In our binary political system, when your party is out of power, it can feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness. Or worse. Since the 2016 presidential election, for some it’s been much worse.
On election night, “I went to a Hillary celebration party, and it crushed my world,” says retired architect Lorri Sipes.
“All of a sudden I realized that for years we’ve been losing our democracy,” says retired U-M nurse Sue Hadden. “And democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Michigan Creative account manager Hilary Robinson was “completely astonished by the results of the election” and “despondent and frustrated with the whole political system. I just felt I had to get involved in something to make a difference in the future.”
Robinson and many others–most without significant political experience–found it in Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Posted online by a group of former Democratic congressional staffers after the election, it urged progressives to adopt the tactics employed by the Tea Party against the Obama administration, including phoning their members of Congress, visiting their offices, harassing them at town halls, and calling them out at public events.
“Indivisible” groups inspired by the guide soon popped up in Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Saline. And though its Washington authors wrote only about influencing Congress, many dove into state politics, too.
In 2018, the new activists helped elect three Democratic women to the state’s top posts–governor Gretchen Whitmer, attorney general Dana Nessel, and secretary of state Jocelyn Benson–while shrinking the Republican majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Michigan house and senate. Sipes, among many others, signed on with Voters Not Politicians (VNP), the upstart grassroots group that led a campaign for a statewide ballot proposal that would end partisan gerrymandering of state house and senate and U.S. house districts. It passed with a 61 percent “yes” vote in 2018. Others helped push through another ballot proposal that made it easier for Michigan residents to register and vote. Now they’re fervently campaigning for local candidates, pushing for more progressive policies–and hoping to make Trump a one-term president on November 3.
Indivisible We Resist
“I was inspired by the simple strategies laid out by Capitol Hill staffers,” emails Katy Mattingly, who helped start Ann Arbor Indivisible in December 2016. In February 2017, she hosted a meeting at Sunward Cohousing in Scio Township.
Carrie Hatcher-Kay, co-chair of UUCivs–formerly UU Indivisible, based in the local First Unitarian Universalist Congregation–was at that meeting. So was Marcel Santiz, who says he showed up with “zero” prior political experience–but as one of two Saline attendees immediately became a leader of Saline Indivisible.
Even longtime activists Barry and Laura Nathan–who’ve protested together since they were college students–were overwhelmed at the response. People who were there estimate the turnout at 400 or more fired-up folks.
“I heard a voice move deep within that [said], ‘We can do this, we’ve got to do this, and people want to do this,'” remembers Hatcher-Kay. “We just needed a framework to do it together.”
Hadden is on the steering committee of another group, A2D2, along with Robinson, Terri Voepel-Lewis, the Nathans, and several others. The name originally stood for Ann Arbor inDivisible for Democrats, but they soon changed it to Ann Arbor inDivisible for Democracy.
“We hadn’t really been involved in the Democratic Party,” Hadden explains, “and we quickly learned there were things about the party that we struggled with.”
But as A2D2 began to work more closely with Ann Arbor Indivisible, Hadden says, it became clear that AAI was “more confrontational” with Democrats than her group found comfortable.
The Indivisible Guide tells readers to lobby only their own congresspeople, which for most Ann Arbories meant Democratic representative Debbie Dingell and Michigan’s two Democratic senators. Hadden thought that was counterproductive when so many Republicans like Tim Walberg (who represents areas north and west of the city) “really needed harassing.”
Mattingly emails that she was “dismayed by the intense resistance to following the Indivisible Guide. There’s a lot of class and race privilege in Ann Arbor. Well-off white people didn’t want to pressure the Dems about anything … They just wanted to trust their politicians to handle it.”
But Hadden says her group “didn’t want to be like the Tea Party. We’ve resisted Republicans but have focused on educating about local issues and learning about how we could make a difference. If we disagree with our legislators, we call and ask why, but we’re not in their faces.”
“People were going berserk after the election,” says longtime local entrepreneur Chuck Newman. Before the local Indivisible groups coalesced, he recalls thinking, “I’ve got to do something about this.” He “called around” briefly to find out what other people were doing before he realized: “I’m an entrepreneur. I should be one in this, too.”
Newman formed Protectors of Equality in Government (PEG). With its robust website filled with news and event information–along with a weekly e-newsletter that has distributed more than 180 issues to more than 7,000 recipients–PEG has served as a hub for taking action on everything from registering new voters to lobbying for legislation that would permit county clerks to count absentee ballots before the polls close.
“When you do something like this, there’s a huge learning curve,” Hadden says–especially with so many newcomers to activism. PEG has helped enormously, as has SWIM (Statewide Indivisible Michigan), WeROC (Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition), and the Washtenaw Dems, among other local and statewide organizations.
Much of the real work of activism is far from glamorous. Canvassing, door-knocking, literature dropping, tag hanging, and just showing up–at marches and rallies and fairs and festivals and sporting events and hearings and meetings and town halls.
When the pandemic pushed Michigan residents into isolation, much of the action morphed into emailing, phone and text banking, and letter writing–though as the marathon officially became a sprint after Labor Day, activists are again coming in closer contact with those they hope to sway as they drop off literature and hang tags on doorknobs. Some drops are neutral get-out-the-vote efforts, while others feature progressive candidates’ literature and the Michigan Democratic Party’s voter guide.
None of this is easy. And it comes naturally to almost no one–which is why most groups hold training sessions on a wide variety of communications skills.
Voepel-Lewis describes most of A2D2’s work as educational. Their “resistance mantra” is: “Know what’s going on at the capital, get involved in everything at the state level, and make calls!”
But for many people, calling your representative “can be terrifying,” says Hatcher-Kay. Though the UUCivs are nonpartisan, she’s also active in a partisan group, the A2 Citizens Pod. One of her “pod mates,” Stephanie Rowden, devised a training called “Phone Activism for Introverts”–which they advertised with the headline, “Would you rather clean your bathroom than call a senator?”
Rachel Tocco, an Indivisible Dexter leader who considers herself an introvert, independently organized her own Activism for Introverts training. It’s worked for her: “I’ve knocked doors, collected signatures. These are all things I’d never done before.”
Activism as Therapy
“Our group is really about maintaining morale,” Tocco says. Having forged new bonds of friendship, her members have “come to rely on each other in what has been a really crazy and chaotic time.”
Hatcher-Kay, a trauma therapist, says she’s realized how important it was for her to connect with others, and to recognize “the grief and the shock and the anger” she felt at her country’s political turn. “To reduce the risk of PTSD–literally–I wanted to be part of taking action.”
“I feel like we’re in the fight of our lives,” Laura Nathan says. “It’s very emotional and energy-consuming … By doing this and taking action, it’s a great antidote to fear and depression.”
Local Indivisibles–led by SWIM and the Michigan House Democratic Caucus–are now engaged in a “Flip the House” effort to elect the four additional state reps needed for Democrats to take control in the state house.
“There’s a ‘trickle down’ effect on the ballot but also a ‘bubble up,'” says Laura Nathan. “That’s why it’s so important to get involved in hyper-local stuff.”
Ann Arbor Township clerk Rena Basch does not engage in partisan campaigns. But she says that even before 2016, she’d been searching for nonpartisan methods to address long-term systemic issues such as gerrymandering. When she “stumbled upon” Voters Not Politicians, “they immediately gave me a job to do, and I started doing it.” She quickly rose through the volunteer ranks to become VNP’s head of community engagement.
The group’s campaign against gerrymandering “really was the baby of a whole new group of activists,” Basch says. “People didn’t think we were going to succeed because we had no institutional knowledge or experience.” But the Indivisibles were eager to help. “It was very easy to just hand them the clipboard, and they went out and did it,” Basch says. “I loved working with them.”
In It to Win It
As the deadline looms for accomplishing Indivisible’s main mission, nerves are fraying.
“This is consuming my life,” Newman says. “This is critical. If we’re not successful in November, it’s going to be a catastrophe.”
“Democracy hangs in the balance, and I am not confident we are going to win,” Barry Nathan says. But he remains hopeful that “the grassroots movement will result in an overwhelming response.”
“I am not at all hopeful,” Mattingly emails. “Republicans are smartly and successfully using the tools of totalitarianism to confuse and divide us. They are benefiting from the terror induced by COVID, the police, and militia killings of activists. It’s hard to fight back when you’re terrified.”
But win, lose, or draw, most Indivisibles say they’re in it to stay. Voepel-Lewis, Robinson, and Hadden all view ranked-choice voting as the next likely initiative to pursue. By enabling voters to indicate their next-favorite candidates if their first choice is eliminated, it could make politics less binary.
“I’m an activist for life,” Basch says. “I will never be silent again.” She notes that volunteers have been engaged since the onset of the pandemic in phone and text banking to inform Michigan residents about how to register, obtain mail-in ballots, and exercise their right to vote.
But with the USPS under siege, and rampant concern about voter suppression, will all votes even be counted? “I will remain concerned until all results are certified,” Newman says.