Last Thursday, roughly a thousand people marched on rural roadsides to Rep. Dave Reichert’s office in Issaquah. They wanted a word with their Congressional representative about how he wasn’t doing enough to stop President Trump’s agenda, especially when it comes to the impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as “Obamacare”).
They didn’t get one. Neither did the several hundred who showed up for a town hall for Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell Saturday night at Unity Church in Seattle, across the street from Denny Park. Representative Pramila Jayapal sent an aide, but neither senator showed her respective face—though the faces of both were on display in the form of two giant portraits seated on chairs onstage. When the audience—primarily comprised of middle agers—learned Cantwell and Murray definitely wouldn’t be coming, they booed. Gently.
These people—the ones marching on Reichert and calling on Murray and Cantwell—they call themselves the Indivisibles. Their goal: stop the Trump agenda. Their plan: to imitate the Tea Party’s success at blocking President Obama’s agenda. Their bible: The Indivisible Guide, a document purportedly authored by former congressional staffers who’d seen the Tea Party’s obstruction up close. Local chapters of the group have been sprouting like weeds in Seattle and the surrounding area, as well as nationwide.
David Schwartz, organizer with Indivisible Eastside, says that like other Indivisible chapters, his popped up in response to Trump after the November election and his inauguration last month. The essence of the group is organized political action at the local level: calling members of congress, writing letters, showing up at town halls, rallying in front of offices, and meeting with members of Congress and their staff. You know: the boring stuff that works.
“We’re acting every day,” says Schwartz. So far, he says, most of his energy has been spent monitoring and lobbying about the confirmations of Trump’s cabinet appointees. “We post four to five daily actions, usually providing background on various issues…as well as scripts and contact information for relevant members of Congress.”
Among those actions: every Tuesday morning a constituent contingent stands outside Murray and Cantwell’s offices and rallies for half an hour or so, says Leslie Brown of Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition, which has partnered with Indivisible. Then each person makes their way inside to talk to senate staff about their concerns. But so far, the senators themselves have been out of sight, with a few exceptions. “This past Tuesday, Patty Murray showed up for about five minutes because she had an appointment cancellation,” says Brown. It was this lack of availability that led Indivisible organizers to create Sunday’s town hall and similar events in the first place. “I love our representatives,” she says. “I want them to be open and honest with us, and available to their constituents in a larger group than just 25 people in a conference room.”
The efforts are explicitly designed after the Tea Party, which loudly ended Obama’s honeymoon period after he took office in 2009, largely though rowdy confrontations with lawmakers seen as complicit in Obama’s efforts on health care and the economy. And just like the Tea Party, which arguably disrupted the Republican Party as much as it did the Democrats, Schwartz says that he doesn’t think of this as a partisan movement. “This is people who are enabling Donald Trump [versus] people who are fighting him,” he says. His goal is not only to stymie the former, but also to goad the latter. “With regard to our progressive members of congress,” he says, “these people need our support to do the right thing. … During the civil rights campaign, Lyndon Johnson said to Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Yeah, I want to do the right thing, but I need you to force me.’”
Jonathan Tong, a high school teacher and lead organizer for Indivisible North Seattle, couldn’t agree more. “It is our job as your constituents to hold you accountable,” he said to his absent representatives at Sunday’s church rally. Tong called on local representatives in both houses of Congress to oppose “everything Trump does” until he releases his tax returns and resolves the conflicts of interest between his public position and his private business holdings.
So far, Washington’s senators haven’t been doing that. According to Five Thirty Eight, Cantwell votes in line with the president’s preferences a little over a third of the time, Murray about a quarter of the time. That’s more than any of Washington’s Democrats in the House of Representatives: most have never yet voted in line with Trump, and the two who have only do so about seven percent of the time. (Washington’s Republican representatives vote in line with Trump almost all of the time.) Whether that’s a problem depends on your point of view. Many Indivisibles, like Tong, want to completely obstruct Trump’s agenda until he starts playing by the rules. Others aren’t so sure. Brown said that she trusts Murray and Cantwell to cast their senate votes based on the details of the individual issue.
Whichever strategy wins out, one thing is clear: as long as Trump and his coterie remain in power, grassroots political organizers will have a bottomless well of discontent with which to rouse constituents. Will the Indivisibles be able to harness that energy, and if so, will their strategies of grassroots lobbying work?
It’s too early to say. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Schwartz puts it, “I think our republic is at risk. [Trump presents] existential, foundational issues. It is crucial that ordinary Americans stand up and demand what’s right.”
This report includes information from the Issaquah Reporter, a sister paper to Seattle Weekly. A mix-up between Sen. Murray and Sen. Cantwell’s voting records has been corrected.