In This Episode
After a train crash pumped toxic chemicals into East Palestine, OH, Republican Party leaders wasted no time trying to turn tragedy into partisan outrage, alleging an elite liberal conspiracy against the white working class. Republicans have gotten really good at acting livid about everything from train derailments to gas stoves to migrant caravans, which leaves us all drowning in their culture war fights. How do the flashpoints of those culture wars arise? To what extent are they organic versus orchestrated? And as a mode of politics for an entire party and political movement, are they effective? That is: Is this helping Republicans win elections? If not, why are they doing it? And if so, does that mean we’re just stuck with right wing culture where politics forever? Or can Democrats fight back with culture war battles of their own? Harvard political scientist and data scholar Theda Skocpol joins host Brian Beutler this week to talk about how Republicans continuously try to recreate the magic of the Tea Party movement, and help us better understand what purposes these right wing culture wars serve.
Brian Beutler: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. There’s a tick in mainstream political reporting. I think Margaret Sullivan and I may have alluded to it in an episode a couple of weeks back where reporters and editors and producers and so on assessed the newsworthiness of an issue more or less in proportion to how fired up either of the two political parties are about it. So why they do this is slightly complicated, but if you reason backward from the idea that journalists are supposed to pretend like they have no opinions, which is an idea that’s very commonly held in American newsrooms, you can kind of understand why this sort of test might seem like a good heuristic. We don’t presume to judge what matters or what’s right, but these guys seem pretty fired up about this or that. And so we are duty bound to cover it to take their expressed concern seriously. That sounds harmless enough, except it’s a system that’s easily gamed by whichever party happens to be less scrupulous or more willing to to behave angry, to act angry about something that isn’t actually controversial or very important. You probably gather where I’m going with this, but in our political culture today, that party is the Republican Party. And if you pay close attention to politics, but you don’t play by that sort of shitstorm test or that shitstorm rule, you have these Groundhog Day like moments where, say, a Republican president will give way to a Democratic president and then the Republican Party suddenly appears all fired up about deficits and government spending and debt or an election draws near. And wouldn’t you know it? Republicans are suddenly livid about a migrant caravan moving north through Mexico. The GOP made Benghazi a central theme of the 2016 Republican National Convention, then stopped pretending to care after Donald Trump won the election. Same thing happened with emails. We heard so much endless sincere sounding outrage about the sanctity of government records and the importance of adhering to the rules only for Trump to come in and preside over the most corrupt administration in my lifetime, including serial widespread violations of records, keeping rules. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out it was no big deal. Okay, so when stuff like this happens, I have a mantra that I return to and I aim it at our press corps and it goes like this. It goes, you don’t have to pretend to believe Republicans when they pretend to be mad about something. And I think that’s a pretty good lodestar for journalism today, except it means that journalists have to be pretty sure they know what outrage is actually insincere. And that can be tricky. Sometimes history is here to help, especially recent history. I like to think that the press has become slightly less credulous over the years about where the parties really stand on issues surrounding the federal budget. But sometimes outrage is genuine and it swells from the bottom up, and it’s perfectly natural for elected officials to echo that outrage. All of that brings us to the topic of this week’s episode, which is I guess it’s like the sociology of right wing culture wars. How do the flashpoints of those culture wars arise? To what extent are they organic? To what extent are they orchestrated? And as a mode of politics for an entire party and political movement, are they effective? I mean, they’re obviously effective at galvanizing segments of the public and intimidating political opponents and media figures and so on. But is the modern GOP’s near exclusive fixation on tribal politics, identity politics, culture war politics? Is this optimal for their electoral fortunes? If the ultimate goal is for conservative politicians to win elections? Are they picking a good strategy? If not, why are they doing it? [laughs] And if it is something like the best they can do, are we just stuck with right wing culture war politics forever? And can Democrats fight back with culture war battles of their own? So the big one right now on the right stems from something that’s very real. There’s usually at least a kernel of something real at the bottom of these episodes. This one’s about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It would be a sign of a healthier political culture if this accident had sparked bipartisan calls for investigations, tighter safety regulations, environmental cleanup, restitutions for families paid for by Norfolk Southern. But that’s not really happening. And it’s not happening in part because the leadership of the Republican Party and the key media figures of the far right have pounced to declare the derailment a consequence of Democrats abandoning the heartland. Or worse, they’ll just come out right and say it’s part of a liberal war on white people. Before East Palestine, the culture war flavor of the week was gas stoves. You may remember this gas stoves pollute the air and houses. They might actually be hazardous to people’s health, particularly to children’s health. And so the federal consumer safety regulator said. That danger should be addressed, needed to be addressed. It got reported inaccurately as the federal government plans to ban gas stoves. And then Republicans were off to the races. They’re coming for your gas stoves. Except one. It just wasn’t true. And two, gas stoves aren’t even a heartland thing. Guns. Sure. But gas stoves are for foodies, coastal elites, Democrats. And so all the questions I just alluded to apply. Is the outrage genuine? Do they believe any of that? I think the answer is no. When it comes to chemical spills, they don’t believe in business regulation. They don’t believe in federal environmental protection. They don’t believe corporations should be accountable for their pollution. So they don’t really believe a toxic train crash is some deep betrayal of real America. And when it comes to gas stoves or fluorescent lighting or low flush toilets or any of the other things they’ve recently tried to gin up outrage over. These are just things they saw on the news. They never thought about them or cared about them before. But they decided to scream to the high heavens about them to see if they could get a good backlash going. So is that effective politics? I honestly don’t know the answer. We had some special elections this past week and Democrats did really well on them. Democrats have done really well in the past three general elections. So it’s not like Republicans have cracked the code with this culture war, politics or anything, but they’re definitely a committed to the bit. And so why is that? I think part of it is that their governing agenda, such as it is, turns a lot of people off. It’s tax cuts for the rich, big cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, abortion bans and so on. So getting the public and the media worked up about gas stoves or caravans or whatever else takes the heat off of policy in general. But I think there’s more to the story. So in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, after Barack Obama became president, there was a huge immediate right wing backlash and it took shape in the Tea Party and the Tea Party’s leaders and Republicans in Congress all swore up and down that this was an organic uprising of Americans who were livid about deficits and spending. And so they wanted to stop the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. And many, many reporters dutifully covered it that way. But a Harvard sociologist named Theda Skocpol did the real hard work of trying to understand what animated the actual people who joined the Tea Party movement. Was it spending government money on health insurance or was it something else? And after conducting years of interviews and doing deep empirical research, she published a book called The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. And she concluded, no. That this is a recurrent phenomenon on the right, spurred in this instance by contempt for Obama and the many things he supported and represented. So multiculturalism, the thriving of nonwhite immigrants. Welfare for ethnic minorities. And that resurgence works like a charm. Republicans won by enormous margins in 2010, which allowed them to reshape national politics for more than a decade. And I think it stands to reason that they they kind of want to recreate that magic. So to sort of channel people’s lizard brained grievances and hatreds into some respectable sounding vehicle or other gas stoves, for instance. And if you do that, you might whip up a political insurgency that sweeps Republicans back into power. So is that what’s really going on here? Is it deeper than just pure cynicism? Well, fortunately, Theda Skocpol agreed to join us this week to help me kick the tires on this theory and to help us better understand just generally why we’re always drowning in these right wing culture war fights. So Theda, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Theda Skocpol: Thanks. It’s nice to be here.
Brian Beutler: So first things first. Do you object to how I characterized anything in that lengthy wind up?
Theda Skocpol: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I mean, we we need to remember that I did the Tea Party research with Vanessa Williamson, and we together pulled together all kinds of information, including from interviews and visits to actual Tea Parties on the ground. So.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, no, no intention to give short shrift to your to your colleague. In your work. Did you. Have you concluded or do you sense that there’s sort of a natural rhythm to these right wing resurgences like the Tea Party and then and then MAGA? Do they swell up on their own? Or does it require a top down stoking of resentments?
Theda Skocpol: You know, movements never just swell up from below. I mean, I think that’s something we can say about movements left, right and otherwise throughout history and including American history, they usually have both bottom up and top down elements are the ones that catch on and build over time and gain some kind of political clout, have some grounding in real social anxieties or social cleavages. And, you know, I would step back. We’ve seen the, the Tea Party rebellions against Barack Obama, which definitely had both bottom up and top down elements to them, we’ve seen them transmogrified into Trumpism over the course of a decade. And now Trumpism is taking on an even harder edge and living on beyond Trump. In my view, I think Trump is is is on his way to the backstage. But there are plenty of politicians who want to ride the same waves and stoke the same waves, and it takes both. Now, I would point to something that we stressed at the time in the Tea Party research, which having a dedicated, propaganda oriented right wing media complex really does help to keep certain kinds of angers and fears front and center. But we are in an era in the United States that I would characterize big picture as the unfolding and now intertwining of three major societal transformations. First, there was the civil rights revolution and the renewal of Black voting rights and the reassertion of Black rights to be full participants in society. Well, that starts in the 1960s and seventies and culminates in what for many older conservatives was a very scary way in the election of Barack Obama. It’s just jarring for them to think about and see that. And they had then plenty of help from the right wing media and right wing elites and stoking those fears about what that would mean. But that’s not the only thing that’s happened. We’ve seen big changes in family life and in gender roles and relationships. And in some ways, that’s the second big wave of change that unfolded with the rise of with the emergence of the organized Christian right and its ability to take over in a very sustained way. A major part of the Republican Party, starting from localities and states and moving up. And that is probably the most sustained set of social angers and fears. And of course, if you pick an issue like transgender health care for children or anything about gays and lesbians, you can arouse those kinds of angers and fears. And you might be trying to do that if you’re a right wing elite. At the same time that the abortion thing seems to be backfiring because it wasn’t just aspiring to ban abortions. It’s actually happening and there’s a backlash to that from the center left. But I want to point to the third thing that’s unfolded in this era. And if you go back across American history, every time there’s a period of arrival of new waves of immigrants in the United States and they’re different defined against whatever was there before, first it was Germans and Irish, then it was Eastern Europeans, Eastern European, Jews and Catholics in big waves and to some degree, Blacks migrating from the south into the north. And in since 1965, until about 2008, we had waves of new arrivals from Central and Latin America, Africa and Asia. And even though those arrivals are not net as great now, it’s not surprising that we’re in a period of nativist reaction to that. And a lot of the Tea Party was about that nativism. That’s one of the things we argue that people were as upset by Barack Obama’s middle name and the fact that a lot of immigrants were supporting him and they thought that he wanted to legalize immigrants, undocumented immigrants, in order to vote for Democrats as they were about the color of his skin. So these things are now intertwined into one big, I don’t know, apocalyptic ball in the minds of a lot of older people who are who see a country that’s changing that they don’t recognize as what they grew up with and that they’re afraid of. Now, those fears are artificially stoked all the time. I do not say that the Republican Party is and its politicians are operating just because they’re afraid of this. I don’t buy the idea that Tucker Carlson is just afraid of his viewers. They know what they’re doing.
[clip of Tucker Carlson]: Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that’s that’s what’s happening, actually, let’s just say it. That’s true.
Theda Skocpol: They know they’re stoking, arousing building those fears in order to use them for profit, for corrupt profits. There’s a lot of corruption and for political power that they will then use to enact tax cuts for the very rich of whom there are more and more these days on all parts of the spectrum and regulatory cuts on business. Trump kind of fused all that, but he’s not the only one who aspires to do it and to fuse it. And, you know, the current form that racial figures take these days is is a lot of fear about violence and whether the police can crack down harder than ways that that was taken for granted in the pre camera era. There’s nothing new about police beating up on people of color and for that matter, lower income white people in rural areas and killing them in many cases. It’s just that we see it now. And so that created another round of the kind of Black white transformations, because Blacks are no longer willing to accept this, and neither are their white allies. So, you know, I just have to say that those things are all really happening. They have really come together in the early 21st century. And so they provide a fertile ground, especially when you take into account that Republicans ended up being captured by a lot of that with the rise of Trump. The parties hollowed out in many ways and now captured by Trumpists. And they have a lot of extra levers at their disposal because the way the federal single member district system operates in the Senate operates, they have, a third of the population could give them a chance to win national power and hold it. And if you add the federal courts into that which they have now captured, the radical elite faction has captured the federal courts, if you count the Supreme Court, where things finally will go to die if there otherwise, it takes a long time though. That that is a formula for minority authoritarianism. And there are lots of lots of scared older Americans, especially white Americans, but not only, who are willing to go along with the politicians who propose it.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, so it sounds to me like, you know, what you’re saying is there’s a perfect storm of real social currents that are sort of priming a large segment of the population to be radicalized or to be become fearful or to or to respond to efforts to to stoke their anger or their fear. And I’m I’m interested, at least at this juncture in that how much influence the people who make the messages, the the elites themselves have to to turn that into a viable, a reactionary political movement or alternatively to say this is going to unleash dark forces there are better ways to form a winning political coalition. And so we’re not going to tempt fate by by playing to to that faction. You were you were describing, I think, a sort of perfect storm of social currents and trends that are that are priming a large segment of the population to be fearful or radicalized and to be susceptible to efforts to sort of exploit their their fears and angers. And I’m interested in how much influence elites have over the question of how all of that resolves. Right. Because, you know, obviously what Republicans are doing is trying to exploit it and turn it into a durable political movement that that helps them win elections. But in theory, it it’s a choice. And they could choose to say, you know, the the majority of Americans will reject this kind of politics or this kind of politics is is dangerous. And we shouldn’t play with fire by by by feeding these fears. And, you know, I think you saw a version of that latter kind of instinct from Democrats after Trump won in 2016. There was this. Liberal backlash to the capital R resistance. Huge protests everywhere. And I think Democratic Party leaders got kind of spooked by it and tried to sort of triangulate away from it and their decision not to simply just become the political arm of the resistance. I think you could see it sort of deflated the movement. You can you could sort of feel the power that was in the streets right after the election dissipate over the course of his time in office. And, you know, I wonder what would have happened back in 2009 or eight or whenever you want to start the clock on the Tea Party movement. If the post John McCain leaders had said no, no. Like Obama was not born in Kenya, we reject that. We reject, you know, attacking our political opponents on the basis that they’re part of some sort of conspiracy to usurp the United States. We just disagree with him about health care policy. What would what effect would that have had on the movement? Is it is like is the movement too big to too to be sort of tamped down on in that way? Would it have thrived anyway? Or would it would that have sort of put put an end to to the Tea Party, which then became MAGA and brought us to where we are today?
Theda Skocpol: Well, we should bookmark what you had to say about what Democrats and the Resistance did, because I had a very different take on that.
Brian Beutler: Okay.
Theda Skocpol: We did research on the resistance. But let me address the other question. There’s a huge collective action problem in general for American elites. You know, American elites are competitive in almost every sphere. And by the time you got to the rise of Donald Trump, which did come as a surprise to established Republican politicians at the time, we’re talking 2014, 15. The Republican Party as an organization and a set of organizations able to control nominations and set an agenda was pretty hollowed out. My sense of it is that even before the Tea Party arose with it’s top down and bottom up elements, but with bottom up elements very powerful. You had the Koch Network taking over or paralleling the Republican Party and using a combination of carrots and sticks to force an ultra free market agenda that’s even so extreme that the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t always go along with that, at least in key states where they want to spend money on things like roads. You know, I mean, old fashioned stuff like that [laughter] or adopting the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which involves billions of dollars for hospitals and insurance companies. So I do think that the Republicans were already buffeted and in many ways captive to elite forces that were pushing things that were completely different from what grassroots tea parties or later grassroots Trumpists really want, which is something done about immigration, something done about uppity Blacks and out of place women. And Trump is brilliant at getting at those kinds and for that matter, something done about the fact that their way of life is lost, the and the abandonment of manufacturing in the country. I mean, that, too, is a strand. I don’t think it was the dominant strand, but I think it was there and it’s intertwined with all the rest. And Trump, of course, was a brilliant politician at playing the media, not just the right wing media, but the mainstream media. He played them for all they were worth. And the mainstream media is part of the problem in this country, in my view. But he he played everybody. He he isolated and humiliated and winnowed from the herd. One Republican who might have said, well, we only want to go so far with this stuff [laughter] he said you can go all the way with this stuff and win the presidency. Well, once that happens, then the inability to create any kind of collective way to enforce anything which is inherent in America’s political parties, they’re not really strong. Unitary actors, really kicked in. And you I think we’ve ever since then had two strands around in and around the Republican Party. One is the people who want to install minority rule over a long period of time in the face of rising majorities of Americans who don’t like anything they stand for, for that matter, economic or cultural, by manipulating the rules of the game. That’s the ones that want to take over the courts, change the voting access rules, etc.. I call that McConnellism. That’s McConnellism. And then there’s Trumpism, which says, Well, why wait for all that? And and and, and and if that fails, let’s just use violence and threats of violence, to change the way votes are counted. And elections are settled. And that’s the split that became glaringly apparent after Trump lost in 2020. It was already kind of visible because I think the grassroots resistance across the country made a lot of gains in the 19 in the 2018 elections and elected a lot of new Democrats, many of whom were not far left at all. They were. You know, elected by women, older women mainly going door to door, knocking on doors and and pushing a broad liberal agenda and opposition to Trump. So, I mean, I think the Democratic Party is much less hollowed out, although it suffers greatly from weakness of its trade union base and allies in reaching into the blue collar ranks. But it has not catered to extremes on either side, toward moderation or toward leftism nearly to the same degree as the Republicans. But Republicans can’t just take themselves to a room and decide to do something. They’re all maneuvering vis a vis one another. They don’t believe in public service in the first place. They believe in using politics to make money. And now we’ve got a whole group that believes in politics as a way to get on Fox News and on the right wing media.
Brian Beutler: So I hear what you’re saying about the collective action problem. I get that, that the leadership of the party is weak and can’t really control what’s happening in the broader right wing. And so if they tried to steer clear of things like saying that the the derailment in East Palestine was about a war on white people, some other opportunistic figure would would latch on to it and just go there anyway—
Theda Skocpol: By the way, I don’t think that’s going to fly.
Brian Beutler: Well, I don’t think it’s going to appeal broadly, no. [both speaking]
Theda Skocpol: No. Some of these things fly and some don’t, but that—
Brian Beutler: Right. Right. So I want to go back to like what flies and what doesn’t. And you know, why they keep they seem to be throwing things at the wall and hoping they stick.
Theda Skocpol: Sure, they are.
Brian Beutler: But, and I want to get I want to get at that in a second. But on this on the collective action issue, I mean. We also know that the Republican leadership and the elites that run the party aren’t totally powerless. Right? Like, they they completely destroyed the career of this this young congressman, Madison Cawthorn, because he was so toxic to them and and offensive to them—
Theda Skocpol: And that’s because he was suggesting they were using drugs. Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Right. Yeah, right. No, he I mean, he he he crossed the one line, which was like, don’t make your fellow Republicans look like hypocritical or bad or anything like that. But his career is over now. And separately, we know that there’s almost like an inverse relationship or it seems like there’s almost an inverse relationship between how MAGA ish Republicans are and their popularity. Right. Like the modern the moderate Republican governors of blue states are incredibly popular. And then in the midterms last year, the Republicans who had some distance from MAGA did much, much better than the Trump clones.
Theda Skocpol: In the swing states they did in deep red land. There was a surge of voting and it was for the extremists.
Brian Beutler: Interesting.
Theda Skocpol: It’s very important to be quite precise about where we’re talking about popularity in politics.
Brian Beutler: I guess my bias is to the to the to—
Theda Skocpol: One of the reasons that the extremes of the Republican Party have more clout than the extremes of the Democratic Party, such as they are, is that the extremes of the Republican Party are oper— And the Tea Party itself was more densely and activated in deep red areas where the only election is for is the primary. Now, do we have places like that on the Democratic side? You bet. I live in one [laughter] but they’re really not as many. So thinking about how things play across the political geography is very, very important. And the fact of the matter is that, you know, that small faction could take over the House of Representatives and turn the hapless McCarthy into a more hapless figure, because they’re almost all from very safe districts, not all, but where what they have to say is popular.
Brian Beutler: I take your point? I’m focused on the, you know, the swing state.
Theda Skocpol: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: You know, swing district Republicans, because those are the places Republicans need to win to to capture power. And I, I assume at least that it matters to Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell that Republicans are strong in those states and that they’re not nominating candidates who are more likely to lose. And then, I mean—
Theda Skocpol: Well and that’s [?] and McConnell actually tried to do things about it.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Theda Skocpol: And is still trying he has probably the most institutional and financial levers at his disposal of any Republican. Yeah. Official or party honcho. Kevin McCarthy cares about it, but didn’t care about it as much as she cared about having the speaker’s title—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Theda Skocpol: —over his head. All he cares about is having the speaker’s title over his head. So he gave away the levers that he had for affecting primary elections. That was one of the first things that went, he made a deal to avoid having his PAC contribute to. I’m not going to say moderate. I’m just going to say non crazy Republicans in red districts.
Brian Beutler: Right. Right. He yeah, I think the the agreement was was basically like. If the if the right wing outfits sort of on the periphery of the Republican Party. Want us to not. Influence who wins a primary. We won’t, we’ll stay out of it. And even if it means that, you know, people like Kari Lake end up, you know, not Kari Lake like she’s not a House candidate, but, you know, MAGA candidates win the nomination and then go on to lose the general or put put seats in jeopardy. So he was willing to sacrifice some some influence. But McConnell has tons of resources and they’ve shown that they will bring him to bear in certain cases. And yet you have you have a situation where after seeming to work for several years between Tea Party attacks on Obama helping out in 2010 and then the the whipping up of frenzies over Benghazi and emails helping Trump win in 2016, that this. Just whip up a storm about whatever kind of politics is, not it, I don’t know if it’s not working or if it’s not working well enough. But in 2018, 2020 and 2022, Republicans didn’t really win. And. You know, they don’t seem to be responding by trying to address the collective action problem in any way so that they can advance the careers of people who stand a better chance of winning.
Theda Skocpol: Yeah, And, you know, this isn’t the first time that this has happened in the American party system when parties lose. Sometimes there are more extreme groups that are better organized and more determined to double down, and that can go on for quite a few cycles. I agree with you. That’s what’s just happened in Michigan. It’s happened in Arizona. We’ll see what happens in Wisconsin that’s a little more complex. But. I’m not sure. I think the jury is out on whether this wins or loses, because the overall factor we need to keep in mind is that America is a two party system. And so as, in contrast to a multi-party system, it’s harder to try to win all the crazy cows from the herd. And we need to talk about the Democrats, too, because the Democrats—
Brian Beutler: We will.
Theda Skocpol: —changed. And I think the Democrats have become more effective. And it may upset you to hear, but I think Joe Biden is a large part of that. He has instincts about what to not make a big fuss about, when to which issues to put forward. The Social Security thing is brilliant, not because it’s necessarily going to persuade very many of the old crazies, but because it it it, it it just divides the other side. He knows how to do that without putting himself front and center. And he’s not as easy a target for an ethno nationalist extremist populism as Barack Obama because the guy, you know that what’s their best move against them? Their best move is to say, well, he can’t complete a sentence. It turns out he could never complete a sentence. You know, I mean, and when you go on and on about that, you make angry a lot of older people who actually vote.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Theda Skocpol: So it’s it’s just he’s kind of been right for the time. And I actually think Democrats began to pull together much broader coalitions. I mean, if you think about our progressive left, our progressive left maybe overplayed their hand the first year of the Biden presidency, but they never went over the edge. They never refused to vote. Most of them, for the compromises. And they have been amazingly well behaved in terms of national media presence ever since January 6th. So I just think there’s not a there’s really an asymmetry between where these parties are going. And right now, the Democrats are doing their best to build coalitions. Now they have to. They have to because they can’t win with just a few college towns sprinkled in between the coastal states [laughs] and the big metropolises. And they are disadvantaged by all of the gerrymandering that’s going on at the courts have said is, you know, anything goes. And they’ve they’ve also they’re disadvantaged in the upcoming Senate elections, just as they were in the last two, and yet somehow managed to pull that out.
Brian Beutler: No that makes me upset to hear I basically agree about Biden. And I think that his experience and his being an older white guy do make him Teflon or like a harder target for Republicans or a scapegoat for Republicans to use to to sort of whip up their their base around. And I we will I do have questions for you about Democrats, but a couple more about Republicans or about the Republican culture war issues that that we’re sort of seem to be drowning in all the time. When, do you think that there’s something to the idea, whether it’s a Chinese spy balloon or Joe Biden being in Kyiv on Presidents Day and all the Republicans go on TV to to to talk about how angry they are about it, even though they didn’t even really have enough time to think about what their opinion is and why. [laughs] Do, do you think that that is them sort of trying to, like I said before, throw everything, everything at the wall, see what sticks and if something sticks and they’ll run with that so that they can maybe crack the code again that worked in in the Tea Party era? Or is it a different phenomenon from the Tea Party altogether?
Theda Skocpol: Well, I’m not sure, but I can say that at this point, Republican politicians in office are. So used to a routine that takes cues from the toxic right wing propaganda media that they probably have quite a few people in their own ranks who believe their own drivel. And do not perceive clearly that some lines of argument are really not going to go very far. I mean, this President Biden didn’t go to Ohio thing, I don’t I don’t see it. And I don’t think the latest polls. To what degree you can believe them. I don’t put a lot of weight in them, but they’re not showing that that’s somehow catching on. So I would back off and say they try a lot of things. I think the ones who are best at it are the Christian right forces. I think they have found a way to move from one issue having to do with family and gender to another and tap into real anxieties about changes that are going on and the things that are most effective usually do tap into anxieties that go beyond their own true believers. And certainly the changing role of women in the workforce is a is one that a lot of people have still not come to terms with. I think it’s not talked about enough. I think one of the big advantages that Trump had against Hillary Clinton, I think he would have lost to Joe Biden in that election. But he had the advantage against Hillary Clinton. A, The New York Times couldn’t stop talking about her emails, and that’s a big problem. And B, you know, she’s a professional woman out of out of her place and that a fair number of fairly well-educated men and women who are uneasy about those changes voted for Trump without believing in everything he does or stands for that first time many people voted for him, hoping he would cut it out. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: So there are elements, I think is what you’re saying on the right that have I mean, you know, setting aside what’s right or moral about it, they have they are discerning about which fixations will reach into democratic voting populations or swing swing voting populations and help them win elections like the like the religious right in in some instances. And then there are other people who are like who are too online they’re too, who who are picking fights—
Theda Skocpol: They’re in their echo chamber.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, they’re picking fights about everything. You almost need a decoder ring or something to understand what they’re talking about. If you’re not watching Fox News all the time. You don’t get it. But there’s even even more than just picking ineffective, picking fights ineffectively. They also seem to be picking fights that are sometimes, like very harmful materially to their own people. Right. Like the people that think of [?]. Like, so the the anti-vaccine conspiracy thing is the most—
Theda Skocpol: That one is the hardest to understand why they wanted to kill off their own people. This one, I just this is really a hard one.
Brian Beutler: But so. So there’s that one. There’s, you know, why do they want their supporters inhaling methane gas? Why do they want them swallowing Teflon? Right. Like. [laughs]
Theda Skocpol: Well, look, I mean, they they want they want. No. Remember, Ohio is an interesting mix of Chamber of Commerce type Republicans and Trumpist. They they just don’t want to regulate business. And I think a lot of this fuss about about Buttigieg and Biden is was just a reflexive attempt to change the subject away from the obvious fact [laughter] they had deregulated these trains in a way that set this disaster up. You know, will it work? Maybe with a few people who in that area were going to vote for Trumpist anyway. That’s the. I haven’t looked closely. Where is it? This is like right along the border with Pennsylvania?
Brian Beutler: Pennsylvania. Yeah.
Theda Skocpol: Yeah. This is Trump country. That’s [?] Trump country.
Brian Beutler: But I was thinking more of the gas stove thing when I mentioned inhaling methane gas. Like, I mean, I get that they don’t want to regulate any industry, but they’re just like, oh, okay, maybe Democrats are going to come try to regulate gas stoves. Let’s just pick a fight about that. And the consequence is probably, you know, it’s like a hard to discern, but it means that probably it’ll slow any effort to try to make gas stoves safer.
Theda Skocpol: Well maybe, that all depends on how the authorities respond. But I, look, I think that that one thing you have to understand is that there are certain grooves that have been plowed for a long time and one of them is hostility to regulatory bureaucrats.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Theda Skocpol: And so if you can find some way to fit something new into it and if you can add into it the idea that some Ivy League educated elite is telling you what to do, I mean, those are real resentments out there. I mean, when I did my Tea Party interviews, I had to go to great and and, you know, I did interviews in the field for the first several years until the pandemic, after Trump was elected, I went into Trump areas and I have to do everything possible to emphasize the parts of myself that are non Harvard in introducing myself in those areas. And and I have to go out of my way not to be respectful and not to appear to be telling people what anything because they are all primed to believe. And, you know, I have to tell you, they’re not entirely wrong. I mean, I remember a woman who said to me, where you come from, she said, I was in Virginia interviewing Tea Partiers. I was at a Tea Party meeting. She said, where you come from, they think we’re a bunch of uneducated, racist rednecks. Well, now what am I going to say about that? [laughter] What I did say was not all of us think that way.
Brian Beutler: That was a smart answer.
Theda Skocpol: Well quite a few of us do think that way. [laughter] So, you know, that’s just a way of saying that politics is not really about issues. It’s often about who we are and who they are. And the the who, the we and they part of this has been stoked deliberately against a backdrop of real changes happening that, you know, in ways that the right wing has been able to get a pay off from. And they’re trying to do it again and again. I think it has some waning effectiveness right now. I really do think so. I’m not sure gas stoves are going anywhere. I don’t think criticizing Biden for courageously going to Ukraine is going anywhere. I really don’t. On the other hand, I think DeSantis is showing a real creativity at performative cruelty. And he always picks the most vulnerable and cult— Controversial people to go after. And the American left has provided some of those people. The American left is into performative politics, too, to some degree.
Brian Beutler: Right? Right. The. No disagreement. I just think that the when when the American left puts forward controversial ideas or lightning rod figures. I’m I’m still stuck on the vaccine thing in particular. But this I don’t I don’t see progressive activist communities. Indulging politics that encourages like the harm of their their own people or or like, you know, cheers them on as they spend money to modify their cars, to spew soot. You know, these—
Theda Skocpol: Not, not, not—
Brian Beutler: Only are these—
Theda Skocpol: —not, not the parts of the American left that are into building majorities, which is most of them. This far higher proportion of people on the American left, as well as center left that want to build majorities and in that sense are committed to democracy. But there are certainly on the campuses, there are some pretty— [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Out there ideas that can be–
Theda Skocpol: Yeah and to see some of these things go from a seminar to Florida politics has been a little bit startling. And and on a whole that’s just the talent of the right wing propaganda machine to find any crazy statement of which there are always in any society there are some crazy statements and feature them. But, you know, if I would if I were to point to this whole DEI thing, I would say, well, there really are. There has been an industry that has grown up, a consulting industry that takes certain ideas from academia and turns them into nonsense, frankly. [laughter] And there are people, I’m bombarded in my workplace by by things that I’m supposed to take a an hour long online course about. And I can tell you the research shows, forget about how anybody feels about it. The research shows this stuff doesn’t work. But it is an industry. And so that’s people like Youngkin, who’s a very skillful player in this, this thing. Was able to use a combination of that plus genuine anxieties about how the pandemic, the pandemic school issues had been handled that were real. To convince enough voters in a purple state that he should be made governor. And of course, he acted non crazy all the time and it kept Trump out of the state. I mean, I’m just saying there’s still a formula for these people who want to walk the line and they’re going to keep trying it until it fails every time.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So this is a perfect entryway to discussing where Democrats fit in in all of this. There was a survey that came out Wednesday, I guess as we’re recording this Thursday, by Lake Research that the Democratic strategy and polling firm and their finding was that basically Republicans would be on firmer political ground fighting Democrats on economic issues than on picking these serial culture war fights.
Theda Skocpol: Mm hmm.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, that’s what—
Theda Skocpol: Which economic issues are they talking about?
Brian Beutler: Oh. You know, to, instead of I guess in a weird way, they’re sort of similar ideas, but that if they if they drop the, you know, DEI stuff or whatever, you know, flavor of the week culture war fight and just return to like deficits and spending and the you know, the cataclysms of a decade ago that that they would have a more successful party today or that those messages would be more effective against Democrats. And the Democratic message, which is, you know, in this survey. One thing I thought was interesting about it is that they conducted this test where they they basically picked two Republican messages, one culture war, one economic, and they pitted it against a single Democratic message, which was economic in nature, about, you know, corporate greed and and jobs and and standard Democratic Party fare. But like, they almost they sort of took for granted the idea that there is no Democratic Party culture war message or that it’s sort of obvious that Democrats can’t or shouldn’t wage culture war of their own. And I’m wondering why, why do you think that is—
Theda Skocpol: I don’t think that’s right.
Brian Beutler: I don’t think so either. [laughs]
Theda Skocpol: You know, you have to, look at the abortion issue. I mean, one of the things that happened. Is that after the Supreme Court took its incredibly aggressive action. Democrats started talking about that as a rights issue. They don’t go out there and say we’re for abortion. They go out there and say, do you really want that state legislature over there deciding [laughter] about your neighbor’s problematic pregnancy? Well, and remember, the gay rights movement some years back started talking about people in love who wanted to get married. There were some on the far left who thought they went too far with that, and probably they did. But but it works if you can kind of humanize and normalize and make people think of it as an issue of common sense and keeping people out from meddling or ought not to be meddling, turn it into a freedom issue or a common sense issue. Democrats have gotten better at that, and I think they can do it. I mean, we’ve seen we’ve seen them do it. In fact, I think Biden does it on racial issues. I think he. No, he doesn’t engage. He never. You’re never going to hear the word critical race theory come from his mouth. What’s a bunch of nonsense, anyway. What, what is he, [laughter] he probably doesn’t even know what it is. Does anybody know what it is? But he will talk about we’re in it together. He gives that whole key ending to every single thing. There’s nothing we Americans can’t do if we do it together. And he visibly surrounds himself with a rainbow of people. And I just think that is a winning message.
Brian Beutler: I agree. But I mean, if you look at like, you know, I think broadly, I agree with you about Biden, but the abortion issue is one place where it’s like clear he either for because he’s been advised this or because he is internally conflicted about it. You know, he is not trying to capitalize on that Supreme Court decision as much as you would suspect he would, given what has happened in special elections ever since that decision came out. I mean, his State of the Union address was, you know, 50% bridges and roads and all the stuff that we did together. And and then two lines about the Supreme Court decision way down at the bottom before moving on.
Theda Skocpol: Because he doesn’t need to do that. He has this is a politician who has a good sense of the timing. And he knew that the right timing was to go after him on Social Security.
Brian Beutler: But I don’t know why it would why it would be both. I mean, he he had a great section of his speech on the on on, you know, the families of of Black men killed by police where he didn’t even try to offset it with we support the police and law and order and spending on police departments. It was just this is not a fair thing that happens in our society that these families have to talk to their children in this way about how to behave around police officers so that they don’t get shot. Right. Like, that’s not probably the most advantageous culture war. Attack. But he did it because, you know, it was right. And I thought it was a very moving—
Theda Skocpol: I actually thought he, well, I mean, he was taking advantage of the fact that the latest incident was so obviously.
Brian Beutler: Was really bad.
Theda Skocpol: Yeah—
Brian Beutler: But the, but—
Theda Skocpol: —that on that score exactly. And he also I don’t know. I think that he doesn’t feel first of all, he doesn’t treat and that State of the Union address was like this. He doesn’t treat politics as a list of policy goals. He’s picking things he thinks sends certain kinds of messages and he doesn’t need to worry about pro-choice activists being activated. He knows that and he knows what happened in the last election. He will emphasize it again going into the presidential election, where it’s an advantageous message to convey that you don’t want that you don’t want a Republican president in there with a Republican Congress that will instantly take away our rights to make our own decisions. That’s how he’s going to frame it. And so he’s going to talk about it. That’s a winning way to talk about it.
Brian Beutler: I agree with that. I just don’t—
Theda Skocpol: He doesn’t see himself as the advocate mobilizer in chief, and I think that’s so important.
Brian Beutler: I think that the way he does talk about it when he talks about it is strategically wise. But I’m struck by the degree of emphasis he gives it relative to other issues, like very little [laughter] when it’s clear that it’s speaks to a huge majority or a large majority of the country that wants Roe v Wade or an equivalent statutory regime like that back that he will let kind of let it go fallow between now and the presidential election and just talk about these kitchen table issues—
Theda Skocpol: Just remember this is a guy who’s thinking about the Electoral College all the time. And if he’s got an instinct personally that intersects with his political analysis, his electoral analysis. It’s that he has to somewhat improve the margins by which Democrats lose the blue collar broke in places like his state of Pennsylvania, which, by the way, is exactly what he did in 2020. I mean, I studied Pennsylvania very closely. And, you know, he still lost those non collar non Pittsburgh. He eked out a bare win in Erie County. He just did enough better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 to flip the tens of thousands another direction. So he’s been on a mission from day one to bring kind of blue collar America back into at least acquiescence. And the thing I have to say to you is he knows because of the way he was raised and what he personally believes, that abortion is not a winning issue with blue collar Catholics.
Brian Beutler: Okay, well, then we can stipulate that maybe abortion is sort of sui generis in the in the universe of sort of liberal or Democratic Party culture war material. And and that it might not be ideal for him to be making that like a number one or number two issue when he’s giving like a State of the Union address or something like that. I think that in general, when Democrats hear about this, the culture war in general, that maybe they should be taking a harder line on culture war issues that advantage them. Their minds immediately turn to a bunch of factional sort of unpopular stuff. Right. Defund the police. Like they’re all haunted by that. And I don’t mean to suggest that I think that all culture war in the U.S. is is is right wing culture war. I think if you look at the people who make cultural products like music and TV and movies, they’re promoting values that are generally pluralistic and they’re sometimes avant garde. And you can understand why traditionalists in parts of the country that Biden wants to do better in see that as a kind of left wing culture war aimed at them. But I think that. When you’re talking about Democrats, not the not Hollywood or whatever. Like the leadership isn’t really leaning into that stuff, whether it’s abortion or trans rights or anything else. And and I guess that’s fine if it’s a strategically wise choice to make. But they could be waging a culture war about values that are sort of antithetical to the modern Republican Party. Like Republicans have have ceded if Democrats want to take it. Issues like patriotism and civic nationalism and ethics and honesty. Just being nice [laughter] and Biden embodies niceness. I think so. I guess—
Theda Skocpol: I think the Democrats are leaning into all those issues.
Brian Beutler: Are they?
Theda Skocpol: Yes.
Brian Beutler: I feel like they’re leaning into Social Security [laughs] and not and not—
Theda Skocpol: I think the patriotism talk is all over the place in many ways. Biden is practically reviving the Cold War. And, you know, I think the be decent to people thing is practically his brand. And—
Brian Beutler: Yes, that—
Theda Skocpol: —to a surprising degree, the entire party is going along with this. You have largely civil talk even when they’re talking tough. And I think there’s an understanding that modeling being tough without being cruel. Is good politics, which I believe that it is. Remember, the Democratic Party increasingly garners support from college educated people who probably don’t want this kind of mud throwing style. For the most part. Women in particular. Democrats have been pretty tough on the gun issues and I think top to bottom and those are not necessarily popular immediately.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Theda Skocpol: I think they have you know, this is this is really part of it has got to do with the fact that there are many different communication modes that Democrats depend on. But to me, it seems like they’ve gotten better at actually getting out there and speaking English and talking about values rather than talking about the latest policy twist.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I—
Theda Skocpol: I think it’s better.
Brian Beutler: I, I, I feel it getting a little bit better, too, particularly after 2020, 2022. The you know, and Joe Biden does you know, he he and his aides are always talking about how he channels empathy and that this is a great political asset to him. And I and I and I basically agree with them. I, I see the Democrats bypassing confrontation with the right on things like ethics and and and trying to sort of sidestep questions about the the goodness or badness of Republican conduct. Trump’s conduct in favor of just talking about prescription drug prices or or Social Security. And I remember I was struck by this and this will give you a chance to to tell me why I’m wrong about how Democrats reacted to the rise of the resistance is that you had this huge public backlash to Trump. And I mean, it’s pretty obvious to me that it was about the omni crisis that Trump represented. It was, yes. Like he tried to go after people’s health care, but he was also this horribly maligned figure who said and did sexist things, bragged about sexual assault, said he was going to ban Muslims and then did. And people people rose up by the millions to to protest it. And I didn’t like you know, I didn’t see Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer trying to harness that so much and go after the things that were animating those protesters or or make a beeline for, you know, a bunch of ethics investigations into Trump, like when they won the House in 2018 and they came into power, the first thing they did was they went to the Trump White House and said, hey, we want to work on a $2 trillion infrastructure bill with you now. I mean, the infrastructure bill didn’t go anywhere, which I think is—
Theda Skocpol: And the knew it wouldn’t.
Brian Beutler: Well, but—
Theda Skocpol: That was, that was performative.
Brian Beutler: I guess so. I mean, but like, when Republicans come to power after after two years of the of the Biden presidency and they take over the House, it’s not like let’s see what we can do together. It’s accountability is coming and your son’s laptop is going to be all over. You know, and and I mean, these are very divergent political styles. And I don’t think Republicans are always picking the right one. But I think like, you know, understanding what makes your opponents mad about their political adversaries and and going to bat for them and like going after those things. Is going to be helpful at some points—
Theda Skocpol: No, the Democratic Congress under Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer produced the most output [laughter] of any Congress in a long time. And in that entire thing at the beginning of pretending to want to cooperate was just that was just to show that they wouldn’t. I mean, one of the one of the big tactics that the Democrats are doing quite well now. And I give I give Biden credit for this. He’s the one who came up with this MAGA Republican thing. It’s very good because we don’t really have two parties right now. We have three. And but finding a way to make that visible, you have to have a label. And he came up with that. And I think that strategy of trying to highlight the crazies and say to people who could go either way, you know, really, you might be a Republican, but not now. I mean, that that that has been a winning strategy. I don’t I just don’t see that as a losing strategy. Now, I was going to say something else. The Resistance that I worked on and you know, this is true of the Tea Party, too. I am an organizational political scientist. I’m more of a political scientist than a sociologist, but I’m both and I don’t really care. I study organizations. And so for me, street demonstrations are not the epitome of power. The question is, do they translate into ongoing organizational networks that can influence the political parties over time, in between, as well as during elections? And in the case of both the Tea Party and the resistance. My research group is put together. I think we were the only ones who have ever done have done this. We know the names of the locally formed groups and their locations in the country at the height of the Tea Party for the Tea Party and at the height of the resistance for the grassroots resistance, the grassroots resistance actually organized more local groups than the Tea Party a year or so in. And these were not the people you saw on TV. I don’t want to discount the airport demonstrations. The the immediate reactions to Trump and some of the major the Women’s March and everything. But what really turned that into political power was two years of organizing in every community in America, particularly densely in this outer ring, in the in the suburbs, but everywhere. And to some degree, that was blunted by the pandemic because the actors in this part of the drama, which are not considered glamorous in the media, are older women, older white women, and to some degree, older Black church women in the southern states. These are not glamorous actors. They are not far left on a lot of issues. And but they did the work that produced the victories not just for Congress in 2018, but in state and in local elections in a bunch of places, and that whose after effects are being magnified even now. Now with the pandemic is over and people have gone back to some of that. So I actually think that the kind of lineaments of a broad based liberalism were put back in place during that period, and it paid off, at least with the presidential election in 2020, and I think played a role in in the Democrats minimizing their losses in 2022. And they wouldn’t even have lost the House if it weren’t for the damn Democrats in New York.
Brian Beutler: [laughs] Yeah I mean like where were the resistance moms there? What were they doing? [laughs]
Theda Skocpol: Well, as a bunch of you know, one of the things that happens when you have a single party situation—
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Theda Skocpol: —I can tell you is that people stand down.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. If what you’re saying is that the Democratic Party didn’t really sort of get spooked by the maybe they got spooked by the movement in the streets, but they absorbed the sort of door to door, grassroots movement of older—
Theda Skocpol: They co-operated with it in a lot of places where we did empirical work, we found that many of these grassroots resistance groups kind of moved in and took some positions in the Democratic Party while remaining some ability to push from the outside. That kind of interplay is really important.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Theda Skocpol: In giving up movement power. I do think Black Lives Matter is a different matter. And I think the the Floyd the Floyd demonstrations did spook the Democrats to some degree because well, because of those people on that hill in Minneapolis who put up those signs that said defund the police, which that’s an example of really, really bad politics, but it didn’t come from Democratic elected politicians.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Theda Skocpol: It came from it didn’t even come from people who lived in the places whose police would be defunded. The research shows that. Working class people of all colors want the police to be there. They just want them to be fair.
Brian Beutler: Right. And the. I do think that the post Floyd period colored how Democratic Party actors think about how to indulge in sort of values driven, passion driven culture politics because they think it’s often a live wire or a third rail. And they don’t they don’t want to touch it and they’ll get burned by it if they do. But I think what you’re saying is that the resistance movement outside of the street protests created a sort of durable movement that’s that’s less visible, less glamorous, but in the post-pandemic period is still thriving and able to sort of influence the Democratic Party to to sort of indulge those sort of cultural issues that do capture the center, the things we were talking about, like patriotism and ethics and just being being a decent person. Theda Skocpol, I’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for spending so much of your time with us.
Theda Skocpol: Okay. Glad to do it. Nice to talk to you. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer, is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.