The Women’s Marches over-awed Donald Trump’s Inauguration. Protesters at airports checked the initial version of Trump’s travel bans. Ordinary Americans’ phone calls and door knocks defeated multiple attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act. It all sent a clear message during Trump’s first two years in office: Resistance works.
Engaged protesters were not able to block the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act or Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, but they did render both toxically unpopular. The resistance spurred an unprecedented level of interest in special elections, swinging seats across the country, and powered Democrats to sweeping wins in the 2018 midterms.
And then it stopped. There was no mass mobilization to call senators in advance of the resolution blocking Trump’s border emergency declaration. There were no crowds on Capitol Hill. There are no reports of Republican senators canceling town halls because they’re afraid to face angry crowds demanding a floor vote on the anti-corruption bill HR 1. There are no protesters demanding that Trump accede to Congress’s request for his tax returns in part because no request has been made.
The resistance has demobilized. And for Democrats, it’s probably a huge mistake.
A very banal legislative fight
The resistance strategy on Capitol Hill was to activate grassroots participation to shape the course of events. The calls you made, the letters you wrote, the town halls and protests you attended, stood a chance of altering outcomes in Congress.
As you would expect in a GOP-dominated Washington, more often than not this strategy failed when liberals tried it. But it did have its real point of success. It prevented the outright repeal of the ACA. It also, at least temporarily, altered the trajectory of the Kavanaugh hearings, leaving him a toxic figure.
But when Trump declared a state of emergency, things played out differently in Washington. Democrats assumed that Trump would veto a resolution blocking the declaration and that the veto would be upheld. The fact that majorities in Congress rebuked him would be embarrassing to the president — especially since the GOP holds power in the Senate. The failure of vulnerable Senate Republicans like Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) to break with the president would be embarrassing to them.
It was good inside-baseball Congress stuff for Democrats that achieved its basic goal of winning the news cycle and setting up good electoral arguments for November.
But there was no effort to engage a meaningful grassroots effort to actually flip votes. And since Election Day 2018, there hasn’t been much effort to engage a meaningful grassroots effort on really anything.
The demobilizing grassroots
A swirl of controversy about anti-Semitism and ties to Louis Farrakhan cast a shadow on key leaders of the official Women’s March organization in the months leading up to the third annual march. The organization and its leaders were not necessarily central to the success of the original Women’s March in 2017 or its strong follow-up in 2018, and marchers still showed up to focus on their core message. But the controversies depressed turnout.
Nancy Pelosi took over as speaker in early 2019, which left liberals less alarmed.
But it also left resistance to Trump with a clear leader and focal point, and House Democrats do not appear to be particularly interested in grassroots resistance work. They didn’t try to tap energy in the streets around the state of emergency or their own flagship political reform bill. And after vowing on the campaign trail to directly confront Trump’s corruption, in office they’ve proven surprisingly lackadaisical about going after his taxes and have apparently decided it would be inappropriate to go after Trump’s family even though the family angle is central to the nexus of corruption.
It’s not entirely clear why this demobilization is happening — grassroots leaders I’ve spoken to suggest it’s more a diminished sense of threat plus a lack of strategic focus from party leaders rather than a deliberate strategy — but it’s hurting Democrats in tangible ways.
Demobilization is a dangerous trend
One veteran operative who’s deeply involved in party-aligned work on corruption issues tells me he thinks congressional leaders have deliberately demobilized the resistance because they’re so afraid of the impeachment issue. Other Pelosi critics I’ve spoken to on the Hill paint a picture that’s more sins of omission — the top ranks of Democratic leadership are in a weakened state and simply not doing much of anything (Pelosi just hired a new chief of staff in perhaps a sign that she felt things were not going well) on a strategic level.
The demobilization, however, is costly.
Political engagement tends to beget more political engagement, and it’s not a coincidence that the “protest is the new brunch” coincided with a string of strong Democratic performances in a whole bunch of down-ballot special elections. In 2019, that pattern has reversed, and across 16 races, Democrats are running 1 point behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margins.
At the same time, even as the people fighting Trump in Washington aren’t asking for grassroots help, there’s a small army of Democrats roaming Iowa and the early primary states who are asking for grassroots help — to fight each other.
A vigorously contested presidential nomination is a healthy part of the political process. But throwing small-dollar contributions into a zero-sum struggle for the crown nine months in advance of the first primary balloting is an inherently low-value use of people’s money, to say nothing of their time and emotional energy. The classic activities of the resistance — trying to network locally, stay informed about events in Washington, stay in contact with local elected officials, and be engaged with local races, even obscure ones — were much healthier and more productive than analyzing the latest micro-gaffe or watching third-tier presidential candidates’ town halls on cable.
While candidates run against one another — and will likely continue running for a year or more — it falls to congressional leaders to provide a unifying intellectual and emotional orientation. Opposition to Trump is, easily, the most natural candidate for the job. But to tap into it, House Democrats need to remind the resistance that there are ways to fight Trump in the here and now, not just in 2020.