By Rahul Mahajan
The election of Donald Trump has galvanized Americans of all demographics to levels of continuing activism not seen since the Vietnam War era. Most visible was the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. According to a comprehensive database put together by academics, between 3.2 million and 5.2 million people marched, a number unprecedented in U.S. history. The numbers included 750,000 in Washington, DC, about 450,000 each in Los Angeles and New York, all the way down to 250 marchers in Eau Claire and 30 in Tallkeetna, Alaska. Madison’s 75,000-100,000 was the largest since the uprising in 2011.
The organizers, which include hundreds of diverse organizations, are calling for a series of 10 actions in the first 100 days (www.womensmarch.com). Among them was the March 8 “Day Without a Woman” strike, which got tens of thousands of pledges but a relative paucity of visible action, probably because of the need for much greater lead-time and institutional support to pull off a strike as opposed to a weekend march. The next action is mass postcard-writing.
Along with more-or-less “spontaneous” one-off actions, like the airport protests against the travel ban, there has been a deluge of phone calls, office visits, and coordinated questioning at congressional town hall meetings during the February recess. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) had 1,000 angry questioners in a meeting in suburban Salt Lake City, with 1,000 more outside. In South Carolina, Rep. Mark Sanford and Sen. Tim Scott had an aggressive overflow crowd that drew out a one-hour meeting to three and a half hours. And 500 constituents of Sen. Ron Johnson packed a town-hall meeting in Madison at which the senator was represented by an empty chair.
Many organizations have stepped up calls for congressional action of various kinds, but Indivisible, a new organization created by former congressional staffers to help channel activism into effective impacts on elected representatives, is so far the largest driving force helping to organize these events.
Established organizations like Planned Parenthood are seeing record levels of support. The ACLU, in particular, had already increased its membership 50 percent by the end of January and raised $24 million online the weekend of the first travel ban (this is seven times its online fundraising for all of 2015). On March 11, they kicked off what looks to be a radical expansion of program activities with 2,200 “resistance training” events around the country in aid of their People Power platform. Over 170,000 have signed the People Power pledge. ACLU’s Freedom Cities campaign will work to transform the law-enforcement environment city by city, starting with a focus on immigration and the ICE raids that have been making the news (www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/freedom-cities-campaign-resistance-through-progress-local-level).
Well-known progressive think tanks like the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities are acting much more aggressively to get breaking policy analysis into the hands of activists in a timely fashion, and new information clearinghouses are springing up. The Resistance Manual (www.resistancemanual.org) is a new project designed to curate and digest information on Trump administration policy proposals and activism surrounding them. It’s a wiki, so anyone can post to it, but it is carefully overseen by a diverse core group of mostly young people from all walks of life.
Another new group, Knock Every Door (knockeverydoor.org) is implementing an innovative grassrouts-outreach tactic called “deep canvassing.” Started by former Sanders campaign workers, the organization prioritizes in-depth conversations in which people are encouraged to express their thoughts, not simply answer survey questions or listen to candidate-oriented talking points. Normal election-related work prioritizes efficiency in interactions; here, canvassers deliberately draw out conversations. A 2016 article in Science found that even a 10-minute conversation could substantially decrease transphobia, with effects lasting at least three months. Knock Every Door is actively seeking volunteers, working with Swing Left to match progressive activists to potentially swingy congressional districts nearby.
Amid such extensive activity, it’s natural to wonder what, if anything, is the underlying strategy. Given where activism as usual has gotten us, is doing a lot more of the same enough, or do we need to do something different? Which groups are working to build political power through new, or at least unconventional formations?
Our Revolution, the national organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, has a DC office, a small contingent of staff, and affiliate chapters cropping up around the country (for Wisconsin’s strategy, see below). Beyond a commitment to an initial platform much like Sanders’ own, the national group has said little about their strategic outlook and what they are doing. According to The Wall Street Journal, the initial Sandernista strategy is to “infiltrate and transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts.” They are comprehensively tracking party elections and meetings and intend to swamp ordinarily low-attended elections with waves of activists. The first big showdown, for DNC chair, was too high profile to be readily amenable to this strategy, but their favored candidate, Keith Ellison, still came close, losing narrowly to Tom Perez.
Interestingly, Indivisible, which on the surface just seems to be a massive crowdsourced grassroots lobbying coordination effort – with hundreds of local groups having regular meetings across the country – has articulated its overall strategy with particular clarity and openness. Their latest downloadable guide, version 10 as of this writing (www.indivisibleguide.com), gives an explicit analysis of the Tea Party’s success, and narrowly tailors their strategy accordingly. In their reading, there are two fundamental characteristics of the Tea Party. First, they organized locally — yes, there were well-funded national umbrella organizations like Americans For Prosperity, but the authors of the Indivisible guide believe it was the active local district- and precinct-level organizing that was key. In keeping with this, Indivisible is notable for its insistence that lobbying interventions only involve constituents; even if your Representative and your two Senators are good progressives, they recommend you focus on them exclusively. Second, they see the Tea Party’s program circa 2009 as purely negative — don’t let Obama with his overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress pass anything. Don’t work with the Democrats to modify legislative proposals, don’t put forward a coherent program of your own, just resist. The Tea Party’s immediate reward was the biggest midterm wave election in living memory.
Indivisible recommends the same to the burgeoning anti-Trump resistance. This approach has its advantages. First, in a period of dominance by an extremist party that is happy to force through a sweeping agenda with a paper-thin majority, there will be a lot to oppose and little prospect of passing progressive legislation at the federal level. Second, a very ideologically diverse and structurally fragile emerging coalition could easily rip itself apart in any attempt to forge a politically coherent program. But Indivisible’s analysis of the Tea Party’s remarkable effectiveness seems too minimalist. For one thing, the Tea Party didn’t need to forge a shared ideological worldview, since the mass organs of the right wing, from the NRA to the churches, and their ideological enablers, like the Heritage Foundation and Fox News, had already created a large body of people ready to build power ruthlessly. Also, the fact that they called themselves a “party” meant that they could project much greater strength in numbers than they actually had — at one point, roughly 20 percent of the population identified in polls with the Tea Party, although the number of dedicated activists was always far smaller.
Our Wisconsin Revolution (OWR) is putting its chips on the opposite point of view. Taking their lessons more from the even more surprising success of the Sanders campaign than from the Tea Party, they believe that a broad progressive agenda is something that already has a mass base, and it simply needs to be articulated effectively and repeatedly. They do differ from the national’s emphasis on taking over organizational positions in the Democratic Party, something that, at least for now, OWR eschews. Instead, they calculate that skipping directly to the step of running strong progressives for state and local office in hopes of gaining direct political power will work better.
Another historical inspiration for OWR is the Nonpartisan League. Started in 1915 in North Dakota by a member of the Socialist Party, it was a membership organization of farmers who felt exploited by grain-purchasing middlemen, railroads, and banks. Organizing around a shared agreement on straightforward principles like state ownership of grain elevators and provision of low-interest rural credit, they agreed to put up and support political candidates who signed on to their platform, regardless of party. Within one year, they had elected a previously unknown farmer as governor and taken over the state government. At their height, they were in six states, including Wisconsin.
It is easy to point to the radical dissimilarities between the Nonpartisan League and OWR — it was 100 years ago, the partisan divide was very different from what it is now, OWR members will not be a homogeneous group with similar primary interests, there will probably be no simple 5-point agenda that can characterize the group. But it represents an interesting gamble, and something very different from what we’ve seen in a long time.
Rahul Mahajan is a doctoral candidate in sociology at UW, a long-time activist, and author of two books about the War on Terror. Along with others who participated in the Wisconsin Uprising, he is featured in the film Divided We Fall, screening at the Wisconsin Film Fest on April 2.