Although Trump’s assumption of power has been characterized by miscues and mistakes, it has succeeded admirably in one area: energizing and mobilizing those who oppose him. The harsh reality of “President Donald Trump,” delivered in hourly tweets, has served like nothing else to solidify the scattered progressives and liberals in Acadiana and across America and propel them into action. While these activists have been disparaged as paid, shrill, undisciplined, unreasonable and (in some cases) unwashed, naysayers should keep in mind the successes of the Tea Party movement that began in 2009, shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The Tea Party emerged at a time when Democrats had just won a historic victory and controlled all three branches of government, including the Senate by (what was soon to be) a filibuster-proof majority. Numerous articles speculated about the looming irrelevancy of the Republican Party in multi-cultural America. How quaint those articles seem today. What the Tea Party did was historic: It brought Obama’s vision of an era of “hope and change” to an end by focusing popular fury on what was (portrayed as) ineffective and wasteful stimulus plans, unsustainable debt, unwarranted bailouts for banks, car companies and homeowners, and, above all, a further expansion of the federal government as epitomized by the 2,700 pages of the enormously complicated Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This wave of popular activism was so successful that it nearly swept the Democrats entirely from power. Republicans won 63 seats in the House in the 2010 midterm elections to end the Democratic majority in the House. They also took 29 governors’ mansions and nearly regained control of the Senate.
The Tea Party revolt harassed then-Speaker John Boehner and blocked business as usual in both the House and Senate, eventually remaking the Republican caucus in Congress in its own much more conservative and confrontational image. Democrats never regained their momentum and have been on the defensive for the last six years, despite Obama winning the presidency again in 2012.
Taking the Tea Party lesson to heart, progressive activists have begun to join and mobilize like never before.
Here in Acadiana, a number of new organizations and groups opposed to the Trump agenda have been created, and some previously existing organizations have refocused their attention. Some of these groups are local chapters of well-known national organizations like Indivisible and Pantsuit Nation. Some prefer to remain secret for strategic reasons. While some groups predate Trump, most have emerged since the Nov. 8 election. All are strongly opposed to the announced goals of the Trump administration: building the wall, deporting immigrants and banning Muslims, ending “sanctuary cities,” withdrawing from or renegotiating treaties, cutting taxes and environmental protections, and repealing Obamacare.
I spoke to several of these activists and found them eager to talk about their efforts. A volunteer with Indivisible Acadiana says he is “dismayed by what I see as a completely unethical president.” While his previous activism was limited to “ranting on Facebook,” he decided that “was futile … all it was doing was making me angry….I had to do something, I couldn’t just sit there and watch it happen.” Similarly, another activist says, “I just can’t post on Facebook or sign petitions anymore. I don’t like being in public or [being] a leader, but I also didn’t want to turn down the opportunity without giving it a try.” Says
another, “I have been quiet long enough. I will not be quiet any longer.”
What unites these activists is the desire to preserve gains in health care, marriage equality, the environment and the economy, all achieved under Obama. Their goals are “of a defensive nature, to stop legislation that reduces people’s privacy, or removes their health care, or limits their rights.”
What does this new wave of Democratic and progressive activism portend for state and national politics? Well, for one thing it signals the end of comfortable press conferences and town meetings for elected Republican officials, as Sen. Bill Cassidy is learning. Using lessons borrowed nearly in their entirety from the Tea Party playbook, activists are targeting members of Congress by swamping their offices with letters, emails and phone calls, and packing the rooms anywhere they try to speak in their district. Nationally, activists are encouraged to contribute to groups that oppose the Trump agenda through lawsuits, regulatory appeal and ethics investigations. Together these activities constitute a repertoire of powerful protest strategies.
Even if the protests and activism are not immediately successful, what choice do progressives have in Donald Trump’s America? As one says, “If you read those old comic books, sometimes I think I’m in Bizzaro World.”
They may not have long to wait: On average, 37 seats in the House shift in a mid-term election when a president’s approval rating is less than 50 percent. Trump’s most recent approval rating is 38 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, which should encourage progressives everywhere. In addition, studies of the Tea Party movement have shown that rallies and demonstrations have a “multiplier effect.” That is, for each additional protester, the GOP received between seven and 14 additional votes in the 2010 midterms, noted the public policy blog AEIdeas in 2013.
So maybe activism is its own reward? Stay tuned for 2018.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected]