Researchers Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam recently spent months in American communities investigating what’s happened since the 2016 presidential election.

Their key finding in a piece entitled “Middle America Reboots Democracy” is pretty heady stuff:

“What we are witnessing is an inflection point — a shift in long-standing trends — concentrated in one large demographic group. If your question is how the panorama of political possibility has shifted since November 2016, your story needs to begin here.”

Wow. Tickles your political antennae.

Go ahead and take a guess. Who’s the group?

As president, Donald Trump has inspired more than you might imagine. DonkeyHotey via Flickr

I’ll help with a list of the usual suspects: millennials, youth, older white men, evangelicals, populists, members of national Trump-resister organizations and Bernie supporters.

Good chance you guessed one of those. It’s virtually certain that our national pundits and media members would.

It’s none of the above.

No, it’s “women, mostly mothers and grandmothers ranging in age from their 30s to 70s (who) are fueling an American political transformation that most media outlets are systematically missing, or at least misreading.”

The New Movers

They are typically college-educated and live in the suburbs or smaller cities away from both coasts. Many had never been involved with, or even paid much attention to, politics prior to Trump’s victory.

They are most likely to be moderate, not very ideological Democrats, but also include Republicans and independents.

Don’t think Bernie Sanders, cable news, national organizations, or, at least for now, the 2018 midterms.

Instead, think of a retired librarian heavily involved in a successful campaign to elect a slate of Democrats to a traditionally Republican city council.

This is is not a unified, national movement but rather “a national pattern of mutually energizing local engagement.”

Some of these women are creating new organizations — even pop-up groups that develop around a particular local race or issue.

It’s a decentralized movement but with a common thread: the belief in grassroots democracy — the notion that through hard work and nuts-and-bolts politics, democracy can work.

“Women, mostly mothers and grandmothers ranging in age from their 30s to 70s, are fueling an American political transformation that most media outlets are systematically missing, or at least misreading.” — Researchers Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam

As we used to put it back in the ’60s, they believe in the system. Back then, that belief would have made them part of “The Establishment.” In today’s world, it makes them idealists.

These activities have dramatically changed those women’s lives while the women themselves have already brought about significant, if under-the-radar, changes.

(A brief pause to give jaded cynics and obsessed cable news watchers time to reorient.)

Ok, so how does this local engagement work?

Though many of these women have worked on national issues like health care and immigration, most of their work has been local elections — school boards, city councils and seats on official political party organizations.

They do “relational organizing,” which uses existing, often overlapping and nonpolitical social networks to bring people on board.

Women Are More Upset About Trump

There are at least three reasons why this movement is so important.

First, this grass-roots emergence helps us understand a particular phenomenon involving Trump and the women who oppose him.

I’ll bet that among your acquaintances, women have been much more actively upset by Trump than men have. The evidence supports this.

The grass-roots movement is a consequence of that difference, because women make up almost three-quarters of the participants.

The women’s role in this movement is an enormous step beyond concern or anger, and it requires a fuller, much more sustained commitment than being in a protest march.

Second, the study is a reminder of the media’s limits. The portrait of grass-roots women is very different from the media-driven focus generated by six politicians and pundits sitting around a cable news table or even the best newspapers.

As Michael Tomasky wrote recently, “Trump is in our faces, and in our brains, constantly.” For the media this is true in spades.

The lesson here is that we can’t rely on big media for the fuller picture. You want national movements and Trump stories, the press is there for you — the big picture.

The grass-roots developments are a collection of little pictures whose comprehension requires a very different kind of media commitment and understanding. For that we need to depend on local sources, but because of the depleted state of local media, this is pretty iffy.

As a result, people may continue to misunderstand and underestimate what is happening in the grass roots.

Take Hawaii as an example. On the surface, this new ferment does not seem to be happening in the islands. Maybe that’s because no one here has taken a close enough look.

Third and most important, this grass-roots mobilization offers badly needed hope that it is still possible for democracy to flourish.

A large body of research indicates that the way voters behave does not come anywhere close to meeting the basic tenets of democracy.

That’s not going to change. But democratic civic life is about more than voting. It’s also about mobilizing small groups of people that overcome differences to get real work done. That is exactly what the post-2016 grass-roots movement does.

It may be an underestimated piece of American politics, but it still only constitutes a single piece. Skocpol and Putnam think the movement will change the Democratic Party (probably not by moving it to the left), as well as contribute to the rebuilding of community politics.

You don’t have to go that far to recognize the movement’s significance, or as a prod for your own community life.

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