In 2015, Saturday Night Live spoofed the rancorous political arguments besieging American social life.
Cast members seated around a dining table to celebrate Thanksgiving passed the side dishes and threw invective. The verbal heat rose and rose until a young girl pressed play on a cassette player and the Adele song Hello washed over the room. The combatants instantly ceased fire and began lip-synching the lyrics. Their rapture escalated until they physically entered a re-creation of the music video.
A Thanksgiving Miracle aired before the Trump presidency and its violent subversive conclusion. This holiday season, it’s hard to think of a song capable of transporting Americans into a state of blissful unity. Masks and vaccines have become an issue and assault weapons have cropped up as accessories on congressional Christmas cards. But there is an alternative to mutually assured bad-mouthing. Americans can meet clandestinely among the like-minded, not just to commiserate but also to plan and participate in election campaigns.
Emily Van Duyn, a political communications scholar, embedded with one such group in Texas in 2017. Her book chronicles the journey of 136 liberal women living in a rural and thus predominantly conservative Texas town who, determined to resist Trump, organized themselves into what Van Duyn anonymizes as the Community Women’s Group (CWG).
They were middle-aged and senior white women (save one who was Black), afraid to speak their minds and put up yard signs. The author interviewed 24 of them multiple times, attended their monthly meetings on a dozen occasions, and examined meeting minutes from November 2016, when they were in tears and shock, until December 2020, at which point their politicking had yielded higher vote totals for Democrats in the previous month’s election, though not enough to prevail anywhere on the ballot.
Van Duyn also conducted a national and statewide survey in 2018, from which she concluded that more than one in five American adults felt the need to hide their politics, and just under one in 10 operated in similarly self-obscured conversational settings.
The study explains how social, geographic and political causes shaped the communication practices of the CWG.
“[T]he growing animosity between and within parties, the uncertainty about truth, the growing intersectional animosity around ideology, race, class, and gender, made for a political context that was not only unpleasant but risky.”
Trump palpably threatened their sense of security as women. Locally, they feared ostracization, loss of business (especially the real estate agents), defacement of property and being run off the road by men in trucks with guns who noticed liberal bumper-stickers, as happened at least once and was talked about often.
Van Duyn excels at detailing the evolution of CWG’s communications practices, a mix of private and public facing activities conducted through physical as well as digital channels. Many members had grown up deferring to men about matters political. But a week after Trump’s victory one of them sent an email to eight neighbors: “I would like to suggest that we get together for support and see where that takes us.”
That got forwarded, and 50 showed up at the first meeting. In a remote location, with the blinds closed, they wrote a mission statement and formed committees by issue to educate themselves. That super-structure soon fell by the wayside. Their formalized confidentiality agreement held, however. Between meetings they relied on a listserv to communicate among themselves with a brief detour into a secret Facebook group.
In their darkened space (the book title inverts the slogan of the Washington Post) they opened each meeting with talk about their fears. A few started sending letters to the editor of the local newspaper using their individual identity, often to register dissent with and fact-check other letter writers. Over the two years of the study, about half emerged as open Democrats. They worked on mobilizing other Democrats (even though not all were registered or comfortable with the party), leaving the heavy labor of persuasion to formal campaigns. Their work shored up the party in their county: they ran phone banks, filled district chairs, updated voter files and raised money. The group had served as a safe harbor to develop political skills and confidence.
CWG falls into several political traditions, including the voluntary associations that De Tocqueville valorized, the hidden minorities who have suffered the weights of oppression and, for that matter, the collectives of oppressors and cultists.
Women are a demographic majority in America, and the political positions of CWG would fit in the national mainstream. But these women were neither in the contexts of their lives. Even so, by the end of the period Van Duyn examines, their politicking mirrored that of more open demographic counterparts such as the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, a group that helped first-time candidate Abigail Spanberger turn a central Virginia seat Democratic in 2018 – one that she now has to decamp for a newly re-drawn district.
Some Republicans at holiday gatherings this year will continue to relish the opportunity to bait liberals (a practice that goes both ways). They may emulate Trump’s style of discourse, centered on a barrage of lies, exaggerations, accusations and taunts. Or they may not do any of these things; as Trump said about southern border-crossers in 2015 “some, I assume, are good people”. Indeed, some Republicans may feel intimidated by progressive majorities in workplaces and on campuses.
All told, the risks of escalated, energy draining crossfire between America’s political tribes have risen and intensified. So this holiday season is no time for engaging others in political matters, for disputing the veracity of their claims and integrity of their motives. Far better to smile wanly, deflect provocations, change the subject, and then join or form a political support group. As Van Duyn’s book shows, good things can follow from going underground.