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The Local Advocacy Landscape in the Age of Trump

As part of FutureEd’s new AdvocacyLabs initiative, a partnership with 50CAN, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee explores the world of local advocacy with Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, author of the 2003 book Diminished Democracy and co-author of the 2012 book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Porter Magee: In Diminished Democracy you explore the ways in which advocacy organizations have changed. Can you talk about that?

Skocpol: I think that the biggest change in recent decades has been the rise of professionally run advocacy groups, which have a bigger role in policy advocacy than citizen groups run mostly by volunteers. That's pretty important in the education world because schools are local. There was a time when it would have been the PTA that would have been doing most of the local advocacy work. But how much of those functions have been taken over by more professional groups? I suspect quite a bit.

Are we seeing a return to local, citizen-driven advocacy?

These citizen groups in the United States were never exclusively local. Instead, they were organized across levels: federal, state, and local. We're seeing some of that again. There has been—on both the right and the left—a revival of these local actions that speak to larger issues at the same time. Right now my research is on the kind of groups that have emerged under the Trump presidency, and they're very active locally. They often have regional or state networks as well, and sometimes they're part of national frameworks like Indivisible, the progressive advocacy network. Those local groups talk about education issues at the local level; they're not focusing on what’s happening in Washington, D.C.

How should we understand these developments? Are these purely partisan movements or are there issues at the core of their work independent of the political parties?

Well, I don't think there's anything wrong with partisanship per se. But I do think that when people have different understandings of reality, which has to do with the way organizations and their active members fit into the media ecosphere, then I think you've got some problems. One of the big findings in our work on the anti-Trump resistance is that it's not concentrated just in blue areas. We thought it might be, but it isn't. Both the Tea Party and the Resistance are all over geographically.

You've got anti-Trump groups meeting in very, very conservative areas. What they do in those places varies depending on whether it is in a college town or if they're in a big metropolis. But same was true for the Tea Party. When people feel beleaguered and threatened, they sometimes decide it’s time to act and get together.

I wonder if you could talk about the structure of these efforts and the way they are locally driven?

I think the reason that we still have a certain amount of local citizen action is because the United States is still a federated political system. The most effective groups in American public life have always been federated, which means they have some ability, either through one organization or through networks, to operate across levels. That’s especially true for groups that work on education. You really have to be able to deal with local and state issues.

By the way, what both the Tea Party groups and the Resistance groups do is teach people about all the complexities of our political system. When you joined the Tea Party groups, you learned about gerrymandering,  you learned which district is where, and who decides what. And they encouraged their members to run for office. Now we're seeing exactly the same thing, somewhat more remarkably, among liberals. Because liberals have been used to looking only to Washington for solutions up until now.

Could you say more about the way liberals got too focused on Washington, D.C.?

We're seeing a movement to correct some of that. It's awfully late, the horse has left the barn and they have suffered a really devastating loss of power in dozens of states. So it's going to be hard to reverse it but they are now finally stepping forward and running for office at all levels.

I am concerned that the big fight over the Democratic nomination is going to take away some of the focus on state and local races that was so strong among Democrats between 2016 and 2018. Liberals almost had no choice but to focus on states, there just wasn't anything else to do, and so everybody did that. But certainly there are a lot of forces pushing the focus back on the presidency.

It's amazing to see all these candidates out there telling people what they will do if they're elected president, and not a single one of them is going to be able to do any of it if they don't win Congress or state legislatures. And I think we have a media system that actually exacerbates that mindset, on both the left and the right. The media gives people the impression that a president can actually do whatever he or she wants. Well, they can't.

What might the next four years look like?

I do think the Democratic party is being remade at the local level and in many states, and I doubt that's going to change. At least that's what we're seeing in Pennsylvania where we’ve got the most detailed data.

If a Democrat wins the presidency, and I don’t think it really matters which Democrat wins, all he or she  are going to be able to do is reverse some of the damage Trump has done to the federal government, heal some of the wounds in our international relations, appoint some judges. That’s not nothing. But I don’t think the first two years of any Democratic presidency are going to see big policy changes. I don’t even think most Americans want big policy changes to tell you the truth.

Anything you want to make sure aspiring local advocates know?

There’s a tendency to overestimate what money can do. It’s important but it’s not the only thing that matters. When people actually get active and organized, they can make a big difference. We have seen quite a lot of that throughout American history and that’s especially true for the local and state governments.