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May 15, 2021

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New political movement flips the script

'Indivisible' takes its cues from the conservative Tea Party

By , Columbian Political Writer
Published:
6 Photos
Geri Baer waves a sign reading "Trumpcare Kills Seniors" at a recent rally in Clark County. Several different Indivisible chapters coordinated their efforts and spread across Clark County, waving signs to show support for the Affordable Care Act.
Geri Baer waves a sign reading "Trumpcare Kills Seniors" at a recent rally in Clark County. Several different Indivisible chapters coordinated their efforts and spread across Clark County, waving signs to show support for the Affordable Care Act. (Natalie Behring for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

Their first meeting was on Inauguration Day.

Recruiting was done through social media and word-of-mouth. The plan was to meet at Shanahan’s Pub and Grill in Vancouver’s Hough neighborhood, but so many people showed up they had to re-evaluate. A custodian at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was in the group and within minutes the approximately 30 people relocated to the church hall.

Most didn’t know each other when they arrived. Many were new to political activism. All of them felt compelled to do something.

Two weeks later, their second meeting attracted 70 people. Today, they are known as Indivisible Greater Vancouver.

Their guide is a 26-page pamphlet titled “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.”

Since Donald Trump’s swearing-in as the 45th president of the United States, there’s been a surge in progressive groups sprouting up to resist his agenda. Many are concerned democracy as an institution is being threatened. In Clark County — typically considered a conservative region — there’s Camas Progressives, Critical Resistance Pacific Northwest, the Indivisible Downtown Vancouver group, the 18th Legislative District Democrats Indivisible, the North County Indivisible group, and the list goes on. They are hundreds strong and many follow the Indivisible pamphlet, which takes its cues from an unlikely source for progressives: the Tea Party.

Created by former Democratic congressional staff members as a practical guide to help the progressive movement deploy the effective strategies of the conservative Tea Party, their main mission is straightforward: to disrupt, to resist, to say no.

Chapter 1 of the Indivisible guide

How grass-roots advocacy worked to stop President Barack Obama.

The Tea Party had two key strategies. Strategy 1: The groups were relatively small, but they tracked Washington developments and coordinated advocacy efforts.

Last month, Janet Birgenheier, 65, a consultant and career coach, and other members of Indivisible Greater Vancouver managed to schedule a video conference call with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. They urged her to improve the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it. As the 15-minute call was wrapping up, Birgenheier pressed Herrera Beutler: Will the congresswoman commit to a face-to-face town hall meeting in Vancouver during the April congressional recess?

Birgenheier asked twice. She didn’t get a commitment, but she made her point.

Strategy 2: The Tea Party played defense. Members focused on their congressional representation. They showed up to their member of Congress’ town hall meetings and they demanded answers.

Although some of the more liberal-leaning groups have organically carved out focus areas — fighting to keep the Affordable Care Act intact or protesting Trump’s immigration ban — the guide dissuades those intent on wanting to try to set the agenda. The primary goal at this stage, it states, is to play defense and stop the Trump agenda.

“The hard truth of the next four years is that we’re not going to set the agenda; Trump and congressional Republicans will, and we’ll have to respond,” the guide states.

But the guide reassures, “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.”

Chapter 2 of the Indivisible guide

How your member of Congress thinks, and how to use that to save democracy.

Page 8: Constant re-election pressure means that members of Congress are sensitive to their image in the district or state, and will work hard to avoid signs of public dissent. Remember, every member of Congress wants the narrative to be, ‘My member of Congress cares about me, shares my values, and is working hard for me.’ Disrupting that narrative, the guide reads, could unnerve your member of Congress and change his or her decision-making process.

Indivisible advocates frequently hold Tuesday rallies in front of Herrera Beutler’s Vancouver office. Throughout the winter, crowds stood, often drenched by rain, hoisting signs picturing the congresswoman sporting a “Where’s Waldo?” striped shirt and hat with the words, “Where’s Jaime?”

Although Herrera Beutler has long faced scrutiny for not hosting more town halls, the pressure has intensified lately. The groups send out press releases after each rally and work to push their narrative: Herrera Beutler is not facing her constituents.

In addition to the rallies, they’ve written her letters. They regularly contact the media. They’ve tweeted. They’ve written editorials. A coalition of progressive groups, including those affiliated with the Indivisible movement, booked the 250-seat Foster Auditorium in Clark County and invited Herrera Beutler to attend a town hall.

When asked whether Herrera Beutler would attend, her spokeswoman, Amy Pennington, replied the congresswoman has “received several invitations to meet with folks and attend events throughout her district, and will give them consideration. She does plan to host another telephone town hall soon.”

Pennington confirmed Herrera Beutler’s office has noticed an uptick in political engagement — more calls and more emails.

“And Jaime welcomes folks’ input, ideas and concerns,” she said.

When Herrera Beutler announced the morning of the scheduled vote that she wouldn’t be supporting House Republicans’ proposed Affordable Care Act replacement bill, the Indivisibles declared victory.

Brandon Wick, 44, who works in marketing at the Linux Foundation and co-founded Camas Progressives, noted that despite years of saying she wanted to repeal the ACA, Herrera Beutler withdrew her support for the replacement bill.

“The pressure worked,” Wick wrote on his Facebook page. “Let’s enjoy this small victory and prepare for the next battle, and the one after that, and the one after that. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Birgenheier, with Indivisible Greater Vancouver, exclaimed it was the best possible news. “And yes, I do think the Indivisibles and her other constituents have influenced her,” Birgenheier said.

Pennington said, “Jaime always weighs the viewpoints of all those serves” when making a decision, adding the congresswoman spoke to many health care providers before making her decision.

Page 9 of the Indivisible guide: What to do if your member of Congress’ views align with your own?

The guide is blunt: don’t target members of Congress with whom you disagree but who don’t represent you; they don’t care. Instead, it says, members of Congress rarely hear from people who are happy and suggests sending notes of encouragement to your members if your views are aligned.

Lori Eidman, 55, of Camas, is part of the Critical Resistance PNW. She has been writing thank-you postcards to Washington’s Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Murray’s office has received about 700 thank-you cards since January with general thanks such as, “Keep up the good work,” and “Thank you for all you do,” according to her staff. Murray’s office estimates it’s about four times the amount of general thank-you notes received before January. Cantwell’s office also reported an uptick in thank-you notes.

A group of home-care workers rallied at Herrera Beutler’s office last week to show their gratitude for her decision to oppose the American Health Care Act.

Chapter 3 of the Indivisible guide

Organize a local group to fight for your congressional district.

On a recent Sunday, hundreds of people scattered across the 3rd Congressional District holding signs to support the Affordable Care Act.

One man’s sign read, “Trumpcare. Bad. Sick. Sad. Loser.” Another read, “Trumpcare kills seniors.”

Because so many different groups are forming, some suggested it would be wiser to join forces.

“The conclusion, for now, is merging has its own set of problems. It’s harder to get things done,” Janet Birgenheier said.

But they are building coalitions. The recent health care rally was their first countywide coordinated event and more are coming.

Nationwide, thousands of Indivisible chapters have been created. The guide, which started out as a Google document but now also has a website, has reportedly been downloaded a million times. The members are unpaid volunteers and there’s no central hub dictating their actions.

In Southwest Washington, many members of the local groups, so far anyway, are middle class, formally educated and a lot of them are white. Though many of them grew up in the 1960s, a significant number are participating in political activism for the first time.

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said political groups often start within a particular demographic. The 1960s wave of political activism started with college students, spread to their parents and then to the larger society, he said.

“Those that will be successful will become ‘big tent’ groups that combine into something that can make a political difference,” Moore said. “It is hard to do this.”

Carol Fischbach, 68, a registered nurse who lives in Orchards, said she’s never felt “so angry.”

John DiBella, 50, of Salmon Creek, a semi-retired attorney, was prompted to engage for the first time, because: “This is an attack on democracy; on our press, on our judiciary, just to name a few.”

Betsy Porter of Vancouver, 53, a fiction writer, joined an Indivisible group in January.

She expressed a “deep discomfort with the Trump agenda.”

“And also just recognizing, on a more positive note, we all have to really get involved in democracy and the Trump election spurred me to think if we want things to be different we have to play a role in creating the society we want to see,” Porter said.

Wick, of Camas Progressives, echoed many when he said, “Post-election I was feeling a lot of concerns and a lot of uncertainty and a lot of despair. I’ve never been politically active before, especially at a local level, and I got tired of feeling powerless and depressed and wanted to do something in a cathartic way to make a difference and effect positive change.”

Christian Berrigan, a local conservative activist with Tea Party ties, isn’t convinced the Indivisible movement can emulate the grass-roots effort of the Tea Party. In part, he said, it’s because they are using a template the Tea Party inadvertently created.

“They are operating under the false premise that they think the strategy of the Tea Party was all planned and orchestrated. What they don’t have that the Tea Party did have, was, honest to God, the Tea Party was a spontaneous, organic thing,” Berrigan said. “At the time the concern was the Tea Party was disorganized, but it was a movement. It was organic. The Indivisible people don’t have that dynamic by intention.”

But Berrigan, who played a key role in moving the Clark County Republican Party to the right, said his advice to grass-roots progressives would be to keep their effort sincere.

“If they show up to town halls and shut down discussions and not let people talk, they are going to lose. It isn’t effective,” he said.

Herrera Beutler was constantly interrupted during a January town hall she held.

“But if they show up at a town hall and ask intelligent conversations, instead of screaming, they would be more effective,” Berrigan said. “I shouldn’t advise the opposition, but it would be a lot more pleasant and we would get more work done.”

Berrigan said he also felt like the Tea Party was also about more than playing defense.

“It was about (not) spending money,” he said of the budget hawk fiscal movement. “It was about fixing the economy.”

Chapter 4 of the Indivisible guide

Four local advocacy tactics that actually work.

1) Attend town halls to direct pressure and attract media to your cause:

Check.

2) Attend other public events, such as parades or groundbreakings — other places to get face time with your members of Congress:

It’s on the list, but hasn’t been relevant yet. Around here, these sorts of events more often take place in the late spring and summer, when the weather is better.

3) Make district office visits:

Check.

4) Make coordinated calls:

Check.

The guide ends at Chapter 4.

But if the Indivisible groups succeed and become truly relevant to local politics, their work will be evident next year.

“These groups are an interesting social phenomenon now,” said Jim Moore, the political scientist. “They will not truly become political groups until we see if they can move voters in the 2018 elections.

“Turnout of their supporters, as well as convincing others to turn out, will be the key. Thus, their challenge — it is a long time until November 2018. Can they keep their groups together in politically significant ways until then?”

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