WASHINGTON — The week before the presidential election, Shally Venugopal, 33, and Indivar Dutta-Gupta, 34, were like many other young professional couples in the Democratic stronghold of Washington, D.C., looking forward to a smooth transition from President Obama to President Hillary Clinton. With a 4-year-old and a 7-month-old, their family conversation turned to how they would balance the 80-hour workweeks if Dutta-Gupta, an economic policy specialist, joined the new president’s transition effort or administration.
In the end, the question was moot. Clinton was not going to be president. And Donald Trump was. “That evening and that night I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a deep pit in my stomach,” Venugopal recalled her election night reaction at a conference in early April.
What happened next was a story that played out across the country, with one critical difference. “We decided that the best way to process was just to do it over dinner,” she said. “And so we invited a small group of our friends. And it turned out that, actually, more people wanted to come. And more people wanted to come. And I think we ended up having 70, 80 people over to our house for dinner suddenly.”
Her friends were mainly people in their early to mid-30s, people whose years of experience in politics, government and nongovernmental organizations in Washington and around the world had made them by any measure a force to be reckoned with, but whose age by and large made them people you’ve never heard of. In the great pyramid of the D.C. workforce, they were from the thick layer of capable people who drive campaigns and organizations and keep government going, but who are not yet candidates for office or the breakout stars you see on TV. And they weren’t at dinner just to complain and drink away their sorrows.
A Wharton graduate and CEO of a young tech company, Venugopal brought her management background to dinner and divided her guests into groups, 11 in all, by issue areas “to sort of predict what could come of the Trump administration in its worst form” and to plan. Going forward, they would be action-oriented, and the first step would be to “prepare” and “to think ahead” so they could fight back against what was about to happen.
Two of the attendees at the dinner, Ezra Levin, 31, and Leah Greenberg, 30, would go on to found Indivisible, a political-action group that began as a downloadable guide on to how to influence Congress, written by former congressional staffers. That guide has become the lodestar of the new resistance movement and inspired the creation of more than 5,800 registered Indivisible chapters around the country, including at least two in every congressional district.
Another attendee, Andy Kim, would found Rise Stronger, which collaborated with the Townhall Project — a crowd-sourced clearinghouse for information on which members of Congress are holding town halls, run by a couple of former Clinton staffers — to put together the People’s Calendar of events used by activists across the country. On Thursday, Kim declared he is exploring a bid to challenge GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur, a key author of Trump-era Obamacare repeal efforts, in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District.
In addition to helping out with Indivisible, Dutta-Gupta would go on to sit on the executive committee of the April 15 Tax March, which has rewritten the Democratic conversation around participating in any Trump tax reform bill by linking it to the release of his own returns.
Venugopal started her own group too, Fight to Win, comprised of that first night’s attendees, plus another 50, which now meets every six weeks.
The group is gearing up to canvass for House of Delegate contests in Virginia and drive turnout and fundraising for the special election runoff in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District to elect 30-year-old Democrat and former congressional staffer Jon Ossoff to Congress.
It’s a key district for liberal organizers across the country, as Democrats seek to win 24 seats and retake the House. It also just happens to be where Dutta-Gupta grew up.
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When Democrats in February celebrated winning a state senate seat in a special election in Delaware, preserving the party’s majority in the statehouse, many took it as a story of just how far the party had fallen.
In reality, it was a sign of how the party might stage a comeback: by rebuilding from the ground up.
Out of the despair and rage of the election loss, Democrats and progressives over the past six months have created an astonishing array of new groups that are radically transforming the landscape of the American left and promise to continue changing it for years to come. But beyond the record-breaking size and intensity of the outpouring, what most distinguishes the new groups is their willingness and attentiveness to work the regional levers of power.
Structurally, the new groups are more oriented to state and district-based efforts than national efforts — though they have national aims. They are more focused on getting people elected to smaller state-level offices — territory that is cheaper and more accessible to political newcomers, but also critical in an era where Democratic bench needs desperately to be repopulated. Driven by the expertise and passion of older millennials, they alternate between massive marches and small-group meetings, between targeting existing members of Congress and seeking to elect new ones, all under the broad banner of the anti-Trump resistance movement.
And yet despite a level of passion not seen in generations, the jury is still out on whether they can be as deft in electing Democrats nationwide as in thwarting what they see as the most objectionable parts of President Trump’s agenda. But the intensity and sense of urgency shared by millions of progressive voters is a good place to start.
If the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration was the thunderclap that announced the storm, it was the presence of women’s marches outside of Washington, in cities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Fla., that first suggested what was coming would be more akin to climate change than a passing squall.
The new power that would rise in opposition to President Trump would be as geographically distributed as the nation’s population itself. The Women’s March flooded the streets of Washington, D.C., with women in pink knit caps from as far away as Belgium and Hong Kong, but it was the more than 450 sister marches in midsize cities and small towns across the country, and followup organizing through small affinity groups called “Huddles” that heralded what was to come. The fire wasn’t just in D.C. It was everywhere.
For decades, urban liberalism in America has failed to make a serious inroads into the country’s great interior, and conservatives have held aloft the banner of states rights as a bulwark against social and political changes. The Equal Rights Amendment died after traditionalists organized in states where liberals were weak to block ratification. Since 1973, abortion rights have been upheld over and over by the Supreme Court, and yet today abortion is less accessible than it has been in decades thanks to a tight net of state regulations and laws that have considerably narrowed the ability of providers to perform the procedure.
This deep dynamic in American political life was challenged by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during his tenure at the Democratic National Committee after George W. Bush won reelection — Dean proposed and implemented “a 50-state strategy” — and by Barack Obama during his first campaign for the White House. The gay marriage movement also worked the state-based model, racking up a series of local wins on its way to a Supreme Court ruling that made it legal nationwide. Other groups, such as Fight for 15, have followed it as well, knowing that the current Congress won’t pass a minimum wage increase but that they can make inroads in major cities.
But under Obama, the old pattern reasserted itself with a vengeance at the level of electoral politics, thanks in part to the president concentrating organizing efforts under the banner of groups he controlled, rather than the party itself. The Democrats lost the House and the Senate on a wave of conservative state-based opposition — the sort of declines that sometimes happen to the party in power, in this case magnified by the anti-Obama tea party movement’s impassioned regional work. And Democrats were even more significantly decimated at the level of state legislatures. According to Ron Brownstein’s analysis of the decline, “only in lost state legislative seats (850) did Obama significantly exceed [his post-World War II presidential] predecessors.” Democrats were the majority in 59 percent of state legislatures when Obama took office, but only 31 percent when he left. Their hold on governor’s mansions shrank from 29 to 16 — the lowest number in nearly a century.
With the Democratic Party at low ebb in every way — from an understaffed Democratic National Committee embroiled in a protracted search for a new chair to decimated state parties — there was no unifying national voice once Obama and Clinton left the scene over the fall and winter that followed her electoral loss. And so millions of voices filled the space, propelled by the rage and fear sparked by Trump — and the specter of Republicans in charge of the House, Senate, White House and majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions.
Over the past 100 days, this new generation of activists has discovered — to their enormous surprise — that even without control of any branch of government, they themselves have the capacity, working in the communities where they live, to act as the great and final check balancing the new Republican power concentrated in Washington.
And they have opened up the best chance in a generation to rebuild the decimated Democratic Party from the ground up.
The new activists flooded town halls and congressional district offices in places like Little Rock, Ark., Salt Lake City, Utah, and the agricultural Central Valley of California.
They went after Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a key member of the Senate committee investigating Russian election-meddling and a one-time strong proponent of Obamacare repeal. They went after House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes directly in his California home district, and were part of a successful national campaign to force him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Today, he is under investigation, and Democrats in his district are vying to challenge him in 2018. They flooded town halls held by House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who complained that his Utah constituents intended to “bully and intimidate” him, and went on to announce he was not only not going to run for reelection, he might leave Congress for good without completing his term.
They targeted House and Senate Democrats early on, driving them to the left and to a posture of opposition to Trump’s nominees they did not at first appear inclined to take. They forced Trump to withdraw his first Dept. of Labor nominee Andrew Pudzer, and encouraged Democrats to send a signal in opposing Trump Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch so vociferously that Republicans had to scrap the judicial filibuster to get him through. And they creatively targeted nationalist White House aide Stephen Bannon, plastering cities with signs proclaiming him “President Bannon” and sending postcards to “President Bannon” at the White House in an effort to elevate his profile, make Trump jealous, and get Bannon sidelined.
And it wasn’t just new groups either. MoveOn, founded in 1998, was part of the picture, and so was century-old Planned Parenthood, and so were the Netroots stalwarts who fought the George W. Bush administration and helped Democrats take back the House in 2006. Coordinating through Slack channels and conference calls, the new groups gave energy to older ones and, in return, drew upon their organizing infrastructure.
The result has been a level of activity that longtime observers of the American left-of-center political scene agree is unprecedented, and which is helping to fuel Democratic recruitment and fundraising efforts.
Run for Something, founded after the election by former Clinton campaign staffer Amanda Littman, has been inundated by people who want to take her group’s trainings in running for state and local offices, 8,000 in all. Emily’s List, founded in 1985 to elect pro-choice Democratic women, had 900 women reach out about running for office in 2016. In 2017 so far — with more than half a year to go — more than 11,000 have contacted them about running in 2018.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, working in concert with the new groups — Run for Something and Flippable among them — is having a banner year recruiting candidates for state legislative seats and has had a handful of under-the-radar early victories in state special elections in places like Delaware and Georgia. The group’s main focus for 2017 is the Virginia elections, where already Democrats have formally declared in 83 of the 100 House of Delegate districts. And 70 Democrats have declared in 46 of the 56 districts held by Republicans, making this fall’s state office elections more competitive than anyone can recall. “Virginia Democrats are having their best state House recruitment year in memory,” said DLCC communications director Carolyn Fiddler.
At the congressional level, there has been a massive surge in interest, with 408 declared Democrats already in the running, according to a Vice headcount. That’s a 58 percent increase over the number who had declared by this point during the last midterm election cycle. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for its part, says it has had recruiting conversations with more than 300 candidates in more than 70 different districts.
And Indivisible, publicly launched as a volunteer-crafted Google Doc after a month-long postelection workshopping process, already has a paid staff of 17.
“Our expectations were incredibly low when we put the document online,” said Indivisible’s Greenberg, now the group’s chief strategy officer, of their original instructional manual, posted five months ago. “We thought that somebody would tell us, somebody would email us in six months and tell us that they’d used it. I remember when we first saw Indivisible Facebook groups popping up, we were really thrilled, and suddenly the trickle became a flood and we were just absolutely blown away.”
Swing Left had the same reaction. Launched the day before President Trump’s inauguration by three novice organizers based in cobalt-blue political districts, Swing Left is an all-volunteer political action committee that aims to provide a pathway for Democrats in safe districts to help turn the tide in 52 House districts where the 2016 margin of victory was 15 percent or less. The group is now partnering with Rock the Vote to register new voters in swing districts, and with Knock Every Door, a postelection effort started by former Bernie Sanders senior adviser Becky Bond, co-author of “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything,” to target swing-state congressional races by knocking on every door in key districts.
“What we’re going to try to do is [build] a campaign infrastructure in waiting,” founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill told Yahoo News earlier this year. The group today has more than 300,000 volunteers working in 26 states, and on Friday announced it has upped the number of swing districts it’s targeting to 65.
Building on the model of the progressive newcomers, even longtime national groups went hyperlocal, hoping to leverage the power of activism and theoretically sympathetic state or city governments against the power of federal authorities.
The ACLU used a sudden multimillion dollar fundraising windfall in the wake of Trump’s executive orders on Muslim and refugee immigrants to launch a national network of small affinity groups called People Power to advocate on behalf of immigrants with city leaders across the country. “We landed on localizing some of the asks because that’s where the power to resist can be most meaningfully felt,” Faiz Shakur, national political director of the ACLU, told Yahoo News.
“The [level of] outside mobilization is something I have never, in my nearly 50 years as an organizer, seen in my life,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) at an early April MoveOn reception with Sen. Al Franken and Sen. Elizabeth Warren celebrating the left’s victory over the first GOP effort to repeal Obamacare.
“This is bigger than the Civil Rights movement. This is bigger — I’m talking about in terms of people being involved — this is bigger than the Vietnam War mobilizations. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen,” she added. Longtime Democratic organizer Bob Creamer, active since the 1960s (and Schakowsky’s husband), used much the same language to describe what he was seeing as early as February. Part of that is an artifact of the new organizing tools, and the well-documented way Facebook reduces the cost of turning our protestors while massively scaling up their size. But much of it is also a new political enthusiasm gap.
And yet, as resistance leaders look around and find themselves energized by the outpouring of progressive activism, their enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by the limits of engaged citizens to confront every challenge. Among those concerns, for example, is the extent of their power to protect the millions of noncitizens who live in this country, or those who wish to come here.
“It’s easier to harm the people you said you were going to harm than to help the people you said you were going to help,” said the ACLU’s Shakur.
Legal efforts have succeeded in blocking Trump again and again in the courts, stalling his executive orders on refugees and immigrants from seven majority- Muslim nations, as well as his efforts to crack down on cities that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. But the president and Department of Homeland Security have enormous discretionary power not amendable to court intervention even so, which is scrambling the lives of millions who now live with an active threat of deportation hanging over them.
And in the case of Planned Parenthood, the so-far successful effort to halt the Republican bill that would defund the group has been tempered by aggressive efforts by conservatives to do just that on a state-by-state basis, working with GOP state legislatures and governors, thanks to a GOP rollback of an Obama-era regulation barring such state actions.
If Democrats and progressives are intent on going local, it is largely because conservatives have so thoroughly mastered state politics on issues of key importance to the Democratic coalition; Democrats, as invigorated as they are, are playing catch-up.
To do that, they need new people to take action where they live, because they know that what happens at the state and district level in American politics going forward will make or break everything.
The outpouring of on-the-ground organizing work in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District illustrates the moment’s power — and its limitations.
More than 300 miles from the U.S. capital in suburban Atlanta, Jessica Zeigler, 32, had found herself sobbing on election night. A mother of three who works full-time, she described herself as “a closeted liberal for a long time … who bottled up her liberal feelings.”
Sometimes she’d let something slip on Facebook, but mainly living in a well-to-do Southern suburb that had been voting Republican since the 1970s, she kept her opinions to herself. That changed after the election.
“I had a sense of overwhelming guilt that I had never voiced my actual views,” said Zeigler the night of the primary. “It was enough,” she decided. “I was done.”
She started to speak her mind on social media, writing a long post, and through that discovered other mothers like herself, one of whom told her, “We have a secret club. We’re liberal moms. And we all feel the way that you do.” That secret group became Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb, a very public group that would take as its first major action the election of Jon Ossoff to Congress.
“This campaign gave me a place to channel all of that emotion that had built up for so long,” Zeigler said.
In the sixth district of Georgia, their efforts were joined by 19 local Indivisible groups, including one made up of local veterans of the Women’s March. Another, Indivisible Georgia’s Sixth District, was also led by female newcomers to political organizing, and became one of the most active groups in the country, according to Greenberg.
Although Ossoff did not win the primary outright, and will now face a June 20 run-off, Democratic turnout in the district was twice as high as expected during the special election. Ossoff won 48.1 percent of the vote, besting all previous Democrats who’ve run for Congress in the district over the last nearly 40 years.
In his final speech as president, Barack Obama said, “It falls to each of us to be … anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.”
He issued a warning and a call to action about “what our democracy demands”: “It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.”
“And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed,” he said.
Not one member of the resistance I’ve spoken with in the months since has cited his comments as inspiration. And yet all of them are, in their own way, enacting what he called for.
The Democratic Party remains in disarray at the top, and many of the grassroots members think former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez — who they had no opportunity to vote for — is the wrong man for the moment. His early missteps in setting up a “Unity Tour” with Bernie Sanders only reopened the wounds of the 2016 primary, and that what he lacks in organic ability to inspire he tries to make up for with harsh words about Republicans that all too often draw negative attention.
But in the end, whether progressives are able to block the Trump agenda will have almost nothing to do with Perez. It will have to do with the resistance movement’s success at fighting back against the administration using the levers of power they have in their home districts across America.
But he has not failed so much as he has been, over and over, parried by a force nearly as strong as the one that elected him.
“Trump didn’t just stumble his way to a failed first 100 days — a massive, in many ways unprecedented, resistance movement emerged to stop him,” said MoveOn executive director Anna Galland. “This movement is energetic, organized and has been repeatedly successful. The resistance movement is not just the background of Trump’s first 100 days. It’s a key driver of history as it’s playing out.”
Noted Greenberg: “Overall on the legislative front, it’s exceeded what we could possibly have hoped for. There was a unified Republican government that could not come to a health care vote. Nobody thought it would happen like that.”
The big question about the resistance during the opening days of the administration was whether or not it would be sustainable.
The answer, at 100 days, is that it has become virtually self-sustaining, because outrage against Trump administration actions has turned out to be a resource renewed by each of his provocative new statements and stumbles — and because a new generation of groups is building the infrastructure to sustain the momentum of the early days, and tie it to electoral goals.
“He remains the same person that he was 100 days ago. He’s not going to get better,” said Greenberg.
The only choice, then, for those who oppose him, is to get better — more organized, more active, and more engaged — themselves.
Read more from Yahoo News’ coverage of Trump’s first 100 days: