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‘Indivisible’ makes political presence felt

Members of Indivisible at the Women's March in January 2017. (Photo: Melissa Bender)

It began with a married pair of Democratic staffers in Congress, outraged at the success of the hard-right Tea Party. That vocal GOP off-shoot showed that a disciplined minority could woo voters, leverage policy and bend the party leadership.

So Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, stunned by Donald Trump’s electoral victory, founded a group called Indivisible, which 17 months later has developed into a loose-knit national movement.

“The model of the organization is that it is based on the local groups. It’s not top down, it really is grass roots.” — Jiggy Athilingam.

There are an estimated 6,000 local Indivisible groups, with at least two in every congressional district in the country and more than 1,000 in California. The hash tag #indivisibleteam has resonated across social media.

The groups, largely autonomous, are made up almost entirely of volunteers, many of them young and most of them Democrats.

“The model of the organization is that it is based on the local groups. It’s not top down, it really is grass roots,” said Jiggy Athilingam, who coordinates Indivisible’s state and local policy in California.

Numerous such groups were formed after the election, but Indivisible has gained national attention.

“I counted something like 60 chapters in Sacramento alone,” said Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, who has attended Indivisible meetings since the group began getting established in early 2017.

“Really, this is a group of untapped citizens who are first-timers in politics,” Sasso said. “A lot of these folks have never done anything (political) before, maybe 95 percent.”

That appears to be part of  Indivisible’s attraction: People looking to engage in politics but not finding comfort in established parties.

Sasso advised the groups in Sacramento from their earliest days.

“It was an opportunity to help them out. Labor has always been built around economics and social justice — it was a natural pairing,” he said.

“We are really big on identifying the pressure points that will make the most difference.” — Emily Phelps.

Indivisible differs from state to state — and within each state from county to county and city to city — but is marked by its distaste for Trump, a passion for progressive change and a zeal for engaging with political leaders.

In California, Indivisible-related groups range in size from a handful of volunteers to hundreds, with the largest groups in the cities.

They attend rallies, forums and meetings, hoping to influence political leaders and candidates.

“We are really big on identifying the pressure points that will make the most difference,” said Indivisible spokeswoman Emily Phelps.

A month after the 2016 election, the Greenbergs posted a Google Document to about 600 people titled the “The Guide”,  23-page statement of Indivisible principles, a sort of manifesto and a road map for peaceful political action.

“How do you judge what’s moving the needle right now? There are so many different groups out there that are bumping up against each other.” — Andrew Acosta

The Guide soon went viral in social media, and Indivisible was noted frequently on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, exposure that spurred national interest in the movement and played a significant role in its rise.

The Guide’s authors say it offers “a step-by-step guide for individuals, groups, and organizations looking to replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting Congress to listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents.”

Indivisible is active in California, with such names as Cloverdale Indivisible, Healdsburg Indivisible, Indivisible Auburn, Indivisible Conejo, Indivisible Central Contra Costa County and Indivisible East Bay. There’s an Indivisible San Diego, an Indivisible Los Angeles, an Indivisible CA: StateStrong, and each of these may have dozens of allied subgroups.

Members show up at the public functions of candidates, GOP and Democratic alike. Their goal to pressure leaders has had some success, they say, such as pushing U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to hold town hall meetings.

Indivisible is not easy to characterize. It’s not a political party. It’s not a cult. It’s not a club. It’s a loosely organized group, a sort of confederation, really.

“She had two town hall meetings, after going 25 years without having any,” said Athilingam.  “We hold Democrats, as well as Republicans, accountable.”

Not everyone sees it as cause and effect, however.

“How do you judge what’s moving the needle right now? There are so many different groups out there that are bumping up against each other,” said veteran campaign strategist Andrew Acosta.

Indivisible is not easy to characterize. It’s not a political party. It’s not a cult. It’s not a club. It’s a loosely organized group, a sort of confederation, really, with a center in Washington, D.C., where there is a skeletal paid staff financed through fund-raising.

There’s no political litmus test for participation, although clearly most are Democrats, as they themselves acknowledge.

It advocates for specific legislation – it opposes the militarization of California’s police departments, for example. Groups can submit legislation to support or oppose in line with Indivisible’s overall progressive agenda, and the statewide coalition of groups votes on which ones to prioritize for work.

 

“Suddenly Trump gets elected and they think the earth is going to hell in a hand-basket, and they wonder why the Democratic Party didn’t stop Trump.” — Bob Mulholland

In California, one of its key goals is maintaining net neutrality. A national priority is to block the appointment of Gina Haspel as CIA director.

Party professionals view Indivisible with a mix of respect, tolerance and asperity.

“Since the Trump election there have been about 360 organizations formed for resistance to Trump, and this is one of them,” said Bob Mulholland, senior adviser to the California Democratic Party.

“But the problem is they weren’t paying attention before. Suddenly Trump gets elected and they think the earth is going to hell in a hand-basket, and they wonder why the Democratic Party didn’t stop Trump. I see that as activism without knowledge. I commend them for being active, but nothing will be done in just a year or two,” he said.

But there’s a problem for mainstream Democrats, too: Indivisible includes Democrats, angered at the 2016 election cycle, who want to make the entire nominating process more open, more inclusive and more transparent.

With the initial shock of the November election receding, can Indivisible sustain its momentum?

And those views resonate with a crop of Democratic candidates emerging in congressional races across the country who are skeptical of the House Democratic leadership. There are examples where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has rejected progressive candidates, despite their local popularity, in favor of party-backed contenders.

A Democratic goal in the mid-term elections here is to capture as many of California’s 14 Republican-held congressional seats as possible. Indivisible groups have that goal, but others, as well — there’s no single short-term objective.

“There is no one thing, because there are so many difference groups and so many priorities” such as social justice and environmental protections, said Athilingam, noting the autonomy of the locals.

With the initial shock of the November election receding, can Indivisible sustain its momentum?

“I think they’re struggling with that. There was a lot of momentum in the very beginning, and having to sustain that is going to be difficult. It’s natural that that’s going to happen unless you have strategic plan, and a lot of these groups don’t,” Sasso said.

Athilingam disagreed.

“The new relationships can outlast Trump. The new friendships and the new communities that they formed are not just a passive organization.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects name of married couple to Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, 2nd graf.

 

 


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