For grassroots organizing, it helps to be in the opposition. We are beginning to see a blossoming of liberal and left wing organizing to oppose President Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress. A nascent group, Indivisible, is starting to mobilize, modeling itself after tea party groups from 2009 and 2010. It appears that at least some of the disruptions in recent days at Republican town hall meetings have been coordinated by local groups that are starting to make connections across the country to similar groups in other locales. Indivisible is one of these fledgling efforts. The people involved are not merely angry individuals getting up from the dinner table and deciding on the spot to go to Republican member’s town hall meeting. These are organized efforts, likely coordinated through social media, to show up at the same place and same time, with ready-made slogans and signs. Political organizing is, well, just that, organized.
Does that make them any less effective, the fact that they are organized and coordinated by local organizations or in some cases by larger, maybe even national organizations? Not really. Organized efforts can scare politicians, just as much as relatively (rare) unorganized efforts.
Here’s a broader set of questions: What to make of this new mobilizing? What effect will it have on the Republicans and on the Trump Administration? Will small, scattered protests at congressional offices matter? Will large protests matter, the ones in big cities and in the nation’s Capital that occur every once in a while?
Let us focus first on Republican members of Congress. Members of Congress, especially experienced, long-tenured ones, know their constituencies pretty well. They tend to know the basic contours of public opinion among the different groups of primary and general election voters. What they do not know is what issues and topics voters will care about in 2018. What will be on the minds of constituents when they vote in the next national election? Will it be the economy or a recession? Scandals in the administration? Security concerns, including foreign policy crises or homeland terrorism?
Members of Congress, like anyone else, prefer predictability and stability in their levels of job security. The potential surprises for members of Congress in terms of their reelection efforts are twofold:
- who might surprisingly emerge to oppose them, either in the primary or in the general election?
- and what current events will arise that shift the salience of certain policy issues among their constituents?
Protests matter differently for these two questions.
For the first question, a member of Congress is intensely focused on whether protests or mobilizing by groups signal anything about possible loss of support among his or her own electoral base. And on this question, the liberal mobilizing does not do much to alter the viewpoints of Republican members of Congress. Republican members of Congress, many of them from relatively safe Republican districts, would get much more rattled by protests and disrupters from tea party-like groups than they would from Indivisible and other left-leaning groups. Resisting Trump and the efforts to dismantle Obamacare is good television in a Republican town hall, but unless it comes from among the Republicans’ electoral support base in that constituency, it only fuels the Republican base into a defensive mode.
For the second question, to the extent that the protests continue, and especially as they draw close to the reelection (about a year from now), they might genuinely signal a potential nation-wide shift away from the Republicans, and potentially devastating mid-term election losses for the Republicans. And that kind of signal, if the protests signal widespread anger at the Republicans in general, might cause Republicans to run scared in the general election and not just the primary elections, and might cause Republicans to be forced to moderate to head off Democratic gains. The unintended consequence is that large-scale protests signaling widespread dissatisfaction might lead Republicans to back off, moderate some, and limit their midterm losses. Paradoxically, the protests can make it even more difficult for Democrats to win in the midterms in 2018.
And what of the Trump Administration? Remember that presidencies fail when the president’s own party turns on him. The examples from recent history are Nixon, Carter, and Bush number 1 (H.W.). The protests against Trump and the protests in Republican members’ town hall meetings will do damage to Trump only if they ultimately force Republican members to reap electoral gains among Republican voters for opposing Trump. We are not in that situation right now. And if it eventually comes to pass that many Republicans distance themselves from (or openly oppose) Trump, it will be in the service of their reelection efforts. So the protests against Trump that end up convincing Republicans to oppose Trump may end up helping Republicans maintain their seats.
The difficult and unavoidable fact here for opponents of Trump and the opponents of Republicans is that left-leaning protesters are in a bind strategically. For their broader goals, they should use those protests to win over people to vote for Democrats, not (1) embolden opponents on the right to counter-mobilize, or (2) convince enough Republican members of Congress to moderate their positions enough to withstand a Democratic challenge in their districts in the general elections.
I am all in favor of the right and perhaps responsibility of people to voice their concern and even outrage at politicians. Protesting is an honorable tradition in our democracy. Tea party groups changed the Republican Party successfully—congressional Republicans have as a group moved to the right on budget issues—and the tea party groups had a hand in the party’s recent electoral gains for sure. And perhaps Indivisible or another group that coalesces can do likewise for Democrats. But opposition groups like Indivisible that only protest risk counter-moves that undermine their own goals unless those opposition groups also mobilize at election time and challenge the job security of members of Congress.
And they will need to be smart about how. Indivisible members should learn the right lessons from the tea party experience. The tea-party tactics, early on, caused some problems for their goals. They caused more than a few Republican losses in general elections by forcing the nomination of extreme Republicans to lose in general elections, especially in 2012 when the winds blew nationally in the Democrats’ direction.
To achieve their goals, liberal groups should focus on winning general election contests for Democrats away from Republicans in relatively moderate districts, not nominating leftist politicians that defeat sitting Democrats but then lose to Republicans in general elections. The national winds will shift, and the goal for liberal groups should be to have quality (and mostly center-left) Democrats ready, primary victories behind them, to take Republican seats.
For liberal groups, ideally they would win many more seats for Democrats in 2018, and in doing so thwart Trump’s agenda. A second best outcome for liberals would be to have Republicans moderate and thwart Trump’s agenda even before the 2018 elections but also afterward. The worst outcome for liberals is that protesting stiffens the resolve of Republican voters and Republicans in Congress, and unites them with Trump against their common (liberal) foes.
All of this is to say that protesters and liberal leaders should think carefully. The protests, in the absence of targeted electoral mobilizing, will not matter much in changing the current situation and could backfire.
Image: Woman’s March, Washington, DC – Melissa Bender