What’s wrong with Indivisible?

Giving the failure to stop any of President Trump’s cabinet nominations, many Americans are wondering “What should they do next?” While many have turned to an informative guide “Indivisible,” what this guide doesn’t talk about is the role of money played in making the Tea Party successful.

Indivisible claims to show how average citizens can influence Members of Congress (MoCs). Written by over 70 volunteer Congressional staff members, its advice is based on their experience with the Tea Party movement. In other words, Indivisible recommends using the “the Tea Party Playbook” to build a grassroots movement to stop Trump.

The popularity of the guide is clear: the original webpage crashed from so many downloads. Indivisible has been endorsed progressives ranging from former Secretary of Labour Robert Reich as well as by George Takei of Startrack fame. There are over 2,400 registered local “Indivisible”-inspired groups across the U.S. In Northern California, over 100 protesters disrupted a town hall meeting held by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove). The coordinators of the group identified themselves as a Indivisible affiliate. According to Rachel Maddow, “The “Indivisible” movement is growing and spreading with each new day.”

To be sure, Indivisible provides many helpful suggestions. For instance, it recommends having face to face meetings with and making phone calls to Members of Congress (MoCs), as opposed to sending an email or liking a Facebook page. It also recommends organizing small local groups and coordinating calls. By focusing on tactics that target MoCs’ desire to get re-elected, American progressives can learn how to obstruct like the Tea Party.

However, in urging progressives to follow in the Tea Party’s footsteps, Indivisible overlooks one vital component of the Tea Party movement: money. The guide neglects to mention how billionaires like Robert Murdoch and the Koch brothers “bankrolled” the Tea Party. According to Matea Gold, the total outlay of the Koch brothers’ “2014 electoral push” equalled the annual incomes of 5,270 American households. The New Yorkers’ Jane Mayer is more specific. It was the Koch brothers’ network that turned the Tea Party into a mass movement.

So while the Tea Party might seem entirely grassroots, its actions were importantly coordinated and underwritten by corporate lobbying groups. For example, the Koch brothers funneled money to the Tea Party movement through Americans for Prosperity, which has 240 full-time employees in 32 states. The Washington Post named Americans for Prosperity “America’s third biggest political party.” This play from the Tea Party Movement shows the need for organized coordination.

Similarly, Indivisible ignores the free promotion that the Tea Party received from Murdoch’s Fox News. According to Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol and Ph.D. student Vanessa Williams, the Tea Party movement was “ceaselessly” promoted by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Fox News also mobilized its viewers to by connecting the Tea Party with its own brand identity. For example, Fox News labeled upcoming Tea Party Events “FNC [Fox News Channel] Tea Parties.” In addition, the Tea Party had “a significant presence on Fox News even in periods where actual political happenings are not occurring.” So it was Fox News, not the Tea Party alone, that kept the pressure on MoCs. Here Americans need to think about how to ensure the proper media coverage. Taking a page from John Oliver’s playbook might be another helpful lesson: Oliver wants to educate President Trump on some basic facts by purchasing commercial ads on morning cable networks.

Similarly, the satirical GoFundme page raising money “to buy Pat Toomey’s vote for Betsy DeVos” is not completely off: Americans need to vote with their dollars and with their choices of media outlets. For as political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page showed “business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while…average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

To be sure, running for office costs money. Advertising, running a website, hiring people as staffers, or even holding rallies or events that the media will cover are expensive. The average cost of running for Congress successfully is estimated at $10.3 million. So if money talks (or at least helps win elections) in Washington, why doesn’t Indivisible tell its readers to use their money as well as their mouths?

US citizens could be more indivisible if they bundled their contributions, hired lobbying organizations to coordinate their efforts, formed super-pacs, and developed a media strategy that gets their message out 24/7. People power needs financial backing as well as persistent positive media coverage.

So what do we do next? We use our mouths and money so that come 2018, we have the democratic power to elect officials who are responsive to the majority of Americans.

Suzanne Dovi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona and a former Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

Spencer Bateman, Laura Benitez, Madison Dodge, Chloe Durand and Clark Knobel are all Honors Students at the University of Arizona taking a course on holding the U.S. government accountable.


Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, and join us on Facebook.