The 2014 movie Pride tells the story of the 1984 coal miners’ strike in England and the unlikely partnership that grows between a group of radical gay and lesbian activists from London who organized in solidarity with the mining village of Onllwyn in Wales. After raising buckets of cash standing in the street in front of a gay bookstore, calling on people walking by to “support the miners,” the activists are invited to the village union hall to meet the people they’ve been trying to help. At first, the miners are skittish about strangers from London. But soon friendships bloom over beer and a rousing spontaneous rendition of the union song “Bread and Roses.”
Pride’s climactic scene comes a year later. It’s time for London’s annual Gay Pride March, and while organizers of the march are trying to de-emphasize politics to make themselves more palatable to the public, a stream of buses arrives, each carrying a load of Welsh miners from the towns that had built relationships with the gay activists. The two groups embrace, the music rises, and the miners unfurl colorful banners, each identifying their union local and their town. Some are tattered from decades of age and use. This is solidarity, this is intersectionality, Pride is telling us. And, as the credits roll, we learn that the British Labour Party soon incorporated LGBT rights into its platform, in part because of pressure from the National Union of Mineworkers. But Pride is showing us one thing more. The gay bookstore, the bucket brigades, the village hall, the camaraderie, the local banners held high: This is what democracy looks like when people organize together in place.
In the last 35 years, the ways we participate in political action have shifted significantly. On the liberal-left, we’ve gone from banners to banner ads, and from cash raised in buckets to cash raised by pressing buttons. Hyper-efficient digital tools have transformed the speed and volume of organizing. Since 2004, over $4 billion has been donated to Democratic candidates and organizations, federal to local, using ActBlue, the online fundraising platform. In the third quarter of 2019 alone, more than three million donors (a record) made more than 10 million contributions via ActBlue to nearly 9,000 different recipients, with an average donation of roughly $30. If current trends persist, small donations to Democrats via ActBlue will top $1 billion in 2019, double the total at the same point two years ago.
Since Donald Trump’s election, grassroots participation in the most essential of actions—knocking on doors and making phone calls to voters on behalf of candidates—has been growing. MobilizeAmerica, a hub for creating and listing campaign actions like canvassing, says that more than 800,000 people have signed up for 1.73 million actions since 2017. Half of those sign-ups have occurred since the 2018 election that brought Democrats back to power in the House of Representatives. And the sheer number of Americans marching in protest of Trump administration policies has scarcely let up: Last winter, around 700,000 people marched in 319 U.S. locations to mark the second anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March, despite declining media interest. Between 300,000 and 500,000 came out for the Climate Strike rallies of September, and more than 100,000 people showed up across nearly 700 locales in July to protest Trump’s border detention practices.
By all these measures, the grassroots resistance among Democrats to Trump’s rise is clearly alive and well. But inside the impressive metrics of participation, there’s a worrisome hollowness to the Democratic revival. Grassroots Democrats are resisting a lot, but for the most part, they are not resisting together. Thanks to the affordances of tech and the preferences of big Democratic donors, they are, to borrow from Robert Putnam, resisting alone. This matters, because strong social ties are what keep people involved in the long term, through victories and defeats. The right has gun clubs and circles of home-schooling Christian moms; if the Left mainly builds systems for massing people just for the moments when they are most needed, it will miss a critical opportunity to revive a democracy centered on real people in relationships with one another.
In the summer of 2018, Swing Left, one of several new national, digitally driven organizations that arose to resist Trump, began putting together “The Last Weekend,” a plan to harness the energies of volunteers expected to flood into Democratic campaigns just before the midterms. Ultimately more than 60 groups, including several with big email lists like MoveOn, Organizing for America, EMILY’s List, and Daily Kos, joined in. In her terrific book American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, Dana R. Fisher describes how satisfying it was to spend a day that weekend knocking on doors in a suburban district in Virginia, but also how odd it felt to head home without even learning a single new name of any of her fellow volunteers.
The problem, Fisher shows convincingly in American Resistance, is that too much liberal-left activism has become disconnected from membership. A sociologist at the University of Maryland, Fisher started her research with the 2017 Women’s March and continued with six other major marches that also drew large turnouts in Washington, D.C., surveying a total of 1,929 randomly selected participants in these events. It is true, she reports, that people aren’t just marching and then going home and fading back into the woodwork. An impressive 58 percent of the Women’s March 2017 participants she surveyed reported contacting an elected official in the past year, and 40 percent of her survey pool reported attending a congressional town hall in the previous year.
Yet Fisher also finds that most of the marchers have no sense of membership in any of the national organizations backing these marches. Only about 20 percent reported hearing about these protests from an organization or being a member of a group that was part of the coalition sponsoring each event. Just a third of the people reported working with a local group, either a Democratic club or a community organization like Liberal Women of Chesterfield County or Organize Just Peace in Storrs Congregational Church.
While millions of Americans have marched in protest in hundreds of cities and small towns in the last three years, forms of digital organizing may have gotten in the way of a real revival of grassroots Democratic activism. Those millions of people are not for the most part joining local groups and reviving the party’s base. More often they are channeled by sophisticated algorithmic sorting tools into performing just-in-time acts of voter engagement with as little friction or social interaction as possible. There is a danger that, just as Facebook turned real friendship into a status update to be monetized, the national liberal-left email groups have turned real membership into a metric to be optimized.
Fisher’s previous book, Activism, Inc., described and decried the rise of a professionalized system of civic engagement on the left, which she saw play out in the presidential election of 2004. While the Bush-Cheney campaign tapped into existing networks of local conservatives, Kerry-Edwards relied on paid professionals and imported volunteers to try to win swing states. “The Democrats were laying sod while the Republicans were cultivating the grass,” she writes.
A new organization claims to be solving this problem: Indivisible, which took off in early 2017 after some Democratic congressional staffers led by Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg posted an online guide, suggesting that activists copy the Tea Party and form local groups to pressure their members of Congress. Appearing in the winter of Democratic despair, the Indivisible Guide was downloaded more than a million times and spawned the creation of somewhere between 4,600 and 6,000 groups, covering every congressional district in America. At first, Indivisible’s national presence was just a website, indivisibleguide.com, but it quickly grew a base, made up primarily of white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class women. As the first political fights of 2017 broke out—over issues like the repeal of Obamacare and Trump’s attack on the Dreamers—Indivisible members were at the center of the grassroots pushback. In 2018, Indivisible National reported more than $23 million in support and revenue, built up a staff of 70, and, through its many local affiliates, hosted thousands of in-person events.* Surely this is the antidote to resisting alone.
Many of Indivisible’s local leaders, however, fear that the national organization has lost touch, more focused on centralizing its power than seriously serving the groups that make up its base. As a participant myself in a local Indivisible group with several hundred active members (I helped start NYCD16-Indivisible, which is centered in Yonkers, New York) and a close observer of Indivisible National’s evolution, I’ve watched a complex dance play out between the top and bottom of Indivisible. At the very beginning, Levin, Greenberg, and their colleagues declared, “we are not starting an organization.” Soon, encouraged by the overwhelming response and tutored by veteran Democrats like the Democracy Alliance’s Gara LaMarche, they incorporated two organizations, the 501(c)(4) Indivisible Project and the 501(c)(3) Indivisible Civics.
As it has grown, Indivisible National has raised lots of money off of but given little to its local affiliates. It doesn’t even share email addresses with them. Three years into its existence, the organization only has 17 field staff to cover 50 states and thousands of groups, and it seems bent on making an endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary even though that will undermine many local Indivisible groups in red and purple districts, and potentially split those in blue areas. According to Indivisible National’s financial reports, the bulk of its money comes in as major gifts and foundation grants, despite a declared commitment to relying on small donations.
What is playing out here is something new on the Left: A group galvanized into existence by the internet has hundreds of thousands of people who really feel like members of something tangible. People who never fully understood they were a “member” of, say, MoveOn just because they got its emails now feel a visceral sense of ownership of their local group. Months and months of meeting face-to-face is producing a shared sensibility and a degree of assertiveness that is, in my opinion, new in the ecosystem since the rise of digital activism. Meanwhile, that same group has a national center that, understandably, has been trying to consolidate itself as the actual hub of something it inspired but never really controlled.
Not every national resistance group has attempted to centralize resources since the Trump election. Sister District was founded at the same time as Indivisible, with the aim of channeling volunteers from safe Democratic districts to swing seats in state legislative races. They have focused on building local teams, in part because their own internal research has found that belonging to a larger unit, where people invest in taking the time to get to know one another, dramatically increases a volunteer’s willingness to take on more responsibilities. Sister District has also committed to building long-term connections between sister groups, so volunteers aren’t just parachuting in to knock on doors at the last minute in a random place every two years, but increasing knowledge and trust with their local partners.
Color of Change, the nation’s biggest online advocacy organization for black Americans, has also started to concentrate on long-term local relationships. After years of primarily treating the 1.7 million activists on the group’s list as people to mobilize for petition-based pressure campaigns, in 2017 it began inviting members as well as newcomers to brunches or cookouts, where the only issue they asked them to tackle was how to increase “black joy.” So far, more than 40,000 people have participated. Enabling people to meet has allowed members to forge a sense of political community based on sharing sometimes intimate experiences. The group’s chief of campaigns, Arisha Hatch, described to me a young woman who attended a brunch in Texas, not long after her mother passed away. She regretted that she never learned to cook her recipes. The women at that table, Hatch says, “formed a group and started to get together monthly to do cooking classes.” Relationship-building doesn’t detract from tangible activism; all of the issues that Color of Change exists to confront come up very naturally when these local groups sit down to share a meal together.
What all of this comes down to is a maturing understanding of what the internet is good for, and the rising awareness of grassroots Democrats that the big, email-based groups alone aren’t necessarily working in their best interests. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever use the internet to organize rapidly. Marches and other mass actions matter, because, as Fisher shows, they can be the beginning of new identities. But organizing in place is more effective and longer-lasting than building a big list optimized for a few more clicks.
Like the coal miners and gay activists trying to survive in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, grassroots Democrats are largely on their own. All the more reason to learn again what past generations of organizers have always known: Solidarity is powerful, but there are no shortcuts to forging it.
* An earlier version of this article stated that Indivisible National raised more than $23 million. The figure of $23 million refers to their support and revenue for 2018.