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To Pressure Elected Officials, ‘Indivisible’ Activists Consult Tea Party Playbook

Qiling Wang for KUT
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams' constituents hold a town hall meeting at Flores Mexican Restaurant in Dripping Springs on Sunday. The congressman declined to attend. "

In 2009, Tea Party protests across the country energized a segment of conservative voters, enabling Republicans to take control of both chambers of Congress.

Inspired by Tea Party tactics, progressive groups today are organizing to put pressure on Republican congressmen in town hall meetings. While the events have been grassroots efforts, many people are organizing under the umbrella of a movement called Indivisible, which, it turns out, has roots in Austin.

Indivisible now has more than 7,000 groups registered on its website. That’s a long way from where it began last November: as a Google doc. Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda was written by four former congressional aides, including former Lloyd Doggett staffer Jeremy Haile.

“We sort of put these ideas on paper and circulated it, hoping it would spread out beyond our friends and family but not expecting much,” Haile says. “And within a day or two, Google crashed because so many people were trying to access it and read it.”

Haile and another of the guide’s authors, Ezra Levin, worked for the Texas congressman in the early years of the Obama administration. Haile says their experience working for Doggett during the rise of the Tea Party in Central Texas heavily influenced the guide, which is essentially a playbook for how to put political pressure on elected officials.

“Within weeks and months of that election, small groups of disgruntled conservatives were starting to organize and protest the Obama agenda,” Haile says. “And they were able to stymie a lot of what Democrats wanted to do, and by 2010 they had actually taken back the House.”

The guide suggests confronting elected officials in person at ribbon cuttings and town halls. Haile says this advice is based in part on the now">infamous town hall Doggett held at a Randall’s parking lot in Austin in 2009.

“These were conservative activists and they were carrying revolutionary war battle flags and mock coffins, and they were chanting, ‘Just say no,’” he says.

Footage of the town hall turned protest went national, creating a communications nightmare for staffers, Haile says. Similar scenes began unfolding across the country. While these protesters did not effectively change their representatives’ views, Haile says, they did succeed in tying up their staffers.

“Instead of spending time working to advance progressive policy, they were spending time trying to respond to the Tea Party. And it really slowed a lot of good progressive legislation and some of it was able to actually stop it,” he says. “That experience we drew on for progressives.”

But this time around, conservative politicians are clued in on the tactics espoused by the Tea Party. Across the country, they are skipping public appearances, forcing Indivisible activists to come up with new ways to air their grievances and generate the kind of problematic press the guide calls for. Haile suggests Indivisible groups look to each other for ways to do this. One idea he especially likes:

“The Indivisible group in the First District of Wisconsin, that’s Paul Ryan’s group, they have put up signs all over town with Paul Ryan’s face on them saying, ‘If you see this person call this number,’” he says. 

Having put the guide into the hands of the public and created a website where groups can register, he says he and the guide’s other authors plan to let the movement grow on its own.  

“Our idea is to sort of create a platform for people to communicate with each other,” he says. “We lay out some basic strategies and tactics for what we think will work, but at the end of the day, it’s up to groups to decide what they think will work best to speak to their members of Congress.”

Kate Groetzinger is a part-time reporter at KUT. She comes to us from Quartz, a digital media publication based in New York City, where she served as an Atlantic Media fellow. Prior to working at Quartz, Kate graduated from Brown University with a bachelor's degree in English. While at Brown, Kate served as an intern at Texas Monthly. Her work has been published online by Texas Monthly, CultureMap Austin, The Atlantic, Quartz, The Gotham Gazette and Paste Magazine, and in print by Rhode Island Monthly. She is happy to be back in her home state reporting on news for her fellow Texans.
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