Indivisible Is Working Hard to Live Up to Its Name

Indivisible Is Working Hard to Live Up to Its Name

Indivisible Is Working Hard to Live Up to Its Name

Activists mobilized by this grassroots group had one thing in common: They wanted to fight Trump. Can they agree on what comes next?


Leah Greenberg says the leadership of Indivisible, the prominent anti-Trump resistance group she cofounded in 2016, just wanted “feedback” on whether to endorse someone in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primaries when it surveyed supporters in March.

Instead, it got clapback: More than 30 local Indivisible groups, big and small, urban and rural, in areas blue, red, and purple, signed a letter asking the national leaders to stand down. “With such a large field of candidates, we run the risk of sowing discord and alienating members,” it read. In the end, Indivisible’s survey of 204 local groups found that only 18 percent of respondents thought a national endorsement was a good idea, 48 percent flatly opposed it, and the rest were unsure or divided.

“We got some… information,” Greenberg tells me, chuckling ruefully, in her Washington, DC, office a couple of months later with her husband and Indivisible cofounder, Ezra Levin. After the uproar, many endorsement opponents relaxed, considering the matter resolved. Endorsing in 2020 is “fraught with so many perils,” Martha Shockey, an Indivisible leader from suburban Atlanta, told me in May. “I think they heard us—and I was glad about that.”

But in a series of interviews with top national Indivisible leaders, I found the notion of endorsing a 2020 primary candidate remains very much alive. That became clear to the broader membership as over 300 Indivisibles (as they call themselves) convened in the DC area in mid-August for the first ever National Campaigns Network (NCN) meeting, where a leadership-selected roster of local group leaders brainstormed and debated the coming years’ plans. In an otherwise upbeat gathering, a potential endorsement was one of the few areas of significant disagreement. “Opinions were really mixed,” admits Indivisible New Jersey Fifth District coleader Madeline Trimble, who told me earlier that she opposed an endorsement. While no decision was made, members left the meeting clear that the issue is still on the table for national leaders.

Opponents continue to believe an endorsement will divide this grassroots movement, whose name is a tribute to the strength of progressive unity. “I’m now not convinced they have heard us,” says a disappointed Shockey, who didn’t attend the NCN convention but heard from colleagues who did. “We need to focus on the work ahead of us and not allow our organizing efforts to be sideswiped by the kind of bickering that happened in 2016.”

The endorsement wrangle is just one challenge in Indivisible’s ongoing effort to develop a productive relationship between the organization’s DC-based leadership and its scrappy local groups. Born of a Google document, Indivisible is among the best-known organizations to emerge in the “don’t mourn, organize” period after Donald Trump’s election, sprouting up to an estimated 5,000 affiliates, with, according to national leadership, at least one active local group in all 435 House districts. One early conference call to discuss how to fight Trump’s January 2017 Muslim travel ban drew 35,000 participants.

Indivisible and its local affiliates became key players in the successful congressional battle to defend the Affordable Care Act and in the blue electoral wave that surged after Trump’s election. “They were really important because they have membership in a lot of districts across the country,” says Representative Pramila Jayapal, a cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s a grassroots-led organization, but they’ve figured out how to coordinate those grass roots around messages. Also, they are in places that other people simply are not. They have chapters in swing districts, while also moving a progressive agenda.”

Levin cosigns Jayapal’s description. “There’s not another model like this,” he says. “That’s not to say we invented grassroots organizing! But this distributed, group-based organizing, where you have a national organization supporting these local, independently led groups on the ground—that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Other progressive activist groups, from the Sierra Club to NARAL to the Bernie Sanders–inspired Our Revolution, might dispute that notion. But the complicating fact in Indivisible’s case is that many of its most active affiliates launched before the national organization staffed up in late spring 2017. The local groups signed on to fight Trump using a novel array of tactics; unlike chapters of the Sierra Club, they didn’t pledge fealty to an agenda. Indivisible’s grassroots groups and the national leadership have been evolving a new model of affiliation ever since.

Indivisible’s work has earned it enormous political capital; now its national leaders want to figure out how to use it. But since so much of that capital has been earned at the local level, the leadership has to be careful about spending it—and whether it is theirs to spend at all.

Greenberg and Levin were just two devastated people among millions of mourners in the wake of Trump’s victory in November 2016. They met friends for sorrowful rounds of drinks, attended meetings of the shell-shocked, and tried to figure out what would come next.

“We met at a bar with a friend in Austin, trying to figure out how to resist, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll write a guide demystifying how Congress works,’ ” Levin recalls, recognizing that it could serve as a check on Trump’s agenda. He had worked for liberal Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, Greenberg for Virginia Representative Tom Perriello. They’d witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. “What we knew as former congressional staffers is how Congress works, how it worked for the Tea Party, and how we could put those basic ideas to work for us,” Levin says.

With a group of friends, they launched the Indivisible Google document on Twitter less than a month later. “Please share w/ your friends to help fight Trump’s racism, authoritarianism, & corruption on their home turf,” Levin tweeted. The guide showed precisely how the Tea Party put pressure on local politicians, especially members of Congress. The Tea Party’s strength, it said, was in getting real people to haunt their representatives’ offices and town halls. “Aim high!” the guide advised. “Get people to commit to come—they’ll want to because saving democracy is fun.” “Fun”—that part was prescient.

The guide also pledged, “We’re not starting a new organization.” At the time, that was true. “We both had jobs,” Levin says. “We kept thinking, ‘We just have to do this one more thing before we go back to work,’ ” Greenberg says.

Just before the new Congress was sworn in, the group found a perfect inaugural issue: Then-Representative Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) was introducing a measure to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Greenberg and Levin wanted to fight this in Goodlatte’s district and checked their membership. “We saw we had someone signed up in Roanoke,” Greenberg recalls, still excited at the memory. Indeed, historian Ivonne Wallace Fuentes had registered her small group of despairing Roanoke resisters on Indivisible’s online “map” after reading the guide. When Greenberg called, Wallace Fuentes says, she couldn’t believe she was hearing from a real, live Indivisible leader. “They were so happy to have us here in Roanoke,” Wallace Fuentes remembers, “and we were so happy to find them there in Washington. It was crazy.”

The locals organized a meeting at Goodlatte’s office; heeding the Indivisible guide, they alerted local media and took their own videos at the scene. One of those videos wound up on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC, in a segment on Indivisible featuring Levin. “It’s basically the thing you need to know about in politics right now if you are looking for signs of whether there will be a significant anti-Trump movement in this country,” Maddow told her audience.

That changed everything. “We had thousands of groups in the next few days. It just caught fire,” Levin says. By March, they’d incorporated and begun to hire staff. Suddenly Indivisible was a national organization. Its leaders didn’t know what that meant yet—and they’re still figuring it out.

My own introduction to Indivisible reflects the way the movement organized locally early in 2017. I’d watched the Maddow segment, impressed. I ran into members carrying Indivisible signs at the historic Women’s March in Washington, DC, and at the huge protest against Trump’s travel ban in New York a week later. Indivisible affiliates turned out huge numbers at both gatherings. But the first time I recognized its grassroots power was covering the Jon Ossoff campaign in suburban Atlanta to fill Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District seat left vacant by Tom Price, who became Trump’s health and human services secretary.

Everyone watching saw the same thing: The GA-06 race was powered by women, especially middle-aged white women. When I reported on that race, I met two local Indivisible leaders, Amy Nosek and Louise Palmer, and they told me a story that, with slight variation, I would hear a dozen times over the next two years. They read the Indivisible guide and called a meeting at their local library in February 2017. “We expected 20 people,” Palmer said; more than 100 showed up. “We never intended to lead it. We’re not leaders.” Suddenly, they were leaders. The group drew a mix of activists who’d supported Sanders and Hillary Clinton; as with other local groups across the country, the Georgia activists took pains to make sure Indivisible healed rather than widened that 2016 divide.

Along with other new women’s groups in GA-06, Indivisible was becoming a way for these red-district progressives to find one another not only for activism but also, yes, for fun. Meetings morphed into drinks and dinner. Canvassing led to new friendships. “I knew very few people in my neighborhood, and it turns out there are two other gay couples,” recalls local activist James Brown, one of the few men active in the overwhelmingly female group.

Ossoff lost narrowly to Karen Handel that June. But the district’s Indivisible leaders kept working on state and local elections, winning a few, and just over a year later, many of the same activists would help gun safety advocate Lucy McBath defeat Handel.

Meanwhile, on the national level, Indivisible leaders and local groups focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act, a priority shared by both. Today they get massive credit for working with Democrats and successfully pressuring some Republicans to preserve Obamacare. At the same time, the movement worked in other high-profile, red-district special elections—not just the Ossoff race but also the one to replace Jeff Sessions as an Alabama senator in December 2017. Democrat Doug Jones won, thanks to the work of new Democratic grassroots groups, including Alabama Indivisibles. Dozens of Virginia Indivisible affiliates were crucial to state Democrats’ picking up 15 seats in the 2017 House of Delegates elections. Pennsylvania’s Indivisible movement got national attention for its work electing Conor Lamb in the state’s 18th Congressional District, which went for Trump by nearly 20 points.

These early red- and purple-district races were, in some ways, an unlikely project for a group founded by blue-district progressives. While Indivisible has thriving affiliates in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco, Austin and Berkeley, it has done some of its most remarkable work uniting red- and purple-area activists who had been alienated from politics, and who used the Indivisible guide to find one another. “We wanted to do political work, but we also wanted to build community,” says Roanoke Indivisible leader Ivonne Wallace Fuentes. “It’s so red here.”

It was the Lamb race in Pennsylvania that sparked Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol’s interest in the new forms of Trump-era political organizing. As she and Lara Putnam wrote in the journal Democracy shortly before Lamb’s win, they saw activism emerging where they didn’t expect it. “It is among…college-educated, middle-aged women in the suburbs that political practices have most changed under Trump,” they observed. Skocpol took field trips to eight midsize cities in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin; she also surveyed resistance activists in three dozen local groups, including Indivisible, in Pennsylvania. In our interview Skocpol estimates that 70 to 90 percent of Indivisible activists around the country are white women, with an average age of about 55. (In my reporting on various Indivisible groups over the last two-plus years, I’ve heard someone from every group lament its whiteness, as well as from activists who’ve tried to change it. Indivisible identifies racial justice as one of its priority areas, but so far its demographic profile remains constant.) “The thing about these older women is they’re willing to compromise,” Skocpol says. “In the Conor Lamb race, we saw Indivisible women collaborating with union men, even if they disagreed with them on guns or abortion. They wanted to get him elected.”

Skocpol, who did some of the nation’s best research on the rise of the Tea Party, says she was surprised to find Indivisible affiliates in as many corners of the country as Tea Party chapters in the group’s heyday. To her, Indivisible’s geographical reach, especially in red and purple districts, is one of its greatest assets. She worries that an effort by national leadership to impose groupwide priorities could thwart organizing in such places. “An endorsement would be the worst thing they could do,” she tells me. “Indivisible comes as close as we’ve seen to having the top and bottom tiers”—meaning the Washington-based leadership and the local affiliates—“function well. But they’re still two fairly loosely coupled organizations.”

Levin does not disagree. “There’s Indivisible national, and then there’s Indivisible the movement,” he says. “The big question is: How does the organization interact with the movement?”

Now there exists not just a top tier (national) and bottom tier (local) but also an organically grown group of roughly 470 affiliated local Indivisible leaders called Middle Tier, many of whom object to a 2020 primary endorsement.

Middle Tier began as an informal network of local groups through which organizers shared best practices, but as it has grown, it has facilitated a grassroots challenge to DC management. “We’re the family at the Thanksgiving dinner that doesn’t always agree with others about politics, but we’re still there,” says San Francisco’s Aram Fischer of the relationship between Middle Tier and national. “We love each other, and we believe in this family name, but our interpretation of what that family name means can be different.”

Greenberg acknowledges some strain but says, gamely, “One of the joys of organizing in a decentralized movement is there’s a lot of different coalitions through which Indivisible people come together to work with each other. Middle Tier is one of them. They have surfaced some really exciting innovations across the movement, and they’ve contributed to a collaborative movement.”

There’s no denying that leaders in Middle Tier have highlighted the discontent over a 2020 Democratic primary endorsement. Ever since the idea emerged, I’ve spoken with people about the controversy. Out of a dozen local activists—some suggested by national leaders, others by Middle Tier members, plus a few I found myself—only one favored an endorsement in the crowded field, and even she expressed reservations.

In Georgia, Shockey recalls that local endorsement battles rattled at least two of the state’s Indivisible affiliates in 2018; they wound up divided among McBath and other Democrats in that primary. The local group came back together after the bruising battle, but the experience left Shockey wary. “Grass-top organizations don’t always understand how endorsements play out in the grass roots,” she says.

Trimble, from New Jersey’s purple Fifth District, was also concerned about the impact an endorsement could have. “It’s not where Indivisible can have the most influence, and I’m sorry to see so much attention and money that’s going to the 2020 race, by everybody, when we have so much to do at the state and local level.” From Indivisible Kansas City, which straddles Kansas and Missouri, Leslie Mark says her group tries to avoid endorsements, which “are always problematic. We had six viable Democrats running for the congressional seat Sharice Davids won [in 2018]. We stayed out of it, except to have a town hall. So when she won, we were able to unify around her.”

Even in New York, Indivisible’s decision to endorse Cynthia Nixon over Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2018, while driven by some local affiliates, was divisive, with several powerful local groups publicly distancing themselves. “A big question has been the methodology—of surveys, of endorsements,” Kelle Kerr, an Indivisible leader in New York’s 16th District who is active in Middle Tier, tells me. “In New York, we just didn’t know how they endorsed Nixon. Was it 500 people who voted from one superprogressive chapter? We asked, ‘Can you tell us how many groups participated?’ ” Kerr didn’t get an answer.

Indivisible’s national leaders defend their attempt to develop a process that could lead to a primary endorsement. “Primaries are tremendous moments to broker our issues,” national political director Maria Urbina, who worked for Harry Reid when he was in the Senate, told me in mid-June. “The candidates will be courting the grassroots communities—on immigration, climate, health care. Our moment of leverage is primaries, whether that’s comfortable or not.”

“We believe the choice not to endorse is a choice to let other people have more impact and power,” Greenberg told me on the eve of the August NCN meeting. “But also, we think an endorsement has power only if it reflects genuine support for one candidate. So if there’s not a lot of people behind one candidate and behind the idea of an endorsement, that wouldn’t be useful at all. What we believe is this is a conversation our network should engage in and one that will evolve over time.”

“There was a lot of fear before the [NCN] meeting,” Roanoke’s Wallace Fuentes tells me, about whether and how hard national would push for a primary endorsement. (The gathering was closed to the media.) In advance, a group of local leaders active in Middle Tier organized their own survey: Of the 1,300 members who replied, 77 percent opposed an endorsement, and only 10 percent favored it (with the remainder undecided). Almost three-quarters of respondents said they thought an endorsement would harm the local groups’ cohesion.

At an NCN plenary session, opinion was more mixed, says New Jersey’s Trimble. “I still lean against an endorsement, but I felt that the process was respectful and that we were heard.” Her group coleader, Anna Wong, wound up leaning toward some type of endorsement, perhaps of multiple progressive candidates, as “a way to acknowledge that, given how the primary schedule is organized, with so much decided by Super Tuesday, many of us aren’t being represented. If there’s a way to develop a process and find consensus around an endorsement, I think it could be positive.”

The endorsement dispute underscored another issue Middle Tier has pushed: how the local groups and the national office share data. To the frustration of many locals, national doesn’t funnel data from online sign-ups to local groups—yet it counts these new sign-ups in polls and surveys.

In a recent poll about impeaching Trump, only about a quarter of respondents identified themselves as local group leaders or members; the rest said they were supporters who had given their contact information to national. Indivisible cofounder Angel Padilla defended their inclusion, saying, “Maybe they did a day of action. Maybe we put out a call to text politicians, and they did that. We consider that work valuable. Why wouldn’t we try to stay in touch with them?”

Skeptics say they are concerned about the number of people unaffiliated with local organizing weighing in on the group’s priorities, which could dilute the agenda-setting power of on-the-ground organizers. In the Middle Tier endorsement poll, by contrast, almost half the respondents were group leaders or coleaders, and 41 percent identified as local group members; 10 percent were unaffiliated with a local group.

Those who oppose an endorsement also note that Indivisible’s internal polling has been all over the map. These polls are intentionally based on varying methodology, but in the survey of group leaders, Senator Kamala Harris was the favorite, backed by 29 percent (while 42 percent skipped the question or selected “other”). In a poll of Indivisible’s membership after the first debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren moved ahead, with 35 percent to Harris’s 31. A poll after the second debate saw Warren surge to 45 percent support, and Harris drop to fourth place—but 90 percent of respondents said they were considering more than one candidate. Indivisible leaders warn against seeing any of those results as conclusive, promising to develop a sound, transparent polling methodology only if they find widespread support for endorsing someone at all. Still, the surveys to date show significant volatility in the members’ presidential preferences and bolster worries that an endorsement will divide rather than unify.

The endorsement question wasn’t the only tough issue to come up at the August NCN meeting. As a member of the immigrant-rights Defund Hate coalition, Indivisible is fighting the policies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection through the congressional debate over the agencies’ budget. In June the national organization urged House Democrats to vote against supplemental border security funding.

Before the NCN meeting, some local leaders worried about the group taking a stance too radical for their communities. These issues are not new. Indivisible blasted Senator Sherrod Brown and other senators in 2017 for refusing to use their power to shut down the government to protect kids in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. When Indivisible national leaders asked local leaders in Ohio to pressure Brown, they balked. “We…were working hard to ensure his reelection, and we worried that condemning him might hurt those efforts,” recalls Meryl Neiman, a leader of Indivisible Columbus.

“In Alabama, we might not talk about defunding ICE,” admits Susan Grifin of Indivisible Huntsville. “I mean, I’d be fine with ICE going away tomorrow, personally. But we are reaching people here based on the cruelty of children in cages. We are having to educate people that asking for asylum isn’t illegal.” In New York, Indivisible affiliates in purple districts helped elect two moderate Democrats who refused to vote down the June border security funding measure, as Indivisible was urging Democrats. “Do they want to find somebody more radical who can win those upstate districts?” Kerr asks. “We actually need some conservative Dems here.”

At the lobby day after the NCN meeting, however, the participating groups were free to tailor their messages when visiting their congressional representatives’ offices; the moderate ask involved urging Republican or centrist Democratic members to resist Trump administration efforts to augment ICE’s budget by transferring money from other agencies. “We were pleasantly surprised,” says one member who didn’t want her name used. “That flexibility is important.”

Wallace Fuentes came away from the NCN meeting optimistic. “I thought it was transparent and it alleviated a lot of fears,” she tells me. Indivisible’s national leaders have “developed a national name they can leverage,” she says. “But the national leadership structure has to give enough autonomy to locals to address local issues on the ground.” Still, she calls the tension “real and generative.”

Wallace Fuentes thinks everybody needs to look beyond the 2020 presidential race. “The real test is if people are still knocking doors locally five years from now,” she says. “That’s what we’ve accomplished, and that’s what we still need.”

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