Editor’s note: Back in January I promised a multi-part series of posts based on a book I started on the Indivisible movement that, simply put, just wasn’t coming together as I would have liked. So I decided to serialize that beginning of a book draft – with a little more editing as I see fit – and add more writing to make this into a multi-part series of posts.
This first post begins with the introduction I had wrote, which covered “the biggest upset in U.S. history.”
For (Hillary) Clinton, the loss is especially brutal. She had meticulously planned her victory party at the Javits Center in Manhattan, symbolically under an enormous glass ceiling that she hoped to break through. Instead, it was the dreams and aspirations of her supporters that were shattered.“Trump pulls off biggest upset in U.S. history“, Shane Goldmacher and Ben Schreckinger, Politico, November 9, 2016
If you had done a “man on the street” interview in the days before the 2016 Presidential election and asked about its potential outcome, most respondents would likely have followed the conventional wisdom that the election was going to be, at long last, the second consecutive rectification of a long-standing wrong in American history: after electing (and re-electing) the first African-American president in Barack Obama, the fairer sex would get its first opportunity at the Oval Office by the election of a woman with a familiarity to the premises in Hillary Clinton, the long-suffering wife of our 42nd President, Bill Clinton.
That’s not to say, however, that the Clinton campaign didn’t endure some bumps in the road in the process: specifically, her coronation as the favored Democratic candidate was all but interrupted by the insurgent bid of Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, who temporarily dropped his independent moniker in order to seek the Democratic nomination. Old-style machine politics coupled with rules that made the party anything but democratic, such as the significant roles played by the superdelegates and the thumb placed on the scale by Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, made sure that a large slice of the left-wing electorate was going to have hard feelings regarding Clinton’s nomination. However, looking at the election from an early-November perspective, all that funny business with Sanders was going to become a mere footnote in the poorhouse-to-penthouse political success story that Hillary was putting the finishing touches on.
Yet believing the conventional wisdom may have been the mistake that unraveled Clinton’s campaign – a going-through of motions that ignored several Rust Belt states assumed to be in the Democratic column. Perhaps the Clinton camp felt safe in believing she would win because Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had a heavy union influence and, with the exception of Ohio, had voted Democratic blue in every Presidential election since 1988 – a trend first made possible by Hillary’s husband. Moreover, placed against a divisive candidate who had alienated a large cross-section of the Republican Party – a group called the #NeverTrump Republicans – it was thought that GOP turnout could be depressed in swing states like Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia, further securing the Clinton victory. One week out, polling showed that Clinton was indeed winning in her “firewall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and within the margin of error in Florida. Ohio was not in as good of shape, but historians could assure Hillary’s backers that, while no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio, there have been a handful of GOP stalwarts who won the state but lost the overall race – the last being Richard Nixon in 1960.
The factor no one ever considered in handicapping the 2016 race, though, was the amount of pent-up frustration churning in the residents of America’s heartland. Going into Election Day, Hillary’s campaign probably knew she was in a bit of trouble in Florida and Ohio, but all that would do was temper her Electoral College victory to something below 300 votes. In assuming that Hillary would win Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they believed she would have squeaked out a 278-260 Electoral College win even while losing Florida and Ohio. But for want of 77,747 votes combined in the three “firewall” states Hillary lost – far fewer than Green Party candidate Jill Stein received in the trio – Donald Trump won the Electoral College and the Presidential election despite drawing nearly 3 million fewer votes nationwide. No amount of cajoling or laying on of guilt by certain members of the public could convince members of the Electoral College to switch their Trump votes to Hillary, although a half-dozen changed their votes to others. On January 6, 2017 Congress counted the votes and it became official: January 20, 2017 would mark the beginning of the Trump administration.
It was an administration I didn’t vote for, but these events gave birth to a fascinating political movement and eventually inspired this series I’m writing as a way to document its unique history and effects and to present a proposal on how right-thinking Americans can split up this supposedly unbreakable entity.
You may ask, then: what piqued my interest in the Indivisible movement?
In 2019, a decade after it came into being as a protest against the billions of dollars being proposed as economic stimulus by then-President Obama, I released a book called The Rise and Fall of the TEA Party, a historical and analytical book that featured several of its early leaders. As I learned in researching that book, it turned out the ragtag irregular rear-guard regiments of the loosely-organized TEA Party were the ones who didn’t get polled (or couldn’t bring themselves to admit backing Donald Trump, or flat-out lied to the pollsters) but came out in droves in those aforementioned heartland states to cast their ballot against Hillary. They were a voter bloc left for dead in American politics, in large part because these initial supporters now viewed the national organizations claiming that TEA Party mantle as just another set of inside-the-Beltway interest groups. Combine that with the percentage of voters who “felt the Bern” and were disgruntled enough with the Democratic Party and their gaming of the system to push them into supporting someone like Jill Stein over Hillary, and you get the result we received: Donald Trump pulling the “biggest upset in U.S. history.”
However, once the shock of Hillary’s loss wore off, those who believed she was the better candidate decided not to get mad – they vowed to get even. In writing the Indivisible Guide – more formally known as Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, but I’ll just call it the Indivisible Guide or simply Guide – the authors made it clear their movement was borrowing heavily from the tactics and techniques of the TEA Party but doing so in order to oppose Donald Trump and advocate for the progressive agenda they believed would have been both an extension of Barack Obama’s policies and the starting point for a Hillary Clinton presidency. Quoting from its introduction:
Donald Trump is the biggest popular-vote loser in history to ever call himself President. In spite of the fact that he has no mandate, he will attempt to use his congressional majority to reshape America in his own racist, authoritarian, and corrupt image. If progressives are going to stop this, we must stand indivisibly opposed to Trump and the Members of Congress (MoCs) who would do his bidding. Together, we have the power to resist – and we have the power to win.
We know this because we’ve seen it before. The authors of this guide are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress. We saw them organize locally and convince their own MoCs to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism – and they won.
We believe that protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda – but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness. Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate. He does not have large congressional majorities. If a small minority in the Tea Party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.Opening statement to Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.
Having the direct comparison available between Indivisible and the TEA Party may have led readers to believe this will be a short summary, but it’s made much more complex by the nature of the opposition. Unlike the TEA Party, which I found to be percolating beneath the political surface for over a year before it was galvanized by random early morning remarks by a TV pundit by the name of Rick Santelli in February, 2009, Indivisible was put together almost overnight – yet it gathered the momentum it needed in a few short weeks thanks to the backing of large organizations which make Indivisible much more of an Astroturf group than it may appear to be from the outside.
In the understatement of the decade, it’s fair to say that the prospect of a Trump presidency didn’t sit well with a lot of people, and their anger was intense. At the same time Indivisible was being planned out, social media organizers were putting together the Women’s March on Washington. Held the day after Trump was sworn in, their event outdrew the inauguration, according to news reports. Quoted in The Atlantic, an “expert on nonviolent protest” by the name of Erica Chenowith gushed that the Women’s March “has some of the hallmarks of the beginning of a successful movement. The ability to mobilize large numbers of people is often associated with the creation of an effective campaign.” Yet, charges of anti-Semitism against its leadership and its embrace of political values far outside the mainstream have led the March on a downward spiral, with the 2020 event drawing a mere fraction of the 2017 crowd. It’s even taken a back seat to the annual March for Life put on by abortion opponents, which continues to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital year after year and was buoyed this year with President Trump’s personal appearance – the first time a sitting President has addressed the gathering. (Let’s pray it’s the pro-life support that becomes the “effective campaign.”) Whether it was because the Women’s March had folded most of its support into other aspects of progressive politics, such as Indivisible, or if the anti-Semitism repelled prospective marchers, the Women’s March as an organized group doesn’t appear to have the staying power that Indivisible has maintained.
Given that Indivisible has presented itself as inspired by the TEA Party, having the experience of writing and researching on that particular political caprice provided me with a number of questions about Indivisible and its place in the progressive movement which needed to be looked at to provide a complete accounting. And, to borrow from the Rules for Radicals penned by progressive icon Saul Alinsky, it’s an effort to make Indivisible conform to the rules they themselves set by making such a comparison. By far, that aspect of this series will be the most fun to write because, frankly, the Indivisible narrative has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.
Naturally, the comparison can’t be an exact one. Setting aside the difference in policy prescriptions the respective winners ran on in 2008 and 2016, the situation that gave birth to Indivisible was far different than the circumstance that led to the formation of the TEA Party. Unlike his predecessor, President Trump did not come in facing a nation amidst the direst economic circumstances since the Great Depression, one simultaneously troubled by ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Instead, what Donald Trump inherited was a sense of unfinished business felt by the populace: as 2017 dawned, America was in a dawdling, “jobless” economic recovery while its foreign policy wrestled with the rise of the al-Qaeda successor Islamic State – Barack Obama’s idea of the “JV team.” Donald Trump’s blueprint for fundamental change, then, was the idea of reversing what he saw as the excesses of big government, such as eliminating Obamacare, providing tax relief, and securing the border with Mexico. Those three agenda items formed Trump’s appeal to the TEA Party’s political diaspora.
But Trump didn’t go as far as the initial TEA Party leaders would have. While they shared much of the platform of thwarting Obama’s initiatives, Trump wasn’t as keen during his campaign about returning the federal government to what TEA Party believers deemed a more proper, Constitutional role by limiting its size and scope. For example, early on Trump took entitlement reform off the table, believing a more robust economy would work the problem out for us.
Conversely, Indivisible was about one thing and one thing only: stopping Donald Trump. Yet the most important consideration when talking about Indivisible’s origins is knowing its organizers are products of a political culture. Instead of outsiders tilting at the windmills of the political field like most of the original TEA Party leaders were, Indivisible’s two key founders, the husband-and-wife team of Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, were already well-placed inside the castle because they were both Congressional staffers at some point during their careers and continually worked inside the Beltway swamp. Knowing all the inside baseball allowed them to dictate an anti-Trump agenda, pull the proper levers, and implement their agenda in the stealthiest manner possible, with minimum fingerprints thanks to a bureaucracy (the Swamp, or “deep state”) that also loathed Trump from the get-go.
Thus, at the time of its inception, Indivisible was only interested in what they termed “playing defense” and settling in for a waiting game until progressive reinforcements could arrive in the 2018 midterm elections. Once the changing of the House guard came, thanks to the 2018 midterms, Indivisible began advocating for a number of policy changes their supporters could originate in the House as its way of going on offense.
I’m relishing the chance to share my conclusions, but my next part will begin with a look at the couple that’s the public face of Indivisible.