The agonized are organizing
The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, one prominent healthcare advocate had marching orders for despondent liberals. “Don’t agonize,” said Ron Pollack, president of the non-profit Families USA. “Organize.”
One day into the Trump administration, millions of those horrified by his presidency put that mantra into action, taking to the streets to peacefully defend their rights and values. The Women’s Marches were a historic display of civic resistance, but on their own, they will not be enough. The bursting energy on display from the marches’ grand scale must now be channeled into an equally fierce but targeted resistance to specific actions and policies promoted by the Trump administration.
Fortunately, there are early signs that this is already happening. Trump and congressional Republicans have vowed to roll back Obamacare — an act that would rip health insurance away from 32 million people while causing premiums to double for millions more, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The political anxiety countless Americans feel about a Trump administration is converging with a real and imminent bodily anxiety millions dread from the Republican Congress’s insistence on shredding health reform. The result is a percolating resistance to the new administration’s top legislative priority.
Those seeking to protect health reform — and more broadly, to oppose the Trump agenda — are drawing inspiration from an unlikely model: the Tea Party. “The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong,” wrote former congressional staffers Ezra Levin, Leah Greenberg, and Angel Padilla. “But they understood how to wield political power and made two critical strategic decisions. First, they organized locally, focusing on their own members of Congress. Second, they played defense, sticking together to aggressively resist anything with President Obama’s support. With this playbook, they rattled our elected officials, targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.”
The Tea Party emerged in early 2009 as a right-wing insurgency against a trio of emergency financial crisis measures: Wall Street bailouts, relief for indebted homeowners, and economic stimulus. It announced its arrival in large rallies across the country that spring. But the movement really came into its own in opposition to healthcare reform, as adherents flocked to summer recess town halls to berate members of Congress with hearsay claims about death panels and socialized medicine.
Reactionary politics aside, the Tea Party’s tactics worked. While the movement didn’t defeat health reform, it irredeemably altered its course. The Tea Party cemented a narrative of health reform as a divisive, unpopular effort. During the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Tea Partiers helped elevate Scott Brown as the 41st vote breaking the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. This froze healthcare legislation in place, preventing Democrats from fixing the kinks in the law before or after its enactment. The energy of the Tea Party hardened the opposition of congressional Republicans, helping to stymy the rest of Obama’s agenda.
Eight years later, liberals are turning the tables, using Tea Party-style tactics of direct grassroots democracy to defend healthcare reform. In Colorado, more than 150 constituents turned out to demand answers about Obamacare repeal plans from Republican Congressman Mike Coffman. Rather than offer an explanation, Coffman was caught on video slipping out of the meeting early through a backdoor behind police tape.
In Spokane, Washington, anti-Obamacare representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers had her Martin Luther King Day speech disrupted by constituents pleading with her to “save our health care.” In Texas, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady’s anti-Obamacare community gathering — billed as a chance for “local people affected by ObamaCare” to “share their experiences with rising costs and loss of coverage and choice” — was unexpectedly crashed by dozens of health reform supporters and constituents worried about losing their coverage under GOP plans.
Republicans are being confronted with the faces and stories of people whose lives hang in the balance. People like Jeff Jeans, a lifelong Republican small business owner who told Speaker Paul Ryan that he relies on Obamacare coverage after being given six weeks to live following a cancer diagnosis. “Thanks to the Affordable Care Act,” Jeans said, “I’m standing here today alive.” In Kansas and Missouri, activists compiled scrapbooks with photos and stories of people helped by Obamacare and delivered copies to their senators.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders and other top Democrats drew thousands of people to rallies in cities and towns across the country to kick off the fight to save healthcare reform. The rallies highlighted the stories of men and women who feared for their lives and livelihoods if the law is repealed. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, one demonstrator feared that her uncle would be unable to get diabetes treatment without Obamacare. “My uncle will die,” Amy Hilton Schuler said. “Before the ACA, he could not afford his insulin and the family had to help out.”
Like the Tea Party before it, the budding movement to save health reform has the potential to derail the policy agenda in Washington. Even if health reform supporters cannot stave off GOP attacks on the law, an engaged citizenry can shape the terms of the debate. Already, Republicans are tying themselves in knots with promises that their ultimate replacement bill will cover everyone insured under Obamacare — a virtual impossibility under typical conservative reform packages.
Obamacare supporters have tools at their disposal in this fight. Thanks to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, constituents can now exert pressure on pro-repeal senators and representatives armed with the exact number of their fellow community members depending on Obamacare for health coverage. In McMorris Rodgers’s district, 14,500 people stand to lose coverage if Obamacare’s insurance subsidies and marketplaces are dissolved. In Brady’s district, 26,700 people would be left in the same lurch. In Ryan’s district, it’s 25,800. (And these numbers don’t even include any of the 11 million people insured under the law’s Medicaid expansion.)
Levin, Greenberg, and Padilla have drawn from their firsthand experience on the receiving end of the Tea Party Summer to assemble a how-to guide for citizens looking to hold legislators accountable and to resist the GOP’s agenda under Trump. The guide, called “Indivisible,” provides step-by-step instructions on maximizing the effectiveness of grassroots democracy, from speaking out at town halls to visiting representatives’ offices to inundating those offices with phone calls.
If a mobilized public can hold their representatives’ feet to the fire for two years, they can restrain Trump’s agenda altogether at the ballot box in 2018. If Democrats can retake one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, the policymaking era of Trump’s first term will grind to a merciful halt. The group Swing Left is helping people identify the competitive congressional races closest to them where their volunteer work can make the biggest impact. In just a few days, over 100,000 people have already signed up.
As Donald Trump assumes the presidency, the resistance to his administration’s priorities is already shaping up. If the GOP presses ahead with gutting healthcare reform, they may soon see what democracy looks like when people fight for a government program that their lives literally depend on. After all, resisting Trump in the policy arena must be the next step for those resisting him in the streets.