WASHINGTON ― On April 15, 2009, a wave of populist protests swept across the country, pegged to tax day. John Boehner, who was then-House minority leader, was curious how they’d play out, and joined one in Bakersfield, California with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
What he saw there stunned him, and he immediately knew that if Republicans could harness that energy, he’d become speaker of the House. As he told his staff in his typically salty manner, “They are fucking furious and we’re going to win.”
Boehner was right on both points, and he vowed that day to make sure he channeled the rage he was witnessing into campaigns against Democrats the next fall. To ally with his base, he and then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) resolved to engage in all-out obstruction. It worked, until it worked too well, and consumed Boehner himself, as well as his deputy, former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Elected Democrats are now facing the same challenge, as a fired-up progressive base is marching far ahead of the party leadership. Democrats are scrambling to keep up.
This week, when progressive champions Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) voted in a Senate committee to approve the thoroughly unqualified Ben Carson to head the Housing and Urban Development Department, there was little criticism from established liberal organizations in Washington. But the grassroots lit up ― blasting them on Twitter, Facebook, in calls to their offices, and in countless emails to Huffington Post reporters, asking us what on earth their one-time heroes were doing.
Warren clearly felt the backlash. “OK, let’s talk about Dr. Ben Carson,” she began a lengthy Facebook post on Wednesday.
That the votes came just days after millions poured into the streets in more than 650 women’s marches on Saturday made it that much more jarring. Those marches, after all, had not been sparked by Planned Parenthood, or the Democratic Party, or unions, or MoveOn.org, even if they did pitch in to help once it got going. Instead, they came from regular, angry people ― people who may try to replace the ones in power.
“It’s going to motivate a lot of people to activism and to run for office,” said Fran DeBenedictis, a 63-year-old retired New York City cop, as she scanned the crowds at Saturday’s march in D.C. She was one of hundreds of thousands who marched in the city that day, armed with a homemade sign denouncing sexism and homophobia ― amazingly, it had a photo of her on it from a women’s march decades earlier ― and joined by two friends who rode in on a bus from Long Island, New York. This, she said, motioning to the scene, is what brings change.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said. “It works.”
For DeBenedictis and others, the march was the most cathartic and inspiring experience they’d had since the despair of President Donald Trump’s win in November. More than 3 million people flooded the streets in cities and towns across the country, donning pink cat-eared “pussy hats” and vowing resistance to Trump’s anti-woman, anti-environment, anti-immigrant agenda. It was such a high that many went back home fired up and ready to fight, but realized, wait, now what?
The organizers of the march provided the platform that an angry electorate demanded, but they didn’t dictate what comes next. Yes, they co-hosted the march with well-established, progressive groups in Washington D.C., like Planned Parenthood and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But they didn’t coordinate with those groups to collect attendees’ names and email addresses to keep them engaged in those groups’ fights around reproductive rights or climate change. Instead, the organizers collected contact information for the local organizers themselves, which may wind up being far more powerful than another giant list of progressives.
“I’ve already gotten a follow-up email from the Women’s March in D.C. I think organizers are doing a much better job of ‘absorption’ post-march than anything I’ve ever seen prior to this,” said Micah Sifry, who studies technology and political activism. He recently advised the new grassroots group SwingLeft.org, which connects volunteers with progressive House candidates running in nearby swing districts.
Organizers also didn’t try to whittle down, say, the movement’s top three progressive priorities and try to keep attendees focused on those issues in Congress. In spite of this lack of a centralized plan, or perhaps because of it, something remarkable has happened: Democrats desperate for change are going around the establishment and taking action themselves.
In the five days since the marches, there’s been a surge of grassroots mobilization online and tens of thousands of people have signed up to get involved. Hundreds of people have signed up to run for local and state offices. Some have volunteered to help Democratic candidates in swing districts. Others, frustrated by the lack of change that they’d like to see, are starting their own campaigns that make fighting Trump as simple as sending a text or downloading an online postcard to send to your member of Congress on a given issue.
Laura Moser, a 39-year-old writer and mom of two young kids, had never led any kind of political mobilization effort before December, when she launched Daily Action. It’s perhaps the easiest and most targeted progressive campaign out there: You just text the word DAILY to the number 228466 (or ACTION), and you’ll get a text message about an urgent progressive issue in your area, based on your zip code. If you want to act, you listen to a short recorded explanation on it and from there, you’re routed directly to your member of Congress or senator to weigh in.
“In 90 seconds, you can conscientiously object and be done with it,” reads the Daily Action website. “You can make the phone calls when you’re walking to the bus stop, or waiting in line for your morning latte. One touch of the phone and you’re done.”
Moser, who leaned on her husband’s tech experience to set up the mechanics of the operation, has tapped into an eager audience. Daily Action already sends 75,000 texts per day ― as many as 20,000 of those came from people who signed up after the march ― and has 30,000 subscribers on Facebook. Moser said she was motivated to create the campaign after seeing so many progressives outraged and depressed about Trump and ready to fight for their ideals, but, per usual, not having any organization around it.
“I kept getting all these messages from people like, ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to die,’” Moser said. “This is my solution to the despair. I can’t stop all the horrible things that are happening, but I can react to them.”
This newfound energy is driving throngs of people into the political process ― and it’s quickly being turned against Democratic politicians for being soft on Trump, whether it’s by approving his cabinet nominees or signaling a willingness to work with him.
“Senate Dems’ response to millions taking to the streets is beyond disappointing,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the women’s online advocacy group Ultra Violet. “It is outright shameful.”
“Resistance means resisting,” Markos Moulitsas wrote Thursday on the progressive site Daily Kos. “All those people in the streets last Saturday didn’t march for Democrats to make nice with the GOP. They marched to resist—whether it’s Trump, or his acolytes like Carson. And if even progressive champions like Warren can’t figure that out, we really are in trouble.”
In the meantime, new grassroots groups are cropping up by the day. There’s the aforementioned Swing Left, which launched the day before Trump’s inauguration and has more than 220,000 signed up to participate. There’s Justice Democrats, which is raising money to fund challenges to so-called “corporate” Democrats. There’s Run for Something, a group of Hillary for America and Obama for America, which is recruiting young Democrats to run for local and state office. They launched Friday and are seeing an average of 100 people sign up every day. The organizers of the Women’s March just started their own effort: 10 actions for the first 100 days, which calls on its broad base of supporters to take action on a specific issue every 10 days.
Brad Bauman, a Democratic consultant and former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the progressive base doesn’t think its leaders are up to challenging Trump.
“What we’re seeing here is a tacit understanding by progressives that establishment Democratic leaders are not equipped to fight Donald Trump the way that Donald Trump needs to be fought,” said Bauman, who works with labor and environmental groups. “Progressives … frankly would have been much happier had [Senate Democrats] said to him, ‘We will not confirm a single one of your picks unless you immediately and publicly renounce breaking up families, the wall, restricting Muslim entry into the country, torture and the rest of the alt-right agenda.’”
Some traditional groups are paying attention and following the lead of the masses. MoveOn sponsored the march and kicked in $100,000 to support it. The group held a phone call the day after and 60,000 people joined; another 15,000 turned out for small rallies at Senate and House offices on Tuesday, calling for opposition to Trump’s #SwampCabinet, as it’s been dubbed.
“The grassroots progressive base ― and more broadly, the public, which voted decisively against Trump ― is demanding clear, principled, and total opposition to the Trump Administration’s extreme and unprecedented agenda. Mayors, Attorneys General and Governors are showing what real leadership looks like right now” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action.
“Senate Democrats should pay attention,” he added. “Doing business as usual or treating Trump as your run-of-the-mill threat will not do.”
As of Feb. 1, after more than 10,000 votes cast, the tally is running at 92 percent in favor of full-on opposition, with 8 percent recommending pragmatism.