Indivisible founder tells Denver crowd how a movement was born: ‘It’s a tidal wave’
Author: Ernest Luning - March 2, 2017 - Updated: December 27, 2017
They hadn’t intended to spark a movement, much less inspire one of the more ubiquitous hashtags of the past several months.
But that’s what happened when Leah Greenberg, her husband and two friends wrote a declaration filled with advice called “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” and posted it online in mid-December.
Since then, after millions have downloaded the manual and thousands of groups have said they’re taking its advice, she said, “We’re on the verge of a wave of civic engagement like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Greenberg was describing the birth of the document and the movement that shares its name to more than 1,000 mostly like-minded activists gathered Thursday at the Colorado Convention Center to learn from former Vice President Al Gore how to spread the word on climate change.
Another time, she put it succinctly: “It’s a tidal wave.”
When married couple Greenberg and Ezra Levin and their friends Angel Padilla and Sarah Dohl huddled in the weeks after the November election, dispirited over Donald Trump’s surprise win, they had what Greenberg describes as “this light-bulb moment.”
Pondering how to react to the drastic changes that seemed to be sweeping the nation, the four former congressional staffers — they’d all worked for progressive Democrats — recalled not too long ago when they’d been on the receiving end of some particularly effective organizing that reshaped the political terrain before their eyes.
That “political force,” Greenberg told the crowd, was the tea party, which ended up blocking a good share of the Obama administration’s early agenda, and Greenberg and her colleagues wondered if they could devise a progressive version to work against Trump.
They’d been hearing from friends around the country, and the stories were the same. “They said people are so angry, they’re so excited, they’re so ready to take action, but they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know how to channel that emotion,” Greenberg said. “They’re calling their member of Congress, they’re writing letters to all these government agencies — they’re doing whatever they can, but they don’t really see the purpose of what they’re doing, how it affects anything.”
Having witnessed the rise of the tea party in 2009, they knew that constituents could influence their elected representatives if they were motivated enough and knew how to apply the right kinds of pressure.
Sketching the emergence of the tea party, Greenberg said, “People didn’t necessarily take it seriously, but the reality is that the kind of organizing they did had an extraordinarily powerful effect. They came to our offices, they came to our events, they held protests wherever people went.”
The tea partiers, she said, “shaped the political landscape such that Republicans really were afraid to compromise, and Democrats were afraid to take a stand for what they really believed in.”
While the results were disastrous for progressives, Greenberg said, “In light of the election, we started thinking more about what they had done and how you could replicate some of those tactics without the violence, without the nastiness, without the racism.”
It turned out, she said, that the tea party adopted two key principles.
“First, they organized locally — they focused on the people who represent them and they demanded that they represent them in a certain way. And second, they were not afraid to play defense.” That meant organizing to work against proposals rather than supporting new laws or policies, as activists usually do, she said.
“Those two strategic premises, which are really very, very simple, allowed them to reshape the political landscape during the Obama era in a matter of months, to change the way a very popular president with a supermajority in Congress — to change everything that was possible for his agenda,” Greenberg said.
What it came down to, she said, was acknowledging that, while Trump’s election might seem to have upended the usual political rules, elected officials hadn’t morphed overnight — “The rules of gravity do not cease to exist, right?” — into strange new creatures impervious to the same pressures they’ve always felt.
“They still care about getting good local press, they still freak out about bad local press, they still care if their constituents are paying attention to them, are listening to them and believe they’re representing them. And you can really use that power to have an effect on them,” she said.
The document’s advice probably rings familiar to anyone who followed the tea party: get in touch with members of Congress, confront them at town halls and in other public settings, and thank the ones who vote favorably, because they never get positive feedback, generally only hearing from constituents who are mad at them.
“So that was a Google doc,” she said with a smile. “We put that online about two months ago. We thought that our parents were going to like it on Facebook, and that our friends would share it with their families and in six months someone would send us an email and say they used our work at a town hall, and we would be super excited about that.”
But that isn’t exactly what happened.
“The first night we put it online it crashed Google Docs,” she said, and the audience erupted in laughter and cheers. “I don’t know, but it was probably the first time that a 26-page political manifesto with a lot of typos crashed Google Docs.”
Within a month, Greenberg said, 5 million people had visited the site, and around that time the authors started hearing from people who were taking the document’s advice. “That was the moment we realized that something had happened, we realized that people hadn’t just gotten a little bit quirky with their reading materials, but this was part of a bigger wave,” she said. “We’ve now heard from more than 7,000 groups from around the country who say they are putting the plan into action.”
She told the audience that the activists inspired by “Indivisible” — “this totally unsourced, unverified document” — were demonstrating that there was something to its premises. “We’ve seen on the federal level several times now that when people are paying attention, when people are engaged, when the phones are ringing off the hook, bad things get stopped and good things go further.”
Greenberg cited as an example the swift demise of plans to gut the Congressional Ethics Office, which didn’t survive many hours after the proposal was exposed to the public. All it took to get Congress to back down, she said, was “a little sunshine and a lot of outrage.”
The explosion in interest in congressional town halls — and the number of Republicans who decided against holding them during last week’s recess — was more evidence, she maintained. Not too long ago, congressional town halls might have drawn a few dozen participants, she said, but thousands have shown up at some in the past month. As many as 100,000 attended town halls during the congressional recess, Greenberg asserted, adding, “And that’s just the members of Congress that actually had events. A lot of members of Congress are not ready to handle this level of civic activism, and they’re trying to lay low.”
The movement appears to be catalyzing activists who didn’t know they were activists, Greenberg noted. She told those training to become “Climate Reality” leaders: “You have the potential to tap into this moment, not only fighting against something but fighting for something, toward a future we all believe in.” And, while their document had been written as a guide to influencing members of Congress, the principles apply equally at the local level, she said, only it takes many fewer people to have a big impact on city council members and others closer to their constituents.
“Ninety percent of making that change,” she said, “is getting organized, getting educated and showing up.”