Good morning Austin:
When the history of the national grassroots effort to resist President Donald Trump is written, it may be recorded that the movement was born in Austin – prefigured at a Randalls supermarket in South Austin in the summer of 2009, forged at Drink.Well. on East 53rd Street over Thanksgiving weekend 2016, and conceived, in great part, by battle-tested veterans of the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the indomitable Austin liberal who on Tuesday joined the ranks of Democratic members of Congress who will be boycotting Trump’s inauguration.
It was at that Randalls in the first summer of the Obama presidency that Doggett was besieged by tea party protesters chanting “Just Say No” to the health care reform that would come to be known as Obamacare, a jarring scene that, captured on video, went viral, and set the tone for what would be a dreadful August recess for Democratic members of Congress at bitterly contentious town hall meetings across he country.
“I don’t think any Democrats anticipated how tough that summer would be,” said Sarah Dohl, who had just started what would be a four-year stint as Doggett’s communications director. “Those health care protests were really game changers, and that’s when everything shifted.”
“Mr. Doggett was one of the first members of Congress who was really targeted with this kind of mob scene. that was really vivid. That video made it to the national news and got tens of thousand of views,” said Jeremy Haile, who grew up in Dallas and worked with Dohl in Doggett’s office, where he served as legislative counsel. “It seemed so disproportionate to what was happening in Congress at the time. President Obama had run on expanding health care. Congressman Doggett had supported that. But the sort of vitriol that was coming out was pretty shocking.”
In a statement that appeared in the Statesman at the time, Doggett sounded stunned but unfazed.
This mob, sent by the local Republican and Libertarian parties, did not come just to be heard, but to deny others the right to be heard. And this appears to be part of a coordinated, nationwide effort. What could be more appropriate for the ‘party of no’ than having its stalwarts drowning out the voices of their neighbors by screaming ‘just say no!’ Their fanatical insistence on repealing Social Security and Medicare is not just about halting health care reform but rolling back 75 years of progress. I am more committed than ever to win approval of legislation to offer more individual choice to access affordable health care. An effective public plan is essential to achieve that goal.
“I think what became clear was Republicans had decided, just as a matter of strategy, to oppose everything that Obama wanted to do,” Haile said. “When I was on the Hill, I would see Democrats take legislation almost verbatim out of policy papers from more conservative think tanks, and Republicans and the tea party immediately opposed them. That seemed like something new that was, at the time, disconcerting, and seemed like it was a new kind of politics, unproductive and a kind of defensive, oppositional politics that seemed unhelpful and disproportionate to what we saw with the election, when President Obama won with a big majority. There was a kind of outpouring of excitement and a feeling that he would bring the country together.”
But the tea party saw to it that that was not to be.
Seven years and change later, in the aftermath of Trump’s election as president, Ezra Levin, who had worked with Dohl and Haile in Doggett’s office (he was there from 2008 to 2011) – beginning as a legislative correspondent and ending up as Doggett’s deputy policy director – was back in Austin for the Thanksgiving holiday – he grew up in Austin and Buda – with his wife, Leah Greenberg, another Capitol Hill veteran. One night they got together at Drink.Well. with an old friend who was involved in organizing a progressive group in Austin, to talk about how to channel their mutual despair and make use of their working knowledge of Capitol Hill and how congressional politics actually works.
The result: On the evening of Dec. 15, Levin, 31, tweeted out a link to a Google Doc: Indivisible: A practical guide For resisting the Trump agenda. Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.
As Levin, Greenberg and another collaborator, Angel Padilla, wrote in a Jan. 2 New York Times Op-ed:
We served as congressional staff members during the early years of the Obama administration. It was an exhilarating time to be a progressive in Washington: An inspirational new president was taking office, accompanied by a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate. But by February 2009, something had begun to change. Small protests calling themselves “tea parties” were popping up all over the country. In April, their Tax Day demonstrations dominated the news.
In August, routine hometown events got unexpectedly rough for members of Congress. At a neighborhood event at Randalls, a grocery store in Austin, Tex., Congressman Lloyd Doggett came face to face with a group of “tea party patriots,” carrying signs that said “No Socialized Health Care.” In Austin — and in congressional districts across the country — the tea partyers chanted what became their battle cry: “Just say no!”
Their tactics weren’t fancy: They just showed up on their own home turf, and they just said no.
Here’s the crazy thing: It worked.
Politics is the art of the possible, and the Tea Party changed what was possible. They waged a relentless campaign to force Republicans away from compromise and tank Democratic legislative priorities like immigration reform and campaign finance transparency. Their members ensured that legislation that did pass, like the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular from the start. They hijacked the national narrative and created the impression of broad discontent with President Obama.
And they organized for the 2010 election, targeting Republicans in the primaries and Democrats in the general election. After the November 2010 elections, the Democratic majority in the House and supermajority in the Senate were gone. With them went all hope for bold progressive reform under President Obama.
The Tea Party’s success was a disaster for President Obama’s agenda and for our country, but that success should give us hope today. It proved the power that local, defensive organizing can have.
It takes a few pages from the Tea Party playbook, focusing on its strategic choices and tactics, while dispensing with its viciousness. It’s the Tea Party inverted: locally driven advocacy built on inclusion, fairness and respect. It’s playing defense, not to obstruct, but to protect.
Indivisible was an immediate sensation, with stories about it in the New Yorker (The Crowdsourced Guide to Fighting Trump’s Agenda), New York Magazine (What Democrats Can Learn From the Tea Party), Slate (The Most Useful Guide to Resisting Donald Trump It’s the Tea Party playbook, minus the nooses), Vox (A guide to rebuilding the Democratic Party, from the ground up. Organizationally, the US right is light years ahead of the left. A leading political scientist explains what Democrats should do to change that.), and not one but two segments on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show.
Yesterday, I talked with Levin and Dohl, who are in D.C., and Haile, who is in San Francisco.
This started coming together after the election. My wife, Leah Greenberg, is also a former congressional staffer and involved in progressive do-gooder politics and we were trying to figure out what we could do to respond to this incredibly surprising election. We were both on the Hill (she had worked for U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who is now running for governor of Virginia, a campaign for which she is policy and research director) and we were there during the rise of the tea party.
After the election we were seeing not just despair but also seeing some silver linings. There was a ton of energy out there that seemed to be popping up in terms of private Facebook groups, mailings lists, individual groups trying to figure out how they could resist Trump. They knew that Congress had power. They knew they could call members of Congress. They knew about petitions. What we were seeing, and was actually confirmed in a trip to Austin, was that Congress is a black box, that it is was hard to understand exactly what works and what makes members of Congress ticks, so Leah and I during this trip to Austin, we were talking to a college friend, who was the administrator of one of these new local groups that was popping up, and we heard from her the same thing.
We knew what works. We both knew how Congress works and we knew how a pretty darn small group relative to the total population, came together and implemented a very thoughtful strategy with very specific concrete tactics to resist an administration and a Congress that they didn’t agree with and that was the tea party.
We, of course, weren’t ideologically in line with the tea party. We are progressive. But even beyond that we didn’t agree with the style, I guess you could say, of some those tactics – spitting on staffers, the violent approaches that they took – but we thought their strategy and some of their tactics were fundamentally sound, that politicians, members of Congress, just like anybody, respond to stimuli and that the particular thing they respond to is power and constituents have power, they have power when it comes to their own members of Congress because they get to choose heir members of Congress.
The tea party implemented a two-pronged strategy, and that was very locally focused, focused on their members of the Senate and their one member of Congress, and then they consciously chose to be defensive and almost exclusively defensive, because they understood if they tried to do any one of the crazy conservative things they wanted to do – restricting a women’s right to choose, destroying the planet, cutting taxes for the wealthy while cutting programs for the poor, that that would fracture their coalition.
And they also understood that they weren’t setting the agenda, that at that time Democrats controlled the House and the Senate and the presidency, so what they could do is simply respond to it. And they did that in a few concrete, not rocket science kinds of way. They showed up in person at public events, at town halls, at district office and then called in response to whatever new thing President Obama or the Congress was trying to do.
We started out writing a practical guide for progressives who find themselves in kind of the same situation now, with a president we believe is illegitimate and is looking to destroy some key tenets of American democracy, and who controls the Senate and the House.
The difference, I would say, between us and the tea party, is I think we’re right now, that I think that is exactly what we are facing. Donald Trump is a unique, historic threat, and that this unique, historic threat calls for unique historic action, on the part of constituents who have power with their own members of Congress, and that those members of Congress can hold him accountable.
My families in Austin and Buda, so we were home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and met with our friend at Drink.Well.
We had certainly been thinking about this, talking to a lot of friends. But, we didn’t go into that bar thinking that we have this idea for a tea party guide. The conversation there sparked the idea.
Looking back at 2009, Levin said:
I think it’s important to note that Lloyd didn’t waver in his support. That he is a strong progressive, and remained one.
I think he did a phenomenal job. He stuck to his progressive values.
But, Levin said:
The tea party gave the sense – and it was true sense – that no matter where you are, no matter which district you are in, that, `we are here and we are asking you to, in this case, stand against President Obama,’ that this was a national movement. And you are seeing the identical thing right now, the only difference is that it is happening a lot faster and that it’s a lot better organized at the ground level.
In the last two weeks about 3,300 local groups have registered, on our website, and I’d say only about a third of those are Indivisible in name. One of my favorites is in Alaska, it’s called 49 Moons, because that’s the length of time Trump would be in office.
But we’re not Subway and you don’t have to sell $5 foot-longs that you’re resisting Trump, as long as you agree that the Trump administration needs to be resisted, and whatever group you’re pulling together, either all of its work or part of its work will resist that agenda through local, defensive congressional action, and you agree to embrace progressive values, that you are going to be an inclusive group and are not going to be physically abusive to staff or other people you’re interacting with, then we consider you part of the tribe and we want to work with you and help you do whatever you can do to resist locally.
Indivisible Austin, Levin said, is going great guns, started by people he didn’t previously know.
So we put out a Google Doc, that’s all we did. We do explicitly say in the guide, one of the first steps is to either find your local group or start it – you can call your self Indivisible, or call yourself whatever you want, as long as you’re working to resist Trump.
When we started out we didn’t think that we would have 126,000 people reach out to us with their zip codes and their emails, we didn’t think there would be 3,300 groups registering with us within a couple of weeks, and so this has all been a surprise to us and very welcome surprise.
Of the name Indivisible, Levin said:
Leah gets credit. I don’t think it was in that bar, though it could have been – Leah forgot her ID so she couldn’t drink so she was the most clear-headed – but I think it was a couple of days later.
She said hey, `What do you think of Indivisible,” and immediately it felt right because it hits on the notes of, something that we feel is part of the theory of change here is that we have to treat an attack on one as an attack on all, that the progressive community is made up of a very diverse set of people and groups, and that the challenges we face require that we stand together strong. And it also hits notes of some kind of sense of American patriotism, coming from the Pledge of Allegiance – “indivisible with liberty and justice for all” – that felt really appropriate on a couple of fronts.
Do they have an anthem?
We do not have an anthem.
We’re really humble about what we’ve done and what our role in this is. We just wrote a guide. There was already energy out there to resist Trump.
We’re really happy this has resonated with folks. Our role is not to say, `Look at us, the leaders,’ because we know that we’re not. Our role is to provide useful tools to the leaders on the ground now, and many of whom have been on the ground for a long time.
The instant Indivisible was issued, Dohl got involved, overseeing communication, social media, design and brand.
Haile, who helped develop Indivisible, says that Trump is a far riper – and, obviously, in his view, a more deserving – target than Obama was.
I think that what we see with Donald Trump is that he did not win with a majority, his popularity and approval ratings are at an all-time low for an incoming president and, I guess most importantly, we feel that he ran a campaign based on racism and intolerance that we see as unacceptable. That’s why feel the lessons of the tea party, that progressive should apply them, because Trump must be stopped.
The tea party tactics – threats of violence, the racially tinged rallies – we reject, and we don’t recommend that anybody use those tactics now. But Donald Trump, the threat that we see to liberal democratic values is so extraordinary, we feel that he must be stopped and so that’s why we see the lesson of tea party of local defensive organizing as a strategy that liberals should now adopt.
I believe that the difference now is that Donald Trump is not popular, some of his proposals we see as antithetical to American values and principles, if not outright unconstitutional, and it appears that the Republicans in Congress are sort of falling in line and stand ready to do his bidding, so what we’re saying is the constituents in those districts need to speak out and need to ask for meetings with their members of Congress, need to flood Capitol Hill with phone calls to say that those policies are unacceptable.
The key lesson we learned with working with members of Congress is that they only care what their own constituents think, particularly those who have to run every two years. And so what we’re encouraging people to do, is if you don’t like what Congress is doing, and you don’t live in the First District of Wisconsin, it’s a waste of time to call Paul Ryan’s office, what you need to do is to call your congressman’s office.
And that’s really true if you’re in a conservative district with a Republican member of Congress, or if you are in a liberal district or state. In a lot of cases, if it’s a blue district or state, we think citizens have to tell their representative, thanks for being progressive and opposing Trump, but silently opposing Trump is not enough, what you need to do is use the platform you have as a member of Congress to vigorously state that you do not support a person who ran on a sort of racist and corrupt campaign.