How Trump galvanized the left and the lessons they’ve taken from his presidency.
On the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, an alternative story competed for headlines. A sea of determined women in pink knitted hats invaded Washington, DC, and a new wave of energized progressive activism took shape. For a large number of participants in the 2017 Women’s March, this was their first protest. Strangers to the world of grassroots activism, they were spurred on by their post-election outrage to dive in deep. As the anniversary of the first Women’s March passes, the movement shows no signs of slowing down.
“Before the election I had nothing to do with politics. I got all my news on Facebook, and look at where we are now. I never read the paper. I mean it’s shameful to even have to say that,” says Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, one of many volunteer organizers of the Women’s March.
Manaa-Hoppenworth, 48, was “devastated” by the results of the election and volunteered as an Illinois organizer for the Women’s March in DC to set an example for her daughter. After the march, she became a co-founder of the Illinois chapter of Indivisible.
Indivisible started life as a Google Doc, which was released by a group of former Democratic congressional aides, entitled “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” The document is a simple step-by-step guide that draws on lessons from the Tea Party to teach progressives how to effectively make their voices heard by their local representatives. The guide went viral and 6,000 “chapters” have now formed across the US.
While Indivisible supports Democratic candidates through phone banking and fundraising, it functions firmly outside of the Democratic Party, rejecting offers of assistance from Hillary Clinton’s political organization, Onwards Together. Indivisible is not a hierarchical movement and it does not seek to control chapters, but instead to provide assistance and guidance.
Manaa-Hoppenworth became a co-founder of Invisible Illinois after being introduced to fellow co-founder Scott Cross, 44, who has a strong background in community organizing. However, she found that she was not the only political novice. “Many people who are in the movement now have never organized before. People just took that guide, and they created groups on their own, organically all over the nation,” she says. “[B]ecause of that these folks were empowered to organize into their own entity and to start being a little bit more structured to actually answer questions that were coming their way.”
Earlier this year, Indivisible Illinois staged a number of protests in which women dressed as the abused handmaidens from the Margaret Atwood novel-turned-popular Hulu TV series. Manaa-Hoppenworth and Cross both believe the vivid imagery prompted media coverage and played a role in pressuring Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner to sign the HB 40 abortion rights bill, which he was previously opposed to. The bill is legislation that provides state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions.
“I think the handmaid’s movement was very pivotal, according to the news, in pushing Governor Rauner,” says Manaa-Hoppenworth. “They showed up everywhere that he was and that’s part of the Indivisible Guide: when your elected officials are not showing up, they’re not having in-person town halls, you go to those optical events they’re staging like ribbon cuttings.”
She adds: “It seems that women’s issues are rising to the top every single time. And it makes me really hopeful for my daughter and for her kids as well.”
Manaa-Hoppenworth and Cross both live in Springfield but work with a team of volunteer co-founders to coordinate local groups across Illinois. However, Indivisible groups do not exist purely in blue states like Illinois. A map on the organization’s website identifies registered Indivisible groups with blue dots. The dots are scarce in states like Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota but defiant.
Dr. Jackie Canterbury, 68, who lives in Big Horn, Wyoming, formed a women’s group in 2016 to celebrate what she assumed would be the first female presidential victory. “You know it was it was like a death,” she says. “I mean, really we all thought she [Hillary Clinton] was going to win. The polls said she was going to win. And the idea of this man becoming president was so frightening to all of us that I think we were very depressed for weeks and months. I think we all still are.”
With Canterbury’s background in environmental advocacy, the focus of the group quickly switched to “resisting Trump.” Looking for guidance in an unprecedented political climate, she discovered the Indivisible guide online. “What I did is go online and basically found out about Invisible, and I liked what I saw because basically it’s a guide from people that knew what they were doing in DC because they actually had witnessed the Tea Party and how they work.”
Canterbury says the guide reinforces the message to “think globally and act locally.” She mentions, “That you really need to create an accountability metric for those people that represent you because they certainly don’t anymore.”
Canterbury is particularly proud of an action the group took against Republican Senator John Barrasso in February 2017. The senator was attending a Chamber of Commerce coffee event in Big Horn, and the group organized a cross section of the community, including Vietnam Vets, to boycott the event and protest outside. “I think we shook him up because I don’t think it’s ever happened in Wyoming before. I doubt he has ever experienced a group that stood before him and held up signs against his policies, not against him as a human being but against his policy,” says Canterbury.
Jane Ifland, 67, is the coordinator of an Indivisible chapter in the town of Kasper, Wyoming. She says the group takes pride in each action. “I’m proud of every single one. And there have probably been upwards of a dozen since the inauguration. Just because it takes quite a bit to stand up in a town this size and say, I don’t agree with what’s going on.”
Run for Something
While Indivisible focuses on grassroots activism, a number of other former Democratic Party staffers have founded progressive organizations with diverse goals in response to the 2016 election. Amanda Litman, 27, is Clinton’s former campaign email director and the co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that supports young progressive candidates under 35 to run for office at all levels of government — from school boards to city council.
After a high intensity campaign, Litman found herself with a lot of idle time, frustration and uncertainty about the future. Old friends, high school and college acquaintances started reaching out to her via Facebook, asking about how they could get involved in politics and run for local office. But despite all her campaign experience, she was at a loss on how to advise them.
“I didn’t have a good answer for them,” she says. “That was really frustrating and indicative of a larger problem in the progressive movement — that if you were a young person who wanted to run for office, if you didn’t have connections to the institution, there wasn’t an answer for you.” She adds: “And that has resulted in a lack of progressive movement at the local level or lack of a sense of good talent in a long-term sense of the party and a leadership that is frankly for the old. Which is OK, but [it] is not representative of our voters [and] not representative of our country.”
The experience highlighted a crucial issue within the Democratic Party, which Litman set out to solve. Researching the early efforts of EMILY’s List, a political action committee, she wanted to emulate that model for young people instead of just women.
Litman joined forces with co-founder Ross Morales Rocketto, a seasoned political operative, and launched Run for Something on inauguration day in 2017, with the humble goal of signing up “maybe a hundred people who want to run in the fall.” To date, it has had more than 11,000 people sign up and has endorsed 81 candidates across 19 states. Run for Something mostly focuses on local races because “politics like anything else requires practice to run for something big, to run a statewide campaign,” but also because Litman believes that local office can be really impactful from a policy perspective.
“Congress doesn’t really do anything anymore,” she says. “Whereas on a local level, you’re making decisions that directly affect people’s day — you’re deciding things like liquor licenses and trash pickup and zoning. Which seems boring, but [it] really directly affects people’s lives. “
She believes the Democratic Party has neglected local races to their own detriment. “Republicans don’t ignore local office,” she says. “Republicans have been investing in City Council, for instance, for the last decade or two decades at least. And they’re not going to stop doing that. So we can’t afford to continue ignoring these races.”
Candidates are initially screened by volunteers, who look for key criteria: “Are they progressive? Are they willing to work hard? Are they authentically rooted in their community? Do you understand the problems people experience there? Are they interesting and compelling to talk to?” Anyone who meets those these points are encouraged to run for office and can access all of Run for Something’s resources, including 250 mentors who support candidates with day-to-day tactics and operations of the campaign.
Town Hall Project
Another Clinton staffer and former community organizer, Jimmy Dahman, was also feeling frustrated after the election but wanted to capitalize on the new wave of political activism. “After the election, I was trying to figure out what to do next and how can we continue to engage people in the political process,” he says. “We saw things like the Women’s March, where people were just flooding the streets looking for ways to get involved in the democratic process, many for the first time.”
“That election , I think, changed a lot in people’s mind and made them realize that you know democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s not something I can only pay attention to every four years.”
Dahman started for looking town hall-style events for family and friends to attend in his area. But he found that information surprisingly difficult to find. “I knew that Congress was going to be taking up a lot of new legislation with a new Congress and a new administration. These public events that members of Congress do [are] a great way that folks can do something in their community locally, show up and have their concerns addressed, ask questions and feel like they have some ownership in this process.”
He recruited some friends to split up the districts, and they started calling local representative’s offices, signing up for email lists, checking social media, looking anywhere they could for information about lawmakers’ public events. They collated the information in a Google Doc and sent it out to their networks, much like the Indivisible guide, and it quickly went viral. That was when, in a world of digital advocacy, Dahman decided to establish the Town Hall Project. The project aims to give the public the tools they need to hold their representatives accountable by facilitating the “face-to-face conversations” that Dahman believes are so powerful when enacting change.
An unintended consequence of the project was highlighting how many members of Congress are not holding town halls. As of September, 166 members of Congress had not held town halls in 2017. “We realized that this data never really existed anywhere … and so what we’ve been doing is tracking this so we can use this data to draw conclusions. We can analyze this and we can also hold people accountable in a way that hasn’t really been done before,” says Dahman.
The Town Hall Project also encourages communities whose representatives are not holding town halls to host “empty chair events.” These events are organized by the public who discuss their concerns in front of local press in an effort to make their voices heard. The absence of a representative is symbolized by an empty chair, podium or cardboard cutout.
All three organizations were formed in reaction to the inauguration of President Donald Trump. However, as the anniversary of his first year passes, none of the founders or participants is showing signs of tapering off. Indivisible members are spurred on by the election of the first openly transgender Democrat, Danica Roem, in Virginia on the anniversary of Trump’s election. More recently, they are celebrating the election of Democrat Doug Jones in the notoriously red state of Alabama.
Litman has long-term plans for Run for Something that exist well beyond Trump’s current term. She wants to recruit 50,000 young people who want to run by the end of June 2018 and have at least a thousand people on the ballot in 2018. She also has ambitious goals for the organization and wants to encourage “citizen ownership of government.”
“We hope that in five or 10 years, you’ll have congressional candidates who got their start from us; you’ll have governor candidates that got their start from us; in 20 years you’ll have a presidential candidate who says, Yes, I’m running now because 15 years ago I decided to run for City Council because Run For Something told me I could.”
Despite the focus on data and Facebook ads in the 2016 election, Litman encourages her candidates at the local level to get out in the community and establish authentic human connections. “The most important thing that came to people’s minds above anything else when voting is a one-on-one conversation with the candidate. Focus on your story and make sure that the ‘why’ of why you’re running is clear … run to solve a problem and then be able to articulate how you’re going to solve that problem to your voters, and they’ll show up for you.”
The Trump administration has been foreign territory to navigate for activists, journalists and even comedians. In an unprecedented political climate, these revitalized progressive activists are turning their focus away from Trump and firmly on local politics. In the age of digital “armchair activism” and Twitter, they are putting their energy into traditional forms of advocacy such as town halls and local conversations, and it is clearly having an impact. “The one thing that totally surprised me is how much this general wave of activism has had an impact on Congress and the legislative priorities and what unfolded” says Dahman.
Cross, the co-founder of Indivisible Illinois, is a keen supporter of a local approach. “I always tell them [Indivisible members] that what we need to do is we need to focus locally,” he says. “We need to focus on ourselves. We need to focus on our relationships with our next door neighbors because if we can have normal conversations with our neighbors, [then] our friends, their families and everybody [can get] on the same page.” He adds, “Then we can move that conversation into the broader community like your church or you know when you’re on the school playground with the other parents and then move that to like a general meeting in their area and just keep amplifying it that way.”
Joan McMillian, 76, the founder of an Invisible chapter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a red state and politically a world away from Illinois, also has faith in this local approach. “I think we’re kind of a safety valve for some people. One woman says she doesn’t tell her husband where she’s going when she comes to group because she was a Trump voter. She says he is beginning to change. One can only hope.”
Cross believes this local-minded approach borne out of Trump’s election is the only way progressives will “effect change.” He adds, “So I think that what Trump is doing is helping us to actually to organize, which is an amazing thing.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Damian Boeselager / Shutterstock.com
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