Today is the first day of the 115th United States Congress. In less than three weeks, this Congress will join with President-elect Donald J. Trump to claim a mandate they do not have for policies that most Americans do not support. Together, they will seek to enact a bigoted and anti-democratic agenda, threatening our values and endangering us all.
But Americans have the power to resist this dangerous turn. We know because we’ve seen it before.
We served as congressional staff members during the early years of the Obama administration. It was an exhilarating time to be a progressive in Washington: An inspirational new president was taking office, accompanied by a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate. But by February 2009, something had begun to change. Small protests calling themselves “tea parties” were popping up all over the country. In April, their Tax Day demonstrations dominated the news.
In August, routine hometown events got unexpectedly rough for members of Congress. At a neighborhood event at Randalls, a grocery store in Austin, Tex., Congressman Lloyd Doggett came face to face with a group of “tea party patriots,” carrying signs that said “No Socialized Health Care.” In Austin — and in congressional districts across the country — the tea partyers chanted what became their battle cry: “Just say no!”
Their tactics weren’t fancy: They just showed up on their own home turf, and they just said no.
Here’s the crazy thing: It worked.
The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong, and their often racist rhetoric and physical threats were unacceptable. But they understood how to wield political power and made two critical strategic decisions. First, they organized locally, focusing on their own members of Congress. Second, they played defense, sticking together to aggressively resist anything with President Obama’s support. With this playbook, they rattled our elected officials, targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.
Politics is the art of the possible, and the Tea Party changed what was possible. They waged a relentless campaign to force Republicans away from compromise and tank Democratic legislative priorities like immigration reform and campaign finance transparency. Their members ensured that legislation that did pass, like the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular from the start. They hijacked the national narrative and created the impression of broad discontent with President Obama.
And they organized for the 2010 election, targeting Republicans in the primaries and Democrats in the general election. After the November 2010 elections, the Democratic majority in the House and supermajority in the Senate were gone. With them went all hope for bold progressive reform under President Obama.
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The Tea Party’s success was a disaster for President Obama’s agenda and for our country, but that success should give us hope today. It proved the power that local, defensive organizing can have.
With this in mind, we coordinated a group of former congressional staffers and advocates to develop “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” It takes a few pages from the Tea Party playbook, focusing on its strategic choices and tactics, while dispensing with its viciousness. It’s the Tea Party inverted: locally driven advocacy built on inclusion, fairness and respect. It’s playing defense, not to obstruct, but to protect.