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Democracy Works

135 EpisodesProduced by Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy GroupWebsite

Examining what it means to live in a democracy


The connective tissue of democracy

The Women’s March 2020 was held in cities across the country on January 18. What began as a conversation on social media has evolved into a network of groups and organizations that are united in opposition to the Trump administration.

From 2017-2019, Dana Fisher and her research team interviewed participants at Washington, D.C. protests, including the Women’s March, March for Our Lives, and the People’s Climate March. They asked protesters about their motivations and how marching in the streets translates into longer-term political action. Fisher argues that the groups in the Resistance are the “connective tissue of democracy,” bringing together people who are working to make their voices heard and advocate for the environment, reproductive rights, and other causes.

But will the connective tissue hold through the election in November? What about beyond that? Fisher shares her thoughts based on her research on the Resistance and collective organizing more broadly.

Fisher is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, which chronicles the birth and growth of the anti-Trump resistance following the 2016 election.

This episode is a nice follow up to our conversation with Theda Skocpol last week about how the Tea Party transformed Republican politics.

Additional Information

Dana’s book, American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave

Dana’s website

Related Episodes

How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending American politics

Grassroots organizing to reboot democracy

Tracing the past, present, and future of protests

Episode Credits

This episode was engineered by Democracy Works host Jenna Spinelle, edited by WPSU’s Chris Kugler, and reviewed by WPSU News Director Emily Reddy. Additional support from Democracy Works interns Nicole Gresen and Stephanie Krane.

Thank you to Meredith Howard at Columbia University Press for sending us a copy of American Resistance and helping arrange an interview with Dana.

Interview Highlights [8:25] How do you define the Resistance?

I think of the resistance as a counter-movement to the Trump regime. So, it involves people working individually and through organizations to challenge the Trump administration and its policies. And because it’s specifically about targeting and the Trump administration and its policies, people in the administration who are writing anonymously in the New York Times or publishing books anonymously calling themselves the resistance don’t fit into my definition of resistance.

[10:05] Is there anything that unites the Resistance beyond opposition to the Trump administration?

Well, I think that we could say that this movement is unified also in its progressive ideals. One of the things that unifies all the people who participated is their concern about a number of different progressive issues. And depending on the event where I’m collecting data, different issues take precedence. So obviously, women’s rights, reproductive rights are very prominent in the Women’s Marches. But at the People’s Climate March, climate change is obviously a prominent feature. At the March for Racial Justice, racial justice and Black Lives Matter tends to be a prominent issue.

[12:50] Does the initial outrage that takes people into the streets translate into long-term political engagement?

At the early marches, like the Women’s March 2017, a third of the crowd reported never having participated in a protest before. And in fact, I got lots of people telling me, “I’ve never done this before, but I had to come out after this election.” And what we saw in the crowd was very much this sense of group therapy taking place at these events. Organizations, be they civil society organizations, social movement organizations, whatever you want to call them, these groups are the connective tissue of democracy in a lot of ways in America because they do a lot of the work of coordinating among individuals. And so in a lot of cases, the people who at first just felt like they had to get out in the streets, and in many cases, they weren’t particularly connected to organizations, then channeled their outrage into real activism through organizations, and in many cases, targeting the election, particularly the midterm election in 2018.

[16:10] Where does the Democratic Party fit in here?

In a lot of ways, the Obama administration, the Obama campaign in 2008, masked over a lot of the problems that we saw with regard to real grassroots infrastructure being built at the local level among the Democratic Party or Democratic Party operatives. And so when we get to 2016, resistance groups in a lot of ways formed to fill the void because there are not a lot of opportunities for local people to get involved in progressive left-leaning activities in their communities.

[19:04] What is distributed organizing?

Distributed organizing is this new way of coordinating and organizing activism and electoral political activism. Let me say that over again. Distributed organizing is a new way of organizing at the local level, and basically, it’s coordinated digitally. And it means that it’s something new that has only come up as people have become much more connected through all these different technologies that are now available. And distributed organizing means that no longer do people attend meetings and sign up and pay dues to organizations. But instead, they sign up to participate in a specific action, in many cases, a protest, through a website. And all of a sudden, they’re on a list, and they’re considered a member of an organization that was sponsoring this event.

[26;16] What does the Resistance look like after the 2020 election?

An optimistic outcome where the resistance succeeds, and there is a Democrat taking office in the White House and continues to be a democratic majority in the House of Representatives and even the long shot democratic majority in the Senate. In that case, I think that it will be a real question about what happens to the resistance, this fragile coalition of organizations that have bonded together and mobilized hundreds of thousands of people across the country to work together across a range of progressive issues will have a very hard time once they’re working within an issue based specific political realm because all of a sudden, they’re going to have to compete for attention and resources in ways that they don’t right now because everybody’s just working on defense.

If President Trump is re-elected, I think that we’re going to see a resistance, a coalition of groups and individuals, who are extremely frustrated with the idea of what will come for the next four years, another four years of retrenchment. I think as a result of that, we’re going to see a resistance that’s becoming increasingly confrontational and reactionary. And I think a lot of the people who are willing to go out into the streets are going to be more interested in something less peaceful and more about pushing confrontation.

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