Reading We Are Indivisible by Rod Kessler
After the shocking 2016 election, activist groups sprung up throughout the nation, eager to combat the Trump agenda. They were inspired by two former Congressional aides, whose how-to guide under the name Indivisible went viral. The self-styled Indivisible groups soon generated buzz of their own. What did they accomplish? Are they still active? What’s their strategy for preserving democracy? The original organizers’ new book tells what happened, why it worked, and how we move forward. Here’s a short review.
We Are Indivisible, the new book by Indivisible’s founding spark-plugs Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, recounts how in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election a spontaneous uprising of local activist groups across the nation joined into an effective network for progressive political change. These local groups, calling themselves Indivisible (usually!) and loosely connected through a communications hub in D.C., proved successful in holding office holders, especially right-leaning ones, to account, even if it meant holding well-attended “town meetings” featuring a congressman’s cardboard figurine–because the living one feared and refused to face constituents.
Indivisible takes credit for countering Republican efforts in Trump’s early days to repeal the Affordable Care Act. How did these local activist groups pull off such victories? The co-authors, themselves former staffers in Washington, D.C., knew what it took to have an impact on a lawmaker—they’d seen it in their work—and they communicated the tactics down to the grass roots. They provide concrete nitty gritty examples.
For one, if your group wants to stage a protest rally, it’s great if the street corner you have in mind is heavily trafficked. However, you’ll have more impact if you hold it a few streets over in front of your representative’s office, especially if the politician in question is voting the wrong way. (And if the representative is already on your side? Use the occasion to show your support—but also to pin the leader down on what specific measures you want him or her to take.)
The authors promote the effective use of constituent power—and they clarify the limits of it. Ever wonder what congressional staffers do with the letters, emails, and phone calls from voters outside their district, especially if they aren’t from campaign donors? (Answer: nothing)
For all its detailed and immediately useful tactical advice alone We Are Indivisible is worth the $27 price tag (Okay, it’s $12.99 on Kindle and there’s the library, and sharing. . .). But Greenberg and Levin’s book takes us farther as its subtitle suggests: A Blueprint for Democracy after Trump. The book advocates a strategy forward for rescuing democracy from the right-wing stealth forces working to undermine it (see Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains).
First, they explain why the American political scene is so hopeless: it’s the result of how hyper-polarized politics has become. It has become polarized due to the Koch control of the Republican Party, using said party to destroy education, medical care, environmental protections, voting rights, and democracy itself and refusing all negotiation and compromise. As a result, there’s no overlap between the Democrats and the Republicans, no common ground because Republicans have destroyed it. Unlike in earlier times, today’s most conservative Democrat in Congress is far to the left of every Republican—and that leaves just one realistic scenario for any future legislative action to accomplish progressive goals: the Republican party, however well supported it is by Koch money and other corporate interests, must be swept out of power. And soon: in 2020, the Democrats must retake not only the White House but both houses of Congress as well.
- The next first move, according to Indivisible, is to break the gridlock, accomplished in the Senate by eliminating the filibuster, a step requiring a majority vote only to accomplish. With today’s filibuster rule remaining in place, even a minority of Senate Republicans can block a new Democratic President’s agenda (make it happen!) in 2021.
- The Senate itself must be democratized. As it stands now, such low-population states as Wyoming (580,000 people) wield the same voting power in the Senate as do New York (19.5 million) and California (40 million), and that means that having an overall majority of voters backing a piece of legislation doesn’t necessarily translate into a Senate majority. (This brake on numerical majority was what the framers intended). But Congress could make the body more democratic and representative by admitting new states, adding senators and undoing the present imbalance and proneness to gridlock. Consider this: both Puerto Rico (3.6 million) and Washington D.C. (711,571) have larger populations than Wyoming. Why shouldn’t they be states too, adding four more Senate votes? And there’s California–what if it divided into two states? (Okay, such developments aren’t going to come easily–it’s complicated!)
- The House as well can be democratized, by shrinking the size of today’s overgrown Congressional districts. These have ballooned to the point where the voices of sub-constituencies can easily get lost. To make it the “People’s House” again, districts should be smaller, even at the cost of expanding the overall number of representatives. Such additional reforms as proportional voting and ranked-choice voting would also reduce political dysfunction.
- And what about democratizing the courts? Perhaps the answer is to expand the size of the Supreme Court or to create less partisan ways for selecting and appointing judges. But restoring American democracy will require court reform—legislating an answer to the Court’s current conservative majority, that ongoing triumph of the far right (Federalist Society, anybody?).
- And then there’s the challenge of democratizing voting. The tools of voter suppression must be wrested from the far right, ending gerrymandering and the disenfranchisement of such potential voting blocs as immigrants (they pay taxes, right?), sixteen-and seventeen-year-olds (they’re old enough to deal with gun violence and climate change) and convicted felons (six million, according to this book—and did you ever wonder why so many minority males end up behind bars and forever vote-less?)
- Indivisible’s final strategy suggestion is to democratize the media. If the economic model for local journalism has collapsed (47% of newspaper jobs have been lost between 2008 and 2018), a new system must be invented to reinvigorate it—perhaps through public financing, even a media voucher program allowing every American to direct $200 to a preferred nonprofit media outfit. (Candidate Andrew Yang has a plan for this: https://www.yang2020.com/policies/local-journalism-fund/) What else? Let’s restore net-neutrality and break up the mega-corporations (Sinclair Broadcast Group, Facebook, Google) “to loosen their stranglehold on the American Public,” as the authors of We Are Indivisible put it.
To step back, the thrust of Indivisible’s vision for restoring and strengthening democracy is to work through the system—but by making the system actually work. And the way to make it work is by applying public pressure—lots of it and in lots of places—at the local level, one state rep and state senator at a time, one state house at a time, one congressman, one senator, and so on and so on. It’s a vision that ultimately depends on the outraged rising up by large outpourings of ordinary people, but an uprising that is strategic, putting pressure where it counts to bring about change.