Publications by Author: Skocpol, Theda

Obama and America's Political Future
Skocpol, Theda. 2012. Obama and America's Political Future. Harvard University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract

Barack Obama’s galvanizing victory in 2008, coming amid the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, opened the door to major reforms. But the president quickly faced skepticism from supporters and fierce opposition from Republicans, who scored sweeping wins in the 2010 midterm election. Here, noted political scientist Theda Skocpol surveys the political landscape and explores its most consequential questions: What happened to Obama’s “new New Deal”? Why have his achievements enraged opponents more than they have satisfied supporters? How has the Tea Party’s ascendance reshaped American politics?

Skocpol’s compelling account rises above conventional wisdom and overwrought rhetoric. The Obama administration’s response to the recession produced bold initiatives—health care reform, changes in college loans, financial regulation—that promise security and opportunity. But these reforms are complex and will take years to implement. Potential beneficiaries do not readily understand them, yet the reforms alarm powerful interests and political enemies, creating the volatile mix of confusion and fear from which Tea Party forces erupted. Skocpol dissects the popular and elite components of the Tea Party reaction that has boosted the Republican Party while pushing it far to the right at a critical juncture for US politics and governance.

Skocpol’s analysis is accompanied by contributions from two fellow scholars and a former congressman. At this moment of economic uncertainty and extreme polarization, as voters prepare to render another verdict on Obama’s historic presidency, Skocpol and her respondents help us to understand its triumphs and setbacks and see where we might be headed next.

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
On February 19, 2009, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered a dramatic rant against Obama administration programs to shore up the plunging housing market. Invoking the Founding Fathers and ridiculing "losers" who could not pay their mortgages, Santelli called for "Tea Party" protests. Over the next two years, conservative activists took to the streets and airways, built hundreds of local Tea Party groups, and weighed in with votes and money to help right-wing Republicans win electoral victories in 2010.

In this penetrating new study, Harvard University's Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson go beyond images of protesters in Colonial costumes to provide a nuanced portrait of the Tea Party. What they find is sometimes surprising. Drawing on grassroots interviews and visits to local meetings in several regions, they find that older, middle-class Tea Partiers mostly approve of Social Security, Medicare, and generous benefits for military veterans. Their opposition to "big government" entails reluctance to pay taxes to help people viewed as undeserving "freeloaders"—including immigrants, lower income earners, and the young. At the national level, Tea Party elites and funders leverage grassroots energy to further longstanding goals such as tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of business, and privatization of the very same Social Security and Medicare programs on which many grassroots Tea Partiers depend. Elites and grassroots are nevertheless united in hatred of Barack Obama and determination to push the Republican Party sharply to the right.

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism combines fine-grained portraits of local Tea Party members and chapters with an overarching analysis of the movement's rise, impact, and likely fate.

Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
Skocpol, Theda, and Lawrence R Jacobs. 2010. Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama in March 2010 is a landmark in U.S. social legislation. The new law extends health insurance to nearly all Americans, fulfilling a century-long quest and bringing the United States to parity with other industrial nations. Affordable Care aims to control rapidly rising health care costs and promises to make the United States more equal, reversing four decades of rising disparities between the very rich and everyone else. Millions of people of modest means will gain new benefits and protections from insurance company abuses—and the tab will be paid by privileged corporations and the very rich.

How did such a bold reform effort pass in a polity wracked by partisan divisions and intense lobbying by special interests? What does Affordable Care mean—and what comes next? In Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol—two of the nation's leading experts on politics and health care policy—provide a concise and accessible overview. They explain the political battles of 2009 and 2010, highlighting White House strategies, the deals Democrats cut with interest groups, and the impact of agitation by Tea Partiers and progressives. Jacobs and Skocpol spell out what the new law can do for everyday Americans, what it will cost, and who will pay. Above all, they explain what comes next, as critical yet often behind-the-scenes battles rage over implementing reform nationally and in the fifty states. Affordable Care might end up being weakened. But, like Social Security and Medicare, it could also gain strength and popularity as the majority of Americans learn what it can do for them.

The contemporary American political landscape has been marked by two paradoxical transformations: the emergence after 1960 of an increasingly activist state, and the rise of an assertive and politically powerful conservatism that strongly opposes activist government. Leading young scholars take up these issues in The Transformation of American Politics. Arguing that even conservative administrations have become more deeply involved in managing our economy and social choices, they examine why our political system nevertheless has grown divided as never before over the extent to which government should involve itself in our lives.

The contributors show how these two closely linked trends have influenced the reform and running of political institutions, patterns of civic engagement, and capacities for partisan mobilization - and fueled ever-heightening conflicts over the contours and reach of public policy. These transformations not only redefined who participates in American politics and how they do so, but altered the substance of political conflicts and the capacities of rival interests to succeed. Representing both an important analysis of American politics and an innovative contribution to the study of long-term political change, this pioneering volume reveals how partisan discourse and the relationship between citizens and their government have been redrawn and complicated by increased government programs.

Skocpol, Theda, Ariane Liazos, and Marshall Ganz. 2006. What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African American Fraternal Groups and The Struggle for Racial Equality. Princeton University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract

From the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, millions of American men and women participated in fraternal associations—self-selecting brotherhoods and sisterhoods that provided aid to members, enacted group rituals, and engaged in community service. Even more than whites did, African Americans embraced this type of association; indeed, fraternal lodges rivaled churches as centers of black community life in cities, towns, and rural areas alike. Using an unprecedented variety of secondary and primary sources—including old documents, pictures, and ribbon-badges found in eBay auctions—this book tells the story of the most visible African American fraternal associations.

The authors demonstrate how African American fraternal groups played key roles in the struggle for civil rights and racial integration. Between the 1890s and the 1930s, white legislatures passed laws to outlaw the use of important fraternal names and symbols by blacks. But blacks successfully fought back. Employing lawyers who in some cases went on to work for the NAACP, black fraternalists took their cases all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in their favor. At the height of the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, they marched on Washington and supported the lawsuits through lobbying and demonstrations that finally led to legal equality. This unique book reveals a little-known chapter in the story of civic democracy and racial equality in America.


The right-wing columnist used my work to bash Dean and MoveOn as elitists—conveniently ignoring the big-money interests that pull the GOP's strings.

Are and Howard Dean, who is about to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee, major threats to democracy in America -- and bastions of elitism within the Democratic Party? That is what David Brooks would have us believe. His Feb. 5 Op-Ed column in the New York Times invoked my 2003 book, "Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life," in support of the notion that a secularist, "newly dominant educated class" is using advocacy groups and Internet fundraising to take over the Democratic Party. In Brooks' vision of politics, Republicans have meanwhile morphed into a true party of ordinary people.

I was not a "Deaniac" in the 2004 election, but I must protest the way Brooks has used my research to support his claims. Democrats today certainly face challenges in building broad coalitions of educated professionals and populist supporters. But MoveOn and the Dean campaign have gotten more people involved, not fewer, in the party. Republicans, meanwhile, can hardly brag that they represent the values of ordinary Americans. Their effort to destroy the popular and inclusive Social Security program, a plan hatched by ultra-right advocacy groups and think tanks, is a textbook case of manipulative elitism and faux-populist conservatism.

Brooks got part of my argument right. For much of U.S. history, large voluntary associations and social movements mobilized millions of Americans from all walks of life to become active in community life and national politics. Reform crusades, fraternal associations, women's federations, veterans associations, farm organizations and trade unions all encouraged members to meet regularly and pool their energies to affect social trends and political decisions at the local, state and national level. Women's groups championed programs for families and children; trade unions and fraternal groups supported Social Security; and the American Legion—a rather conservative veterans association—wrote and lobbied for the G.I. Bill of 1944, one of the most generous social programs in American history.

But voluntary associations changed rapidly after the 1960s. Many that linked men or women across class lines went into sharp decline, with aging memberships and faltering local chapters. Battered by opposition from business as well as industrial shifts, blue-collar trade unions also went into a free fall. Meanwhile, professionally run advocacy groups proliferated.

Big social and political changes converged to remake the face of American civic democracy after 1960. The civil rights and feminist movements challenged the racism and gender segregation of traditional membership associations. Foundation grants, television and computers made it easy for educated professionals to launch single-issue national associations without regular members or local chapters. In the late 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of freshly fashioned advocacy groups, think tanks and PACs pursued liberal causes such as equal rights for women and environmentalism. By the 1980s, conservatives had counterattacked, founding their own professionally run groups, mostly funded by the very wealthy, to advocate for causes such as lower taxes, deregulation of business, "family values" and opposition to abortion.

Through the 1990s, conservatives became more adept than liberals at building bridges between professionally run groups and surviving voluntary associations, learning to coordinate with evangelical churches and groups like the National Right to Life Association and the National Rifle Association. The Republican Party mobilized millions and reaped the benefits in the voting booth. By contrast, most of the Democratic Party's advocacy groups lacked local roots or the capacity to mobilize large numbers of citizens into politics. Issues also divided Democrats, as old-style New Deal liberalism was often at odds with "new" liberalism and public interest liberalism.

Brooks reports these findings from my research accurately enough, but he presents an oddly one-sided and partisan picture of elitist threats in American politics and civic life today. True, just as educated middle-class people often send checks to public interest advocacy groups, liberals with college degrees may appear in disproportionate numbers on the e-mail lists of and the Dean campaign. But both of these efforts at mobilization have surely expanded the ranks of people involved in politics, reducing the sway of big donors and "insider" professional consultants in the Democratic Party.

The Dean campaign encouraged voters to gather in one another's houses, not just send checks to a central office. And not all "educated class" Americans (Brooks' phrase) live in Berkeley, Calif., or Cambridge, Mass. My sister is a librarian in West Virginia who regularly gives small amounts to support MoveOn's ad campaigns—which, Brooks to the contrary, are mounted on populist issues as well as in opposition to the Iraq war. These days, for example, MoveOn is running a campaign to expose the huge cuts in guaranteed Social Security benefits that privatization would entail. Republicans are suing to stop the campaign—obviously concerned that it might resonate with ordinary voters well beyond Berkeley.

Brooks is not entirely wrong about tensions among more and less privileged Democrats. But notice that he never mentions class tensions and advocacy ideologues in the Republican Party.

Right after the 2004 election, President Bush and many of his party and elite allies suddenly claimed a mandate to "reform" Social Security, going to great lengths to disguise the fact that the reform they favor would actually unravel Social Security in short order. Conservatives' campaign to sell the privatization of Social Security is a prime example of the manipulative elitism that now dominates so much of the Republican Party's agenda. Republicans may have populist allies when patriotism and certain lifestyle issues appear to be at stake, but when it comes to tax cuts for the rich and social policy cuts for the majority they disguise what they are doing—because on these matters ordinary Americans, even those who vote Republican, do not always share the values and priorities of Republican business supporters and ideological elites.

Even conservative Christian associations allied with the Republican Party are wary about trying to persuade their members to buy into Social Security privatization. Crucial for the poor, the disabled, survivors of deceased workers and the elderly, Social Security is a supremely pro-family program. Its decent retirement benefits are guaranteed for life, allowing beneficiaries to live in dignity and freeing working parents to invest in their children's future (rather than devoting most of their time and resources to caring for Grandma and Grandpa). Ideologues who want to shatter Social Security into millions of isolated market accounts know that they can succeed only by bamboozling large numbers of people—labeling modest, long-term problems an immediate "crisis" and failing to own up to the cuts they plan in guaranteed benefits.

Although Brooks implies that the Republican Party is the true populist party these days, the party did not adopt the privatization proposal at the urging of voluntary, grass-roots membership associations or a broad-based social movement. Bush got the idea from right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. What's more, the privatization campaign has been fueled by big-money donors who favor unfettered markets and, in many cases, hope to profit from fees paid by the government to Wall Street for managing the new private accounts. Democrats should no doubt be touched that Brooks is so worried about the challenges our party faces in building broad coalitions and appealing to vast numbers of ordinary citizens—in both red and blue states. But since 2000, when the need to hang together became starkly clear, Democrats, organized in all kinds of associations, have been trying hard to bridge the concerns of different social constituencies. Still, Democrats do need to take care lest single-issue causes appealing to the privileged take our focus away from broad appeals to average citizens, many of whom have not been to college.

But Brooks should worry more about the elitist ideologues and unhinged advocacy groups in his own party and movement. Perhaps he should pursue a sociology of "W. Bushism," examining how the pet causes of right-wing think tanks could undercut the populist appeal of Republicans. Right-wingers determined to fetter government as a tool for spreading opportunity and ensuring security for most citizens are much more of an elitist threat to American democracy than "Deanism." Before long, millions of voters may come to realize this.

Pundits and social observers have voiced alarm each year as fewer Americans involve themselves in voluntary groups that meet regularly. Thousands of nonprofit groups have been launched in recent times, but most are run by professionals who lobby Congress or deliver social services to clients. What will happen to US democracy if participatory groups and social movements wither, while civic involvement becomes one more occupation rather than every citizen’s right and duty? In Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol shows that this decline in public involvement has not always been the case in this country—and how, by understanding the causes of this change, we might reverse it.
Skocpol, Theda. 2001. “Patriotic Partnerships: Why Great Wars Nourished American Civic Voluntarism.” Shaped by War and Trade: International Influences on American Political Development. Princeton University Press. Abstract

Gravity–based cross–sectional evidence indicates that currency unions and currency boards stimulate trade; cross–sectional evidence indicates that trade stimulates income. This paper estimates the effect that common–currency regimes have, via trade, on income per capita. We use economic and geographic data for over 200 countries to quantify the implications of common currencies for trade and income, pursuing a two–stage approach. Our estimates at the first stage suggest that belonging to a currency union more than triples trade with the other members of the zone. Moreover, there is no evidence of trade–diversion. Thus currency unions raise overall trade. Currency boards have similar effects. Our estimates at the second stage suggest that every one percent increase in trade (relative to GDP) raises income per capita by at least one third of a percent over twenty years. We combine the two estimates to quantify the effect of common currencies on output. Our results support the hypothesis that the beneficial effects of such regimes on economic performance come through the promotion of trade, rather than through a commitment to non–inflationary monetary policy, or other macroeconomic influences.