Protests
Photo via Brynna Quillin

For Democrats, Grassroots Groups Are The Key To Success

Grassroots efforts have been crucial to opposing the Trump administration.

Since Donald Trump's inauguration, grassroots groups have proven hugely effective in slowing and occasionally stopping moves by the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans. Between that and the fundraising potential, Democrats are taking notice and looking to align themselves with "The Resistance."

California's Senator Kamala Harris got right with the program, attending and speaking at the Women's March in Washington D.C., the day after the inauguration. Other Democrats have or are doing the same. Representative Barbara Lee even recently hosted DNC Vice-Chair Keith Ellison at a town hall to discuss how the Democrats are reforming party culture to work better with grassroots organizing principles and empower regular people in the party.

We're seeing the beginnings of that work. The DNC is working on its Resistance Summer initiative, and announced a major re-investment in local and state party infrastructure. Party loyalists are also directing outside funds toward tools to improve polling, analytics, and communication with potential voters. These are encouraging signs that Democrats understand at least some of what ails them. (They still have a long way to go. A loooong way.)


However, Republicans and the Right are far ahead of the Democrats on this front. Republicans hold most state legislatures and governorships, and all three federal branches of government. Super PACs and wealthy patrons are dumping money into the GOP to build upon that success. These structural advantages are difficult enough to overcome on their own, let alone on the tight timetable of preparing for the 2018 election.

What we can do

One thing that might counter that investment in the Right's organizing bodies is work by organizations outside the Democrats' direct sphere. While the Democrats are preparing electorally for 2018 (including efforts to fight gerrymandering and voter suppression), grassroots organizations like Indivisible, Town Hall Project, ADAPT, MoveOn.org, Working Families Party and many, many other groups can step in. For the most part they have, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

This support has been crucial to opposing the Administration, but it's not at all clear that the grassroots can keep it up through 2018. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has discussed the fragility of recent grassroots movements, which often quickly scale up and go beyond what their infrastructure can sustainably support. Tufekci discusses how, in the digital age, it's much easier to start a mass movement than it was in the past. Previously, large-scale events like protests and marches were the result of many months and sometimes years of organizing and planning, mostly because connecting disparate people and creating and communicating logistics took a lot of time and effort. Now with email, social media, and other advanced technologies, that is much simpler. Therefore large events often signal the start of a movement instead of its culmination. And movements quickly lose momentum and die away if its leaders don't find creative ways to channel and maintain the participants' energy.

We're now seeing some of that degradation. To date, Indivisible has reportedly only raised about 2 million dollars to go toward supporting almost 6,000 groups. The Women's March, the starting shot for the Resistance, didn't have a coherent long-term strategy after January 21st. Rapid Resist found that grassroots organizers faced a number of challenges, including burnout, after the first few months of the Trump presidency. A large part of why the Resistance has managed to successfully oppose the ACA repeal is because older, more established groups like ADAPT have rallied and applied 'new' tactics like civil disobedience to great effect. That history and experience has expanded our world-view and inspired many to endure.

So what is the path forward?

If the Resistance is to continue, I believe the moment calls for action at the national level, and evaluation and adjustment at the local. At the national level, the establishment and disbursal of scalable organizing infrastructure is key. I have in mind much of what Indivisible is already doing: hiring regional Organizers to advise and assist local Indivisible groups to shore up their structures and initiatives, creating toolkits and technology, and facilitating communication between Indivisible groups and with other progressive organizations. To develop all this, these groups need funding. Members of the grassroots AND the left's donor class need to give to these national organizations.

At the local level, it's time to take a moment to pause and reflect. How much are you organizing versus reacting? What does your outreach and recruiting strategy look like? Are you working with established progressive organizations in your area that have experience and knowledge that might help? What other tactics might you employ to express your civic power? (I like "You're More Powerful Than You Think" by Eric Liu as a good primer for thinking about this last question.) These are a few tactical questions we all might consider to make sure we're able to sustain our work for the long haul.

The left in America desperately needs change. A people-centric shift in strategy from the Democrats, coupled with a sustainable grassroots movement, can effectively work toward reclaiming the House in 2018. With that chamber secure, we can figure out next steps. But let's make sure we have the means to thwart as much of the Trump Administration's work as possible while keeping our 2018 goal firmly in mind.