Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Donald Robotham

Committee Members

David Harvey

Ida Susser

Josiah Heyman

Subject Categories

American Politics | Human Geography | Political Economy | Politics and Social Change | Public Policy | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology of Religion | United States History


Crisis, Social Movements, Community Organizing, Faith-Based Organizing, Political Economy, Race and Racism


This ethnography examines grassroots political responses to the economic crisis that began in 2008, foremost in the US Midwest, which arguably laid the groundwork both for the election of President Donald Trump and presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders. President Obama launched his $787 billion stimulus plan in Elkhart, Indiana, in early 2009. At the height of the crisis, unemployment skyrocketed from four to 20 percent in Elkhart, and it became central to struggles over the political direction of the US. With few safety nets, Elkhart residents struggled to meet their basic needs, creating conditions for political organizing on both the Left and Right.

A growing set of Left-oriented groups initially advanced cooperative experiments and alternative community projects, often with strong commitments to solidarity, building connections across historically divided groups and confronting oppression and inequality. Over time, some of these groups developed a clearer anti-capitalist critique and engaged in national-level organizing efforts (including manifestations of Occupy Wall Street and the new Poor People’s Campaign), tapping into an older generation of Left organizers, uncovering local histories of social struggle and connecting with grassroots leaders across the country.

Contrary to many national pundits, this research also revealed substantial grassroots mobilization driving the Tea Party or at least chapters across northern Indiana, composed disproportionately of older adults with greater financial resources and time. Several leaders had been involved in earlier Christian Right political action. Many found their own social position precarious and the future more so for their children, and they did not see their interests represented by either political party. Especially in Indiana, the Tea Party had substantial impacts, including the election of candidates like Governor Mike Pence.

Historically, Indiana was home to a series communal and cooperative experiments, giving birth to Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party of America, with the Elkhart Local securing 22.5 percent of the popular vote and winning two Elkhart City Council seats in 1917. However, following brutal repression during WWI, Indiana also became home to the American Legion, revival of the Ku Klux Klan and John Birch Society. By 1925, 26 percent of native-born white male Elkhart residents were KKK members.

While emerging groups on the Right and Left diverged in substantial ways, there were points of convergence that reveal key aspects of the US political landscape. First, the self-definition of most emerging leaders across the political spectrum began with their religious and/or moral commitments, which drove and justified their political engagements and shaped their analysis. Second, in response to economic conditions, these movements asserted self-reliance within defined communities. There was a related skepticism of or active resistance to centralized government authority, intensified by decades of neoliberal rhetoric and often validated by elite capture of government policymaking. This manifest in efforts to return democracy to the local level, whether via horizontal participatory processes central to communal living experiments and organizing on the Left or by reasserting states’ rights and local government on the Right.