“We are relearning democracy”: 5 Ways the anti-Trump movement “Indivisible” is redefining political action

Indivisible started over drinks in a bar. It now has at least 2 groups in every congressional district in the U.S.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published March 26, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

People in the crowd respond to a woman supporting President Donald Trump during a town hall meeting with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC)    (Getty/Sean Rayford)
People in the crowd respond to a woman supporting President Donald Trump during a town hall meeting with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) (Getty/Sean Rayford)

When the Women’s March descended on Washington, D.C., the day after the Presidential Inauguration on Jan. 21, 2017, its size wasn’t the only point of contention. Many skeptics wondered what good a march could do, even if collectively it was the largest march in recorded history. As with almost all political action these days, the burning question was whether it would make any difference.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on the severe sense of political skepticism that has become not only commonplace, but also expected, each and every time any progressive movement attempts to engage in any political action in this country. One of the reasons for this is that public protests and marches seem to translate uneasily into concrete political outcomes.

As Moisés Naím wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, “The problem is what happens after the march.”

This criticism, of course, was the common tactic used to discredit the success of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as a movement with impact. Despite the fact that basically everyone on the planet knows the notion of the 1 percent thanks to OWS, the commonly accepted idea is that public protests go nowhere.

Naím argues that “Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.”

That’s where Indivisible comes in. Indivisible began as a guidebook to help empower anti-Trump resisters so they could take their energy and translate it into concrete political change.

Well, actually, it began in a bar.

Similar to many of us who sought to drown our sorrows after the election, married couple Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg found themselves at a bar in Austin, Texas, drinking and wondering what could be done to stop Trump.

But, unlike the rest of us, Levin, Greenberg and colleague Sarah Dohl had some specific ideas. Levin and Dohl had worked for Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, when the Tea Party launched in 2009, and they witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of that movement. They noted that Tea Party protests worked even in the context of a president who had majority support. They figured that the combination of Trump’s weak mandate and unlikeability had to make him an easier target for political resistance than President Obama had been.

So they took the best, most effective tactics from the Tea Party and marshaled them for a step-by-step guide to bring down the Trump platform. They posted it on Facebook and figured their moms and a few friends would like it, and that would be it.

But the guide went viral; web traffic crashed the Google document. So they created a website and worked with a core team of others to develop their plan into something that could really steer local groups.

As Dohl shared with me via email, as of March 21, Indivisible had 18.47 million page views, 3.03 million unique users from every state, 2.02 million downloads/views of the Indivisible Guide, and 2.97 million searches for a group, meeting or event. They currently have 5,802 verified groups, with at least two in every congressional district.

As a point of comparison, the Tea Party spiked at about 1,000 local groups.

And we also now know that the Tea Party may have appeared to have been a grassroots movement, but it was actually orchestrated and funded by Big Oil, Big Tobacco and the Koch brothers.

Meanwhile Indivisible really did start as an organic upsurge, helped, in part, by the fact that the guide caught the attention of noted public figures like Robert Reich, Rachel Maddow and George Takei.

And yet, as Indivisible has been gaining in visibility and success, it has been hounded by another common criticism of leftist action: that its members are paid and that it is not authentic. White House spokesman Sean Spicer recently called the liberal activism at rowdy congressional town halls a “very paid, Astroturf-type movement.” They have also been accused of being funded by George Soros.

Levin has countered that the group is “is very much led on the ground” by activists who are determined to take action against Trump and is not under the sway of any one donor or group.

What perhaps is even more noteworthy is that despite both Spicer’s and Trump’s efforts to discredit Indivisible, it is not only gaining momentum, it is continuing to accumulate examples of measurable success.

In one noteworthy example, Indivisible urged its supporters to take advantage of the congressional recess that occurred during the week of Feb. 17-26, during which time members of Congress often hold town halls back home. They issued a step-by-step guide to help members use these town halls to great effect, especially in cases where the lawmaker was nowhere to be found.

In some cases “concerned” individuals launched campaigns to locate their “missing” representatives. For example, missing posters featuring Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were posted around his California congressional district. Missing notices for Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., were posted on milk cartons within his district and posted to the @WhereIsPaulCook Twitter account using the hashtag #prayforpaul, and a tongue-in-cheek candlelight vigil was held to mourn his absence and urge him to return home to his constituents. Other town halls were held with empty chairs, empty suits, or even a chicken standing in for the missing politician.

And while some skeptics will start listing the various ways that Indivisible won’t measure up to the sort of meaningful political resistance we need in the wake of the Trump debacle, here are five reasons why this movement is making a difference.

1. Strategy

Unlike the Women’s March or OWS or any number of other spontaneous political action groups we have seen, Indivisible is founded on the idea that political change requires a clear strategy. Its number one goal is to “demystify congressional advocacy.” Its second goal is to support local groups trying to use their political toolkit.

Billy Fleming, co-author of the Indivisible Guide, put it this way: “We’re really good at demystifying Congress in a way that can be used by all of their different members to take the most effective action possible.”

As Bob Burnett, a member of Indivisible Berkeley, explained it to me during a phone interview, the goal is to help the public “relearn democracy,” which means that much of the focus is on skills and tactics that work.

The website is filled with how-tos, action guides and scripts. It helps take the mystery out of the political process and allows engaged citizens to turn their passion into political change.

2. Complementarity

Indivisible counteracts previously accepted ideas about political action that make assumptions that specific forms of activity are more effective than others. It does not pit one form of organizing against another. Instead it has built a platform that complements the initiatives of a given local group, whether they are planning marches, sit ins, call banking, or, as in one case, a die in to protest changes to health care.

While they do work to encourage leaders to coordinate their initiatives with local media and social media, Indivisible helps their groups to develop these ideas in ways that are reactive to local circumstances.

They emphasize that they are not the leaders of the movement and that local groups are taking ownership of the resistance to Trump’s agenda themselves. Their goal is to complement those initiatives by offering key tactics that work. Thus they offer a new model for political organizing that falls between a leadered and a leaderless revolution. They offer guidance and help share best practices across all of their registered groups.

3. Indivisibility

The Indivisible founders knew that, like the Tea Party, they needed to create a unifying theme to their platform. Thus, they specifically chose a concept that pits them directly against the divisive, racist and angry tenor of Tea Party tactics: indivisibility.

And yet, following the Tea Party playbook, they advocate two key elements in their action plan: 1) Focus on your local member of Congress who wants reelection, and 2) focus your energies on a defensive approach that is purely anti-Trump. While Dohl explained to me that their platform has a progressive vision, Indivisible is clearly aimed at welcoming anyone and everyone who wants to stop Trump. Their unifying quality is their desire to reclaim the nation from a Trump platform that is “built on racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.”

This emphasis on “indivisibility” has allowed them to sidestep the division between supporters of #DemExit or #DemForce and it has allowed them to bracket concerns over whether the DNC needs to be reformed or abandoned. While some critics will be quick to jump on this issue, I’d argue that it makes more sense to recognize that this neutral stance allows Indivisible to support a range of anti-Trump positions.

It has also allowed them to welcome members of #RedStateWoke, a hashtag launched by Indivisible Oklahoma to highlight the many Republican voters who are “waking up” and embracing the anti-Trump platform.

Because the movement is tactical but not policy driven, its goal is simply to demand responsiveness in those elected officials who are currently in office or else shame them so thoroughly that they won’t be reelected.

And the tactic is working across the political board. Burnett told me that Senator Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., was “scared” after media attention to an empty-chair town hall where she was “missing” in front of more than 2,700 attendees. And Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has been the subject of a number of Indivisible actions, including the die in mentioned above, has apparently begun a noticeable shift in policy toward the left.

4. Laughtivism

While Indivisible has borrowed key tactics from the Tea Party in support of an anti-Trump agenda, there is one major difference in their strategies. Where the Tea Party traded on anger, fear and hysteria to freak out their members, Indivisible mobilizes its members using laughtivism.

This difference may well be one of the most significant distinctions between Indivisible and the Tea Party and the one that has the ability to have the most political impact. Indivisible leaders are encouraged to find ways to bring media attention to their efforts by using irony, humor and wit.

Unlike the angry, scary rhetoric of the Tea Party that sought to get support through fear, Indivisible is seeking support using satirical activism — “missing” labels on milk cartons and on posters, chickens at town halls to represent “chicken” leaders, cardboard cutouts of members of Congress, empty suits and empty chairs. By combining serious political action with the fun of satire and irony, Indivisible is not only helping get attention to their initiatives, they are also tapping into the powerful potential of laughtivism.

As Srdja Popovic explains, laughtivism helped bring down Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, so we have reason to think it should help with Trump. But more importantly laughtivism “breaks fear and builds confidence,” thereby creating a political mindset that can inspire revolutionary change and mobilize collective action.

Dohl explained that while the Indivisible team encourages these sorts of creative initiatives, the founding members are continually surprised by new and innovative ways that their members are using humor to political ends.

5. Storytelling

In the wake of the first “fake news”-elected president, no one needs reminding that politics today is all about controlling the narrative.

Thus Indivisible takes storytelling as a central component of its tactics. It encourages local groups to develop relationships with local media, to operate Twitter and Facebook pages and to always take pictures and videos at any event.

One Indivisible group in Colorado tells the story of how they took a meeting with their congressman, Mike Coffman, R-Colo., where he snuck out the back door, and turned it into a viral media event.

Indivisible is also vigilant regarding the various right-wing tricks that can be used against progressive activists: “Right-wing activists and media use stealthy tactics to delegitimize progressive groups, creating secret recordings of group meetings or off-the-cuff statements by their members.” They also know that any anti-Trump resistance will face negative spin from the White House and right-wing media outlets.

The idea is that if they have a highly visible counter-narrative, they just make the right look inept when they go after them. While they offer tips on how to counter negative press, their main goal is to frame the story from the start.

Naím argued that the problem with the political efficacy of protest is that most movements lack an organization ready to engage in the “complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.”

Indivisible is teaching us that real change in government doesn’t have to be either complicated or dull. And it is showing us that political change can launch from the streets or from the corner bar.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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