Indivisible and the Tea Party: Holding Elected Officials Accountable

Democracy doesn't begin and end in the voting booth. In readings and discussion, students explore tactics people are using to pressure their elected officials, including the Tea Party on the right and Indivisible groups on the left.   


To the Teacher:

Many people think of their participation in democracy as beginning and ending in the voting booth. However, once politicians take office, there are many ways we can influence their decisions and hold them accountable. In fact, politicians often create opportunities to hear feedback from constituents through town hall meetings and other events.

Although these events are commonplace, people do not regularly show up to make their voices heard. Community organizers of many different political backgrounds have found that having people voice their opinions—whether at a scheduled town hall, or by tracking politicians down in their offices or at public events, or by speaking out in the media—can influence what decisions these officials make.

This lesson is divided into two readings and is designed to have students consider some of the many ways to engage with lawmakers. The first reading looks at how different groups—both liberal and conservative—have used similar tactics to pressure politicians to respond to their concerns. This reading introduces both the Tea Party and the Indivisible guide. The second explores some recent examples of what has happened when people have asked politicians tough questions at town hall meetings. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Photo: Republican Rep. John Faso of New York is surrounded by constituents protesting his support for his party's proposed rollback of Obamacare. Republicans could not muster the votes needed to pass the measure.


Reading 1:
Lessons from the Tea Party

Many people think of their participation in democracy as beginning and ending in the voting booth. However, once politicians take office, there are many ways people can influence their decisions and hold them accountable. One way is through town hall meetings and other events that politicians themselves organize to hear feedback and build support from constituents.

Although these events are commonplace, people do not regularly show up to make their voices heard. Community organizers of many different political backgrounds have found that having people voice their opinions—whether at a scheduled town hall, or by tracking politicians down in their offices or at public events, or by speaking out in the media—can influence what decisions these officials make.

The Tea Party, a conservative political movement that began in the months following Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, was known for its strategy of targeting Republican representatives at their local events and pressuring them to adopt more conservative positions on issues such as government spending, abortion access, gun control, and immigration.

On December 26, 2013, Harvard sociology professor Theda Skocpol published an article in the Atlantic about the Tea Party’s locally-focused actions:

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local Tea Parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels...

Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics.

The Tea Party was successful at pressuring politicians to take more conservative stances in the Obama era.

But since the 2016 election, some liberals have looked to the Tea Party for lessons on how to challenge Trump administration policies. To that end, several former congressional staffers wrote a document entitled, "Indivisible: Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda." In the first chapter of the guide, the authors describe several elements of Tea Party strategy. They write that the Tea Party’s success came down to two critical strategic elements:

1.  They were locally focused. The Tea Party started as an organic movement built on small local groups of dedicated conservatives. Yes, they received some support/coordination from above, but fundamentally all the hubbub was caused by a relatively small number of conservatives working together.

  • Groups started as disaffected conservatives talking to each other online. In response to the 2008 bank bailouts and President Obama’s election, groups began forming to discuss their anger and what could be done. They eventually realized that the locally based discussion groups themselves could be a powerful tool.
  • Groups were small, local, and dedicated. Tea Party groups could be fewer than 10 people, but they were highly localized, and they dedicated significant personal time and resources. Members communicated with each other regularly, tracked developments in Washington, and coordinated advocacy efforts together.
  • Groups were relatively few in number. The Tea Party was not hundreds of thousands of people spending every waking hour focused on advocacy. Rather, the efforts were somewhat modest. Only 1 in 5 self-identified Tea Partiers contributed money or attended events. On any given day in 2009 or 2010, only twenty local events — meetings, trainings, town halls, etc. — were scheduled nationwide. In short, a relatively small number of groups were having a big impact on the national debate.

2.  They were almost purely defensive. The Tea Party focused on saying NO to Members of Congress (MoCs) on their home turf. While the Tea Party activists were united by a core set of shared beliefs, they actively avoided developing their own policy agenda. Instead, they had an extraordinary clarity of purpose, united in opposition to President Obama. They didn’t accept concessions and treated weak Republicans as traitors... Tea Partiers viewed concessions to Democrats as betrayal. This limited their ability to negotiate, but they didn’t care. Instead they focused on scaring congressional Democrats and keeping Republicans honest. As a result, few Republicans spoke against the Tea Party for fear of attracting blowback...

With their Indivisible guide, the former congressional staffers sought to outline "best practices for making Congress listen." They described the document as "a step-by-step guide for individuals, groups, and organizations looking to replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting Congress to listen to a small, vocal, dedicated group of constituents."


Within the guide, the authors of Indivisible outline what they see as the four most effective opportunities citizens have to communicate with their Members of Congress:

  • Town halls. MoCs [Members of Congress] regularly hold public in-district events to show that they are listening to constituents. Make them listen to you, and report out when they don’t.
  • Other local public events. MoCs love cutting ribbons and kissing babies back home. Don’t let them get photo-ops without questions about racism, authoritarianism, and corruption
  • District office visits. Every MoC has one or several district offices. Go there. Demand a meeting with the MoC. Report to the world if they refuse to listen.
  • Coordinated calls. Calls are a light lift, but can have an impact. Organize your local group to barrage your MoCs with calls at an opportune moment about and on a specific issue.


Whatever one’s political beliefs, asking tough questions at town halls, public events, and during office visits can be an important means of participating in democracy beyond the voting booth.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Have you ever been to a town hall meeting or visited a politician who represents you? If not, would you consider doing so? Why or why not?
  3. According to the reading, what are some of the strategies the Tea Party used to put pressure on elected officials?
  4. Both the Tea Party and Indivisible strategies focus on the defensive, which is to say, protecting what has been put into place, rather than advocating for the creation of new policies. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of this type of strategy?


Reading 2:
Indivisible Mobilizes Against the Trump Agenda

Following Donald Trump’s election as president, politicians have been facing tough questions from constituents. Videos of attendees of town hall meetings shouting at members of Congress have gone viral on social media and on TV news outlets such as CNN. Both Republican and Democratic elected officials have been receiving extra attention at public appearances and during office visits.

Following the publication of the Indivisible guide, groups throughout the U.S. began to create local chapters to help people take action together. According to the Indivisible website, more than 4,500 affiliated groups have formed. In a March 1, 2017, article for Truthout, journalist John Knefel reported on how the movement is growing nationally:

At the center of many of these town hall a group called Indivisible. It is less an organization than a network of local organizations, many of which sprang up in the immediate aftermath of Trump's victory. Created by former congressional staffers, Indivisible works regularly with well-known liberal clearinghouses like MoveOn, as well as the progressive Working Families Party and a number of community-based organizations. The network released a guide in December suggesting simple strategies to maximize pressure on Congress: Forget the online petition, call your representative and both senators, show up at their offices, show up at public events, and show up at town halls. The response has been even larger and more enthusiastic than the founders expected.

Following Trump's victory, many individuals began forming ad hoc groups through social media and local meet-ups to deal with the helplessness they felt in the final weeks of 2016. Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, an associate professor of history at Roanoke College, paid attention to the election, but it wasn't until after Trump won that she really became an organizer, she says. She attended a meeting of Our Revolution, the group that formed out of Bernie Sanders' run, and when the large group broke into smaller break-out sessions, she wanted to focus on a rapid-response network for undocumented people and other marginalized and vulnerable groups.

That became Roanoke Indivisible. "From that day, we probably got 30 or 40 emails," Fuentes tells me. "But it wasn't until we decided to go to Rep. Bob Goodlatte's office that we started to see exponential growth." Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, made national news on the first day of Congress when he announced plans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. They started flooding his phone lines, and, combined with a national outcry, that was enough to get the Goodlatte amendment rescinded. Twelve members of Roanoke Indivisible still paid his office a visit, dropping off New Years Cards detailing exactly what they expected of him. The Indivisible Guide tells new activists what to expect at their first district office meeting, which was helpful for Fuentes' group, since they didn't have their own firsthand experience.

"What really appealed to me about the guide was it was incredibly concrete. It looked like a recipe," says Fuentes. "Most of the people coming to Indivisible are new to political activism. People told me, 'I've never called my representative, and my arm was trembling when I picked up that phone.'"

As a result of this groundswell of activism, politicians have seen their public events packed with constituents. In a February 28, 2017 article, Slate staff writer Henry Grabar described a particularly packed town hall meeting for Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley:

Sen. Chuck Grassley stood in front of his constituents on Friday like a clown perched over a dunk tank. Picking questioners from the crowd of 150 or so, the 83-year-old Iowa Republican might as well have been passing out tennis balls at the county fair. The suspense lay not in when Grassley would fall, but in the arc, spin, and speed of each petitioner’s throw.

"I think that when you ignore your constitutional obligation to hold hearings for a Supreme Court justice, that’s a problem," one woman began, to applause. "I have to ask you what makes you put party over country now." The cheers grew louder. "In recent weeks, I have been appalled at being called a paid protester, because as far as I can see, the only person in this room that is paid is you, by Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers." Shouts of approval...

Grassley’s event was a study in how an old civic stalwart [the Town Hall meeting] has improbably become a viral video factory, a hot ticket, and the latest stage for the awakening on the American left.

All this began, arguably, on Jan. 14 in Aurora, Colorado, when Republican Rep. Mike Coffman snuck out early from a planned event at a public library, fleeing voters asking questions about Obamacare. That was a week before the inauguration and a week before the Women’s March made clear the level of left-wing activism that would greet the Trump administration at every turn. It was a sign of things to come.

By last week, the ritual that snared Coffman had evolved into prime-time television, as Republican representatives were thrust into humiliating confrontations with cancer survivors, 7-year-olds, Muslims, and other Americans angry with President Donald Trump and his party in Congress. Most Republicans have chosen not to hold town halls, canceling scheduled events or declining invitations from activists.

Republicans are not the only ones being confronted by Indivisible. A new campaign called #WeWillReplaceYou seeks to hold Democrats accountable for their actions in Congress. #AllOfUs, the group spearheading the campaign, is gearing up to support primary challengers against Democrats who they view are not doing enough to stop Trump. As CNN staff reporter Gregory Krieg wrote in a February 17, 2017, article:

The progressive coalition solidified by Bernie Sanders' insurgent campaign and energized by the broad liberal backlash to President Donald Trump is preparing to launch primary challenges against elected Democrats they see going wobbly in the fight against the new administration...

"Democrats need to know there is an actual political cost and this isn't just going to be folks showing up at their offices, but folks showing up at the ballot and different organizations supporting challengers who are going to push the party in a different direction," said Max Berger, a co-founder of #AllOfUs, the millennial progressive group that launched the new campaign.

Early opposition to the Trump administration, most visibly in the form of mass protests and rowdy recriminations against Republicans at town hall meetings around the country, has turned up the heat on long-simmering efforts by the left to pressure moderate Democrats. With the party now totally out of power in Washington and at a crossroads, activists who gained experience during Occupy Wall Street and through work with the Movement for Black Lives, the Fight for $15 and other aligned causes see an opportunity for greater influence.

If the groundswell of activism that has followed Trump’s elections continues, politicians across the political spectrum can expect to feel increased pressure from constituents for the foreseeable future.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. Based on your experience or the reading above, how might a guide like Indivisible be helpful for people talking to their member of Congress for the first time?
  3. One of the articles quoted in this reading says that, "most Republicans have chosen not to hold town halls, canceling scheduled events or declining invitations from activists." Do you think this is a legitimate response from elected officials to pressure from the constituents? Why or why not?
  4. #WeWillReplaceYou, made up of progressives, has threatened to challenge Democrats whom they view as not standing up to the Trump administration. What do you think of this strategy? What might be some pros and cons of running primary challenges to established politicians in your own party?



Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner.