have rushed belatedly to fill this gap, eager to talk PAC structures and campaign tech, which do matter. But bylaws and monthly meetings matter, too. From coal-country capitals like Washington, Pennsylvania, to well-heeled Westchester, New York, grassroots leaders are winning seats on county and state Democratic Party committees and calling for more transparency, more outreach, more action. This is not unlike the Tea Party eight years ago, when local groups self-organized in order to sidestep moribund local parties and then rapidly moved in to inhabit and reanimate the old local party structures themselves.

The women recruiting candidates, fund-raising, and knocking on doors this fall are not pushing the Democratic Party to its ideological extremes, as the Tea Party did to the Republicans a decade ago. But the ways in which their priorities converge do have the potential to redraw the boundaries of America’s two political parties. Bringing more women into political action does not, as one might expect, significantly shift the politics of abortion, one of the few issues on which men and women mostly think alike. Yet women do tend to prefer a stronger public safety net and higher public investment in education, health care, and support for individuals with disabilities.

The oft-repeated estimate that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump reflects a stark internal divide within a demographic category that encompasses about 40 percent of American voters. Increasingly, white women are rejecting Trump’s political vision, even as their husbands and brothers are not. While a Public Religion Research Institute poll in January found that 48 percent of young white men aged 15–24 “believe diversity efforts will harm white people,” only 28 percent of young white women agree.

This gender split is one of the most important political developments today. For a generation, GOP support has been largely confined to white voters. Now the GOP is increasingly a party of white men, alongside a shrinking and aging cohort of white women. The female-led grassroots surge across purple and red America is pulling in some women who previously voted Republican. Even among the women who still identify as Republicans, a divide has opened up. Only 31 percent “strongly approve” of the president, according to a Washington Post–Schar School poll this summer, compared to 68 percent of Republican men. This leaves an even harder-edged Trumpism at the core of GOP activism, cementing a brand of male authority that can only drive moderate women further away.

By contrast, the Democratic revival underway is both ideologically diverse and harmonious. On the ground at least, there is no civil war between center and left, as some pundits have warned. There aren’t even lines for battle. The new organizers don’t fit the cultural templates presumed to divide potential Democrats into categories, like liberal metropolitan elites and blue-collar populists worried about change. Lisa Boeving-Learned’s conversations with voters, for example, link universal health care to her pro-veteran and pro-union stands; she is passionate about voting rights and redistricting, and isn’t afraid to speak up for commonsense gun laws in places where other politicians duck the question. Campaigns like hers—and the local groups making them possible—are expanding the party’s ranks beyond what had become a narrow urban and bicoastal core, which should help Democrats win state legislature seats in 2018 and navigate the electoral college in 2020. Most of all, they are creating new spaces for the urgent, long-delayed conversations our incomplete democracy needs.