Introduction: Beyond the Status Quo
The high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any ‘real’ victories.
—Bill Moyer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements
Every good movement passes through five stages: indifference, ridicule, abuse, repression, and respect.
—Mohandas Gandhi, Young India, March 9, 1921
Hope versus despair, or the view from the crossroads
Historians may look at the year 2017 as the beginning one of the great social movements of American history.
Future generations may tell how, faced with an unfit President and a reactionary Congress, people flooded the streets, raised their voices, and sparked a push for social justice that halted conservative initiatives in their tracks, energized the Democratic Party with progressive values, and took back the Congress, the White House and the courts. And they may tell how this grassroots insurgency led to enduring advances toward racial justice, worker and immigrant rights, gender equality and environmental sustainability.
Or they may look at the dawn of the Trump era as one of history’s great missed opportunities, a time in which protesters started out strong but were ultimately unable to build on their great manifestation of hope and their hunger for change.
At this moment, we don’t know which way it will go.
Millions upon millions of people have taken action to resist Trump: taking part in street protests; joining large organizations like MoveOn and the ACLU; forming Indivisible chapters and other local groups; flooding the phone lines and town hall meetings of their elected representatives. This presents an enormous opportunity, if the new energy can be sustained and channeled effectively.
Bringing people into a movement. Sustaining their participation. Keeping them inspired. Directing them to effective action. These are critical challenges If they are not met, millions of new activists will lose interest—or lose hope.
Figure 1. This chart by Movement NetLabs describes how social movements cycle through different phases depending on public sentiment.
Observers of social movements describe a “movement cycle” (see Figure 1). After periods of exhilarating growth and promise, there will always be periods of disillusionment and contraction as opponents adapt, change slows, and hope dims.
But this lull should not be taken as defeat. Being aware of these patterns and how to adapt to them helps us ward off despair, even in our darkest hours. We can build on our strengths even when the media dismisses our efforts and victories seem beyond our reach. We can sustain one another until the light breaks through. And we can create both the actions that draw in new supporters and the structures that will help keep them participating.
Every social movement has struggled with the same challenges. What can we learn from them?
The crisis we are in today calls for a movement strategy rather than a compromise strategy.
What does that look like?
First, it means polarizing the issues. Just as the function of a magnet or a battery depends on the opposition between its positive and negative poles, it is necessary to cast issues in terms of right and wrong. This forces people to pick a side. It’s the opposite of searching for positions where there’s broad agreement, as reassuring as it might be to emphasize common beliefs across the political spectrum.
Second, it means focusing on the base. For too long, the Democratic Party has demobilized its own base, only to activate it in brief moments before elections. The base consists of the core voters of the Democratic Party. By seeking positions that appeal to them, we can draw swing and crossover voters to us. If we face a choice between placating the Democratic Party’s big-money donors or appealing to passionate grassroots supporters, we should choose the latter—the path of energy, activation and hope.
Third, it means creating and sustaining active popular support. This refers to a base of supporters who are willing to take action to push the movement’s vision. It is distinct from the kind of passive support that most public opinion polling reveals.
Mainstream Democratic politics and even many large liberal nonprofits have steered away from these three principles for more than a generation. Instead, they’ve pursued the path of compromise and “triangulation.” Compromise is appealing as a civic virtue. Against an opponent who is using a movement approach, however, it is a recipe for loss after loss.
We see mainstream Democratic politicians and organizations seeking broad consensus and floating proposals that claim to reject the dug-in positions of left and right, triangulating a third position above either. They raise the prospect of “grand bargains” but end up disappointing both sides in equal measure. There have been small victories along the way, but the overall trend has put us where we are now—out of power, with Republicans solidly in control at the federal level and in most of the states.
Assumes static, zero-sum politics
Assumes politics is dynamic and can be changed by protest
Top-down, market-tested advertising that focuses on undecided voters
Messages that appeal to heartfelt values and energize supporters
Starts from dissent
Realignment of coalition
Electoral politics casts protest as threatening to status quo
Electoral politics and protest complement one another to transform society
Depends on Wall Street and billionaire donors
Depends on massive numbers of small donors
Makes the deal
Changes the political weather
Prioritizes short-term legislation and political maneuvering
Follows elite opinions and courts big donors
Speaks to the head
Uses the rules and established methods of “legitimate” politics
Populism and protest
Prioritizes long-term social change
Follows movements and cooperates with grassroots organizations
Speaks to the heart
Breaks the rules and rewrites them
If we want to see what a successful movement strategy might look like in mainstream politics, we need only consider at the recent history of the Republican party. Specifically, we must look at the rise—and startling success—of the Tea Party.
Beyond town halls—the Tea Party’s movement strategy
In 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of the United States. The Democrats seemed unstoppable. They controlled the Senate, the House and legislative chambers all over the country. After eight years of George W. Bush, Republicans and their agenda were deeply unpopular.
Obama began his presidency with an approval rating 10 points higher than George W. Bush’s was in January 2001 and nine points higher than Bill Clinton’s was in January 1993. Republicans had serious incentives to cooperate with President Obama. Some at the top even advocated for a new type of conservatism that would be more inclusive and would reach out to minorities and Democrats who were alienated by Bush.
So how did the Republicans so quickly reach a hardline stance of opposition and obstructionism instead?
Starting that very year, in 2009, an energized and angry base of conservatives declared their resistance—not only to Obama and the Democratic Party, but to the moderate Republicans who had considered cooperation. They called themselves the Tea Party.
Today we attribute the Tea Party’s ascent to economic anger over the 2008 financial collapse and years of stagnant wages, accelerated by a racist backlash to the election of the first Black president. At the time, however, both Obama’s handling of the financial crisis and his mantle of racial reconciliation bolstered his support.
Tea Party activists first made national headlines with a massive Tax Day protest on April 15, 2009. Fox News gave endless coverage to the protesters’ call for more limited government.
This was a game-changing event. The protest was designed for public consumption. It captivated the media. The Tea Party soon became the wellspring of opposition to the proposed Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
Following the rally, tens of thousands of people organized into autonomous small groups. The Tea Party quickly activated, recruited and energized a massive base of supporters, all hoping to push elected Republicans (and the party’s donor base) further to the right, preventing compromise with the Democrats in power.
Tea Party leaders quickly began to put strategic pressure on members of Congress using phone calls, letter writing campaigns and impromptu, in-person delegations of constituents who would show up at lawmakers’ district offices and demand meetings. These actions drew extensive news coverage, which in turn helped draw new recruits to the movement.
As a result, the health care reform that President Obama had campaigned on became heavily politicized. Democrats worried that constituents sympathetic to the Tea Party would revolt over too radical a shift in policy. Republicans began to fear that cooperating with any Democratic legislation would earn them primary challengers from the right.
Republicans were right to be afraid. In many areas, local Tea Party organizers shifted their focus from putting pressure on those in office to running candidates of their own. This came to be referred to as the “RINO hunting” strategy, because organizers claimed that moderate GOP members of Congress were “republican in name only.” Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative were “outed” as traitors to their party.
Many Tea Party challengers made it to Congress. In the 2010 midterm elections, 44 newly-elected Republicans were affiliated with the Tea Party movement. Others won primaries but lost general elections—recall Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, who had to address remarks that she had “dabbled in witchcraft,” and Todd Akin in Missouri, who was ensnared in his references to “legitimate rape.” Yet even while drawing mockery and scorn from mainstream political commentators in defeat, these candidates advanced their movement. As journalist Joan Shipps put it, they “lost their national-level races but won with Republican voters, thereby moving their party rightward.”
Beyond Indivisible—a comprehensive strategy
Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, a group of former Democratic congressional staffers released the Indivisible Guide. They had personally witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. They had seen how it undermined the prospects for progressive change under President Obama. The Indivisible Guide examined the Tea Party’s tactics—specifically, the way its activists challenged Democratic members of Congress at town halls—and showed how the same methods could be used to thwart Trump.
The Indivisible Guide was an immediate viral hit and it spawned significant grassroots organizing. The document has been viewed or downloaded more than two million times. By mid-2017, nearly 6,000 Indivisible groups were active in the United States. Utilizing strategies presented in the guide, activists have flooded town hall meetings with angry constituents and bombarded members of Congress with phone calls from voters intent on expressing their disapproval of Trump administration policies. Indivisible is playing an important role in slowing Republican efforts to overturn Obamacare.
The Indivisible Guide is an essential part of the movement to resist Trump. We applaud its authors and the activists who have put its lessons to great use. With the Resistance Guide, we wish to show how Indivisible fits into a broader social movement that, like the Tea Party, can change the political weather and regain power. We discuss how Indivisible-style pressure on decision-makers is a critical part of a social movement strategy for change in Chapter 3.
But the Tea Party did more than block Obama’s agenda, and we can do more than block Trump’s proposals. The Tea Party reshaped the GOP agenda on the local, state and federal level. It did more than elect individual Republicans. It tightened the GOP’s hold on power by boldly rejecting compromise. As important as it is to stop (or even oust) Trump, our resistance should keep in mind what happened during Obama’s eight years in office.
More than one thousand state or federal offices fell from Democratic to Republican hands. States like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas, Michigan and Ohio saw radical policy changes that curtailed the power of unions and other key members of the Democratic coalition. Republicans destroyed funding for public schools, universities and children’s health services, among other public initiatives, with legislation that hurt the poor, women, marginalized citizens and the public good. Much of this change was due to the broad and uncompromising vision of the Tea Party movement.
The notion of realigning the party around the most extreme elements of the base looked to many like a disaster waiting to happen. At some point, wouldn’t the extremists alienate the center? The opposite happened. Because that base was organized and active, it continued to draw the center towards it.
In the end, the Tea Party changed the political weather in the United States. Today, no Republican official could get away with the environmental protections that Richard Nixon enacted. The immigration law that Ronald Reagan signed would be seen as a leftist pipe dream.
This wasn’t easy. It wasn’t inevitable. It happened despite complaints from establishment Republicans and the mainstream media. Engaging tens of thousands of everyday people, the Tea Party defied those who expected compromise, held to a movement strategy, and reaped the rewards.
We can use the same strategy to enact progressive change in our country. And we can do it better. We believe that this strategy is our only hope for sustaining our movement and to creating change.
Beyond resistance—creating transformative change together
The Women’s March and the airport protests were joyous, hopeful events. They, and the surge of protest they accompanied, announced that millions of Americans believe in a country that welcomes the immigrant and the refugee, a country that refuses to confine or restrict people based on who they love or how they identify, a country that addresses racial injustice and acts to save the climate.
There is a path from that first burst of hope to the realization of our dreams. And it’s not a path you can walk alone.
We wrote the Resistance Guide because the study of civil resistance helped us develop a powerful theory of change. It’s a theory that only works if tens of thousands of people—not only top leaders—learn it, understand it, and put it into practice.
In its simplest form, the theory is this: Stopping the assault on our democracy, protecting social programs, and building progressive power will require steadily growing numbers of people to consistently support a social movement. These people will need to engage in three different types of protest action:
1. Public protests that bring in new supporters and change what’s considered politically possible
2. Acts of resistance focused on people in power, chiefly elected officials
3. Electoral politics that oust Republicans and replace the Democratic establishment with movement-allied leaders
Right now, some progressive groups are leading street protests against the president’s policies. Others are facing down members of Congress in town hall meetings. And still others are cultivating new, grassroots candidates to challenge incumbents in upcoming elections. A successful social movement will incorporate all three of these approaches.
Learning the fundamentals of each of these strategies will help you make your own best contribution to the resistance. The alternative is politics as usual, and that will take us nowhere. Following establishment politicians down a path of compromise and triangulation will drain our hope and leave us demobilized and despairing.
But if we follow the example of the Tea Party, and the examples of progressive movements that toppled dictators and secured rights, we can build a movement capable of absorbing the millions of people who have already begun to resist. We can channel their anger and their hope into a sophisticated, decentralized movement that will grow in numbers and in power.
If we commit to participating in all three types of resistance outlined in this guide, we can sustain that movement through the threat of despair and the setbacks along the way.
With growing numbers and faith in our own power, we can defend our movement from the inevitable attacks from the mainstream media, establishment Democrats and the Republicans in power.
When it comes to hope, we cannot just rely on professional organizers and leaders, we all have to carry it, and keep it alive. And if we want to sustain it, to keep it growing, we have to do so together.
An old proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Let’s go together.