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How Grassroots Advocacy Worked to Stop President Obama

This is a chapter from "Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda". Originally published on December 11, 2016.

If they succeed, or even half succeed, the Tea Party’s most important legacy may be organizational, not political.
—Jonathan Rauch

Like us, you probably deeply disagree with the principles and positions of the Tea Party. But we can all learn from their success in influencing the national debate and the behavior of national policymakers. To their credit, they thought thoroughly about advocacy tactics, as the leaked “Town Hall Action Memo” demonstrates.

This chapter draws on both research and our own experiences as former congressional staffers to illustrate the strengths of the Tea Party movement and to provide lessons to leverage in the fight against Trump’s racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.

What the Tea Party Accomplished

The Tea Party organized to end hope for progressive reform under President Obama. Their members:

  • Changed votes and defeated legislation
  • Radically slowed federal policymaking
  • Forced Republicans to reject compromise
  • Shaped national debate over President Obama’s agenda
  • Paved the way for the Republican takeover in 2010 and Donald Trump today

These were real, tangible results by a group that represented only a small portion of Americans.

The Tea Party’s Ideas Were Wrong

The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong, and their behavior was often horrible. Their members:

  • Ignored reality and made up their own facts
  • Threatened anyone they considered an enemy
  • Physically assaulted and spat on staff
  • Shouted obscenities and burned people in effigy
  • Targeted their hate not just at Congress, but also at fellow citizens (especially people of color)

We are better than this. We are the majority, and we don’t need petty scare tactics to win.

The Tea Party’s Two Key Strategic Choices

The Tea Party’s success came down to two critical strategic elements:

1. They Were Locally Focused.

The Tea Party started as an organic movement built on small local groups of dedicated conservatives. Yes, they received some support/coordination from above, but fundamentally all the hubbub was caused by a relatively small number of conservatives working together.

  • Groups started as disaffected conservatives talking to each other online. In response to the 2008 bank bailouts and President Obama’s election, groups began forming to discuss their anger and what could be done. They eventually realized that the locally based discussion groups themselves could be a powerful tool.
  • Groups were small, local, and dedicated. Tea Party groups could be fewer than 10 people, but they were highly localized, and they dedicated significant personal time and resources. Members communicated with each other regularly, tracked developments in Washington, and coordinated advocacy efforts together.
  • Groups were relatively few in number. The Tea Party was not hundreds of thousands of people spending every waking hour focused on advocacy. Rather, the efforts were somewhat modest. Only 1 in 5 self-identified Tea Partiers contributed money or attended events. On any given day in 2009 or 2010, only twenty local events — meetings, trainings, town halls, etc. — were scheduled nationwide. In short, a relatively small number of groups were having a big impact on the national debate.

2. They Were Almost Purely Defensive.

The Tea Party focused on saying NO to Members of Congress (MoCs) on their home turf. While the Tea Party activists were united by a core set of shared beliefs, they actively avoided developing their own policy agenda. Instead, they had an extraordinary clarity of purpose, united in opposition to President Obama. They didn’t accept concessions and treated weak Republicans as traitors.

  • Groups focused on defense, not policy development. In response to the 2008 bank bailouts and President Obama’s election, groups began forming to discuss their anger and what could be done. They eventually realized that the locally based discussion groups themselves could be a powerful tool.
  • Groups rejected concessions to Democrats and targeted weak Republicans.Tea Partiers viewed concessions to Democrats as betrayal. This limited their ability to negotiate, but they didn’t care. Instead they focused on scaring congressional Democrats and keeping Republicans honest. As a result, few Republicans spoke against the Tea Party for fear of attracting blowback.
  • Groups focused on local congressional representation. Tea Partiers primarily applied this defensive strategy by pressuring their own local MoCs. This meant demanding that their Representatives and Senators be their voice of opposition on Capitol Hill. At a tactical level, the Tea Party had several replicable practices, including:
    • Showing up to the MoC’s town hall meetings and demanding answers
    • Showing up to the MoC’s office and demanding a meeting
    • Coordinating blanket calling of congressional offices at key moments

Shouldn't We Put Forward An Alternative, Positive Agenda?

A defensive strategy does not mean dropping your own policy priorities or staying silent on an alternate vision for our country over the next four years. 

What it means is that, when you’re trying to influence your MoC, you will have the most leverage when you are focused on the current legislative priority. You may not like the idea of being purely defensive; we certainly don’t. As progressives, our natural inclination is to talk about the things we’re for—a clean climate, economic justice, health care for all, racial equality, gender and sexual equality, and peace and human rights. These are the things that move us.

But the hard truth of the next four years is that we’re not going to set the agenda; Trump and congressional Republicans will, and we’ll have to respond. The best way to stand up for the progressive values and policies we cherish is to stand together, indivisible—to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.

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Using Tea Party Strategies to Fight the Trump Agenda

For the next two years, Donald Trump and congressional Republicans will control the federal government. But they will depend on just about every MoC to actually get laws passed. And those MoCs care much more about getting reelected than they care about any specific issue. By adopting a defensive strategy that pressures MoCs, we can achieve the following goals:

  • Stall the Trump agenda by forcing them to redirect energy away from their priorities. Congressional offices have limited time and limited people. A day that they spend worrying about you is a day that they’re not ending Medicare, privatizing public schools, or preparing a Muslim registry.
  • Sap Representatives’ will to support or drive reactionary change. If you do this right, you will have an outsized impact. Every time your MoC signs on to a bill, takes a position, or makes a statement, a little part of his or her mind will be thinking: “How am I going to explain this to the angry constituents who keep showing up at my events and demanding answers?”
  • Reaffirm the illegitimacy of the Trump agenda. The hard truth is that Trump, McConnell, and Ryan will have the votes to cause some damage. But by objecting as loudly and powerfully as possible, and by centering the voices of those who are most affected by their agenda, you can ensure that people understand exactly how bad these laws are from the very start—priming the ground for the 2018 midterms and their repeal when Democrats retake power.