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What Democrats Can Learn From the Tea Party

Tea Party members hold a Tax Day protest against “big government and to support lower taxes, less government and more freedom” April 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Tea Partyers gathered in Washington to mark April 15, the day most Americans are required to file income tax returns. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Since Donald Trump was elected, progressives have engaged in a protracted online debate about how to best fight back. It’s been a panicked, somewhat disorganized conversation — everyone knows there’s a coming onslaught of conservative policies, but not everyone is in agreement about how best to resist them. There have been the usual calls to action and protests and online petitions, but there’s also been a certain lack of organization and unity of purpose, which is unsurprising given that this is a period of fear and panic for many progressives.

In response to all this, over Thanksgiving a group of dozens of veterans of liberal politics and policy making, mostly former Congressional staffers, began putting together a guide for how to resist Trump and the GOP’s agenda. The guide is geared almost entirely toward practical, Congress-oriented acts individual citizens can take, and it’s inspired by an unlikely model: the tea party.

In “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” which has gone viral since it was first published publicly on Google Docs last night, the authors explain why the Tea Party was astoundingly effective at fighting back against President Obama’s agenda. “We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress,” they write. “We saw them organize locally and convince their own members of Congress to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won.” (Full disclosure: Two of the contributors, Ezra Levin and Angel Padilla, are friends and former grad-school classmates of mine, and at Levin’s request I read and provided light feedback on a draft version of the document before it was published.)

Why did the tea party win? Largely, the authors write, because its members simply understood, at the grassroots level, how power works; that is, how members of Congress think, and which incentives guide their behavior. That allowed its members to be wildly successful, relative to their size — small groups operating at the local level were able to lobby and harangue and harass even primary members of Congress who didn’t toe the tea party’s ideological line. The results literally changed the course of American history.

A chart from “Indivisible”

So “Indivisible” is largely a congressional Psychology 101 guide centered around which sorts of acts will and won’t spook individual senators and reps. The primary goal of this sort of activism, write the authors, should be making it clear to their members of Congress that there will be a high cost to helping pass the Trump and/or Ryan agenda(s). The guide covers a broad range of techniques, at times drilling down to the very specific: “Signs can be useful for reinforcing the sense of broad agreement with your message” at a town hall or similar event where your member of Congress is appearing, for instance. “However, if you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you or the people with you the chance to get the mike or ask a question.”

One of the most important guiding principles of the document is that at the moment, the most important thing progressives can do is play united defense against Trump and the GOP rather than get into squabbles about which affirmative policy proposals are best. The tea party, after all, was successful in large part because it understood itself as primarily a defensive group. It was “focused on fighting against every proposal coming out of the new Democratic Administration and Congress,” note the authors. “This focus on defense rather than policy development allowed the movement to avoid fracturing. Tea Party members may have not agreed on the policy reforms, but they could agree that Obama, Democrats, and moderate Republicans had to be stopped.”

Progressives should follow the same tack, the authors argue: “[W]e strongly recommend focusing on defense against the Trump agenda rather than developing an entire alternative policy agenda,” they write. “This is time-intensive, divisive, and, quite frankly, a distraction, since there is zero chance that we as progressives will get to put our agenda into action at the federal level in the next four years.” Given the amount of left-liberal infighting that has raged since the election, it feels like important advice.

What Democrats Can Learn From the Tea Party