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Indivisible? Meet the Activists Doing the Job the Democratic Party Has Failed to Do

Democrats who help facilitate the Trump agenda will face a primary challenge from the left, activists say.

A constituent displays a sign at a Rep. Jackie Speier town hall in San Francisco, California, on February 26, 2017. (Photo: Master Steve Rapport)

The United States has now entered month two of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the opposition to his administration is strong and growing. The past week has produced too many town hall protests to catalog, many of which have resulted in blistering criticisms of Republican elected officials, as well as of some Democrats. For now, the common enemy of Trump has served as a rallying cry and unifying force for a popular front, but the divisions in the big-tent, left-of-center coalition highlighted by the Democratic primary still exist and are in fact deepening, as the race for the head of the Democratic National Committee showed.

At the center of many of these town hall protests, often incorrectly dubbed a progressive answer to the Tea Party, is a group called Indivisible. It is less an organization than a network of local organizations, many of which sprang up in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory. Created by former congressional staffers, Indivisible works regularly with well-known liberal clearinghouses like MoveOn, as well as the progressive Working Families Party and a number of community-based organizations. The network released a guide in December suggesting simple strategies to maximize pressure on Congress: Forget the online petition, call your representative and both senators, show up at their offices, show up at public events, and show up at town halls. The response has been even larger and more enthusiastic than the founders expected.

Following Trump’s victory, many individuals began forming ad hoc groups through social media and local meet-ups to deal with the helplessness they felt in the final weeks of 2016. Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, an associate professor of history at Roanoke College, paid attention to the election, but it wasn’t until after Trump won that she really became an organizer, she says. She attended a meeting of Our Revolution, the group that formed out of Bernie Sanders’ run, and when the large group broke into smaller break-out sessions, she wanted to focus on a rapid-response network for undocumented people and other marginalized and vulnerable groups.

That became Roanoke Indivisible. “From that day, we probably got 30 or 40 emails,” Fuentes tells me. “But it wasn’t until we decided to go to Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s office that we started to see exponential growth.” Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, made national news on the first day of Congress when he announced plans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. They started flooding his phone lines, and, combined with a national outcry, that was enough to get the Goodlatte amendment rescinded. Twelve members of Roanoke Indivisible still paid his office a visit, dropping off New Years Cards detailing exactly what they expected of him. The Indivisible Guide tells new activists what to expect at their first district office meeting, which was helpful for Fuentes’ group, since they didn’t have their own firsthand experience.

“What really appealed to me about the guide was it was incredibly concrete. It looked like a recipe,” says Fuentes. “Most of the people coming to Indivisible are new to political activism. People told me, ‘I’ve never called my representative, and my arm was trembling when I picked up that phone.'”

They sent out a press release, local media came, and that night Rachel Maddow ended up featuring a video they had shot themselves. After that, they got a lot more local interest, and they’re building from there. “We’re focusing on local defensive action. Not: ‘I want a Universal Basic Income’ — which I do! But I know there’s no chance in hell anything like that is going to be talked about in Congress for the next two years.”

In many ways, Indivisible is doing the kinds of things the Democratic Party would be doing if it wanted to operate as a recognizable local and state organization, not just at the national level. It makes sense, given the unlikely origin story of the core group. Angel Padilla is one of the cofounders of Indivisible, and a former staffer for Luis Gutierrez, who represents Illinois’ fourth district.

“We modeled Indivisible on what we saw that worked,” Padilla tells me, referring to the anti-Obama protests in 2009. “The Tea Party was well funded, and we’re entirely organic.”

Indivisible organizers like Padilla often portray Indivisible as a “progressives taking a page from the Tea Party” in this way, but in truth that framing is incomplete: it erases liberal-left organizing both recent and older. As Josh Marshall notes at Talking Points Memo: “The real reference is to 2005 when Democrats turned out at Republican town halls to protest President Bush’s plan to partially phase out Social Security.” He adds, “It was 2005 that Tea Partiers (and the GOP pressure groups organizing them) explicitly referenced in 2009.”

Beyond the 2005 protests, the Tea Party tactic guide was taken from the Right’s favorite villain, Saul Alinsky. His seminal book Rules For Radicals “was being touted as a way to beat the left at its own game,” reports Politico, including by “69-year-old former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose nonprofit group FreedomWorks has emerged as a leading Washington bulwark for the Tea Party movement.” In other words, the Tea Party attempted to take a page from the Left — not the other way around.

Where the Tea Party succeeded, largely due to gerrymandering, was in creating unprecedented levels of ideological discipline. As highlighted by the battle for the chair of the Democratic National Committee shows, Democrats are still torn between listening to grassroots activists, who favored Keith Ellison, and supporting Tom Perez, who has received more institutional backing — though it’s worth noting, establishment-friendly Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, endorsed Ellison. Perez won, of course, leaving many on the left to wonder whether the Democratic Party could ever be reformed from within, or if activists should put any energy whatsoever into the party’s institutions. “If they engage with the Democratic party at all,” writes labor policy researcher Matt Bruenig, they should “only do so in order to attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions”

However that kind of organizing manifests, there’s no question there’s been a surge of energy on the broad left. “If you’re a progressive, you’re terrified,” says Padilla. “But we can do something about it, and we know we can do something about it because we’ve seen it happen before. If we act locally, organize locally, we can stop a lot of this terrible stuff from happening.”

Although Indivisible is known primarily for its practical guide for influencing Congress, Padilla emphasizes the network is also about principles and values, not just tactics. “We’re very progressive, and we really do care about things like equal protection under the law, civil rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights,” he says. “If we have an ideology, it’s progressive values. We want constituents to go to Democrats and tell them to make sure they’re voting the right way, and we also want Republicans to be voting the right way. We tell our groups it doesn’t matter if they’re in a Blue state or a Red state, they need to be pressuring their members to do the right thing.”

Indivisible isn’t the only group that has seen its numbers swell. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States, saw record interest over the course of the Sanders campaign and after Clinton’s loss. “There is a parallel rising interest in DSA and also there is some overlap at the local level,” Maria Svart, DSA’s national director, tells me. “This is not surprising because people are frustrated with the political elites. We have almost tripled in dues-paid membership since a year ago and the number of organized local DSA groups has quadrupled.”

Although there’s no formal collaboration between DSA and Indivisible, DSA shares the Indivisible website with groups as a good practical guide. Svart says she’s hoping the organic overlap at the local level will help pull some newly engaged activists to the left. “We do that openly as democratic socialists because the ideological contrast is important,” Svart says.

Svart stresses that DSA’s goal reaches far beyond opposition to Trump and the GOP Congress.

“We don’t just want to hold Republicans accountable. We also want to hold centrist Democrats accountable,” she said. “Furthermore, our strategy is to question the very economic system that has created this undemocratic political system, where one dollar equals one vote, instead of one person equaling one vote, where Trump and his corporate cronies can rig the economy, yet the moderate Democrats can’t challenge Trump’s right-wing populist rhetoric because they’re afraid to go too far left.”

Svart’s comments about holding centrist Democrats responsible echo Padilla’s, and could signal a recognition of everyone to the left of Chuck Schumer that simply getting Democrats elected isn’t enough if they aren’t going to fight for progressive values — ambiguous as the term “progressive” may be right now.

Indivisible doesn’t have any plans to run candidates as of now, but there’s still time before 2018. There will almost certainly be some elected Democrats who help facilitate the Trump agenda, and there’s a near-universal recognition among activists that those who do should face a primary from the left.

For its part, DSA is already gearing up for 2018.

“We know from history that we need to build an independent political force that can be flexible and strategic based on circumstances,” says Svart. “And we know from the Bernie Sanders primary campaign that democratic socialist values resonate with millions of Americans.”

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