Indivisible: A Practical Guide For Resisting The Trump Agenda
Former Congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.
We wrote this guide because we believe that the coming years will see an unprecedented movement of Americans rising up across the country to protect our values, our neighbors, and ourselves. Our goal is to provide practical understanding of how your Members of Congress (MoCs) think, and how you can demonstrate to them the depth and power of the opposition to Donald Trump and Republican overreach. This is not a panacea, nor is it intended to stand alone. We strongly urge you to marry the strategy in this guide with a broader commitment to creating a more just society, building local power and addressing systemic injustice and racism.
Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win.
We know this because we’ve seen it before. The authors of this guide are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress. We saw them organize locally and convince their own MoCs to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won. We believe that protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda — but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness.
Like us, you probably deeply disagree with the principles and positions of the Tea Party. But we can all learn from their success in influencing the national debate and the behavior of national policymakers.
The Tea Party’s success came down to two critical strategic elements:
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.
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.
Groups focused on local congressional representation. Tea Partiers primarily applied this defensive strategy by pressuring their own local MoCs. This meant demanding that their Representatives and Senators be their voice of opposition on Capitol Hill. At a tactical level, the Tea Party had several replicable practices, including:
- Showing up to the MoC’s town hall meetings and demanding answers
- Showing up to the MoC’s office and demanding a meeting
- Coordinating blanket calling of congressional offices at key moments
USING THESE LESSONS TO FIGHT THE TRUMP AGENDA
For the next two years, Donald Trump and congressional Republicans will control the federal government. But they will depend on just about every MoC to actually get laws passed. And those MoC care much more about getting reelected than they care about any specific issue. By adopting a defensive strategy that pressures MoCs, we can achieve the following goals:
Stall the Trump agenda by forcing them to redirect energy away from their priorities. Congressional offices have limited time and limited people. A day that they spend worrying about you is a day that they’re not ending Medicare, privatizing public schools, or preparing a Muslim registry.
Sap Representatives’ will to support or drive reactionary change. If you do this right, you will have an outsized impact. Every time your MoC signs on to a bill, takes a position, or makes a statement, a little part of his or her mind will be thinking: “How am I going to explain this to the angry constituents who keep showing up at my events and demanding answers?”
Reaffirm the illegitimacy of the Trump agenda. The hard truth is that Trump, McConnell, and Ryan will have the votes to cause some damage. But by objecting as loudly and powerfully as possible, and by centering the voices of those who are most affected by their agenda, you can ensure that people understand exactly how bad these laws are from the very start – priming the ground for the 2018 midterms and their repeal when Democrats retake power.
IT’S ALL ABOUT REELECTION, REELECTION, REELECTION
To influence your own Member of Congress (MoC), you have to understand one thing: every House member runs for office every two years and every Senator runs for election every six years. Functionally speaking, MoCs are always either running for office or getting ready for their next election — a fact that shapes everything they do.
To be clear, this does not mean that your MoC is cynical and unprincipled. The vast majority of people in Congress believe in their ideals, and care deeply about representing their constituents and having a positive impact. But they also know that if they want to make change, they need to stay in office.
This constant reelection pressure means that MoCs are enormously sensitive to their image in the district or state, and will work very hard to avoid signs of public dissent or disapproval. What every MoC wants — regardless of party — is for his or her constituents to agree with the following narrative:
WHAT YOUR MOC CARES ABOUT
When it comes to constituent interactions, MoCs care about things that make them look good, responsive, and hardworking to the people of their district. In practice, that means that they care about some things very much, and other things very little.
WHAT YOUR MOC CARES A LOT ABOUT
- Verified constituents from the district (or state for Senators)
- Advocacy that requires effort — the more effort, the more they care. Call, personal emails, and especially showing up in person in the district
- Local press and editorials, maybe national press
- An interest group’s endorsement
- Groups of constituents, locally famous individuals, or big individual campaign contributors
- Concrete asks that entail a verifiable action — vote for a bill, make a public statement, etc.
- A single ask in your communication — letter, email, phone call, office visit, etc
YOUR MOC DOESN’T CARE MUCH ABOUT
- People from outside the district (or state for Senators)
- Form letters, a Tweet, or Facebook comment (unless they generate widespread attention
- Wonky D.C.-based news (depends on the MoC)
- Your thoughtful analysis of the proposed bill
- A single constituent
- General ideas about the world
- A laundry list of all the items you are concerned about
WHAT YOUR MOC IS THINKING:
To make this a bit more concrete and show where advocacy comes in, below are some examples of actions that a MoC might take and results that they do not want to see happen. Some MoCs will go to great lengths to avoid bad outcomes, even as far as changing their positions or public statements.
- MoC sends letter to Constituent and Constituent posts letter on social media saying it didn’t answer their questions or didn’t get answered for weeks/month, calls Congressman Bob unresponsive and untrustworthy
- MoC attends In-district event and local newspaper reports that protestors barraged Congresswoman Sara with questions about corruption in the infrastructure bill
- MoC hosts town hall and local newspaper reports that angry constituents strongly objected to Congressman Bob’s support for privatizing Medicare.
- MoC votes on a bill and Congresswoman Sara’s phones are deluged with calls objecting to the bill. A group of constituents stage an event outside her district office and invite press to hear them talk about how the bill will personally hurt their famililes.
SHOULD I FORM A GROUP?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already part of a local network of people who want to stop the Trump agenda — even if it’s just your friends or a group on Facebook. How can you take that energy to the next level, and start fighting locally to take the country back? This congressional map tool shows the boundaries for your district.
To help you make connections on your home turf, you can list your group or find one to join in the public directory of groups at www.indivisibleguide.com. You will also receive updates to help build your local congressional action plans. If you look around and can’t find a group working specifically on local action focused on your MoCs in your area, just start doing it! It’s not rocket science. You really just need two things:
FOUR LOCAL ADVOCACY OPPORTUNITIES THAT ACTUALLY WORK
Begin with these five steps to gather intel. Before anything else, take the following five steps to arm yourself with information necessary for all future advocacy activities.
Find your three MoCs, their official websites, and their office contact info at www.callmycongress.com.
Sign up on your MoCs’ website to receive regular email updates, invites to local events, and propaganda to understand what they’re saying. Every MoC has an e-newsletter.
Find out where your MoCs stands on the issues of the day — appointment of white supremacists, tax cuts for the rich, etc. Review their voting history at VoteSmart.org. Research their biggest campaign contributors at OpenSecrets.org.
Set up a Google News Alert — for example for “Rep. Bob Smith” — to receive an email whenever your MoC is in the news.
Research on Google News what local reporters have written about your MoCs. Find and follow them on Twitter, and build relationships. Before you attend or plan an event, reach out and explain why your group is protesting and provide them background materials and a quote. Journalists on deadline — even those who might not agree with you — appreciate when you provide easy material for a story.
OPPORTUNITY 1: TOWN HALLS/LISTENING SESSIONS
MoCs regularly hold local “Town Halls” or public listening sessions throughout their districts or state. Tea Partiers used these events to great effect — both to directly pressure their MoCs and to attract media to their cause.
Find out when your MoC’s next public town hall event is. Sometimes these are announced well in advance, and sometimes they are “public” but only sent to select constituents through mailings shortly before the event. If you can’t find announcements online, call your MoC directly to find out. When you call, be friendly and say to the staffer, “Hi, I’m a constituent, and I’d like to know when his/her next town hall forum will be.” If they don’t know, ask to be added to the email list so that you get notified when they do.
Don’t give up the mic until you’re satisfied with the answer. If you’ve asked a hostile question, a staffer will often try to limit your ability to follow up by taking the microphone back immediately after you finish speaking. They can’t do that if you keep a firm hold on the mic. No staffer in their right mind wants to look like they’re physically intimidating a constituent, so they will back off. If they object, then say politely but loudly: “I’m not finished. The MoC is dodging my question. Why are you trying to stop me from following up?”
Reach out to media, during and after the town hall. If there’s media at the town hall, the people who asked questions should approach them afterwards and offer to speak about their concerns. When the event is over, you should engage local reporters on Twitter or by email and offer to provide an in-person account of what happened, as well as the video footage you collected.
OPPORTUNITY 2: OTHER LOCAL PUBLIC EVENTS
In addition to town halls, MoCs regularly attend public events for other purposes — parades, infrastructure groundbreakings, etc. Like town halls, these are opportunities to get face time with the MoCs and make sure they’re hearing about your concerns, while simultaneously changing the news story that gets written. Tactics for these events may be similar to more traditional protests, where you’re trying to shift attention from the scheduled event to your own message.
Identify, and try to speak with, reporters on the scene. Be polite, friendly, and stick to your message. For example, “We’re here to remind Congresswoman Sara that her constituents are opposed to Medicare cuts.” You may want to research in advance which local reporters cover MoCs or relevant beats, so that you know who to be looking for.
Hold organizational hosts accountable. Often events such as these will be hosted by local businesses or non-partisan organizations — groups that don’t want controversy or to alienate the community. Reach out to them directly to express your concern that they are giving a platform to authoritarianism, racism, and corruption. If they persist, use social media to express your disappointment. This will reduce the likelihood that these organizations will host the MoC in the future. MoCs depend on invitations like these to build ties and raise their visibility — so this matters to them.
OPPORTUNITY 3: IN-OFFICE VISITS / SIT-INS
Every MoC has at least one district office, and many MoCs have several spread through their district or state. These are public offices, open for anybody to visit — you don’t need an appointment. You can take advantage of this to stage a sort of impromptu town hall meeting by showing up with a small group. It is much harder for district or DC staff to turn away a group than a single constituent, even without an appointment.
Politely, but firmly, ask to meet with the MoC directly. Staff will ask you to leave or at best “offer to take down your concerns.” Don’t settle for that. You want to speak with the MoC directly. If they are not in, ask when they will next be in. If the staffer doesn’t know, tell them you will wait until they find out. Sit politely in the lobby. Note, on any given weekend, the MoC may or may not actually come to that district office.
Meet with the staffer. Even if you are able to get a one-off meeting with the MoC, you are most often going to be meeting with their staff. In district, the best person to meet with is the District Director, or the head of the local district office you’re visiting. There are real advantages to building a relationship with these staff. In some cases, they may be more open to progressive ideas than the MoC him/herself, and having a good meeting with/building a relationship with a supportive staff member can be a good way to move your issue up the chain of command. Follow these steps for a good staff meeting:
- Have a specific “ask” — E.g. vote against X, cosponsor Y, publicly state Z, etc.
- Leave staff with a brief write up of your issue, with your ask clearly stated.
- Share a personal story of how you or someone in your group is personally impacted by the specific issue (health care, immigration, medicare, etc.).
- Be polite — Yelling at the underpaid, overworked staffer won’t help your cause.
- Be persistent — Get their business card and call/email them regularly; ask if the MoC has taken action on the issue.
- Advertise what you’re doing. Communicate on social media and with the local reporters you follow what is happening. Take and send pictures and videos with your group: “At Congresswoman Sara’s office with 10 other constituents to talk to her about privatizing Medicare. She refuses to meet with us and staff won’t tell us when she will come out. We’re waiting.”
OPPORTUNITY 4: MASS CALLS
Mass office calling is a light lift, but it can actually have an impact. Tea Partiers regularly flooded congressional offices with calls at opportune moments, and MoCs noticed.
Find out who you’re talking to. In general, the staffer who answers the phone will be an intern, a staff assistant, or some other very junior staffer in the MoCs office. But you want to talk to the legislative staffer who covers the issue you’re calling about. There are two ways to go about doing this:
Ask to speak to the staffer who handles the issue (immigration, health care etc). Junior staff are usually directed to not tell you who this is, and instead just take down your comment instead.
On a different day, call and ask whoever answers the phone, “Hi, can you confirm the name of the staffer who covers [immigration/health care/etc]?” Staff will generally tell you the name. Say “thanks!” and hang up. Ask for the staffer by name when you call back next time.
This guide is intended as a work in progress, one that we hope to continue updating as the resistance takes shape. We are happy to offer support to anybody interested in building on the tactics outlined in this guide, and we hope that if you find it useful or put any of the tactics described into action, that you will let us know how it goes. Fee free to ping some of us on Twitter with questions, edits, recommendations, feedback/stories about what is helpful here. @IndivisibleTeam, @ezralevin, @angelrafpadilla, @texpat, @Leahgreenb. Or email IndivisibleAgainstTrump@gmail.com.
Excerpted with permission. Read or download the full text of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda at indivisibleguide.com.