5-year anniversary edition!
By Ezra Levin, Indivisible co-founder
Five years ago, Leah and I were making final tweaks to the Indivisible Guide, which I then tweeted out after work a few days later while eating some memorably delicious tortilla soup at our kitchen table (see our first-ever news coverage back then for a trip down memory lane). So for our final newsletter of 2021, I want to reflect on what’s in Indivisible’s DNA, and what it means for this moment when we’re fighting for immediate democracy reforms while bracing ourselves against the rising tide of authoritarianism in America. This is a story about political despair, hope, and power. I’ll reward you with a couple new pics of our 14-month-old Zeke if you make it to the end!
Indivisible leaders are light in the dark
Let’s start with where Indivisible started at a particularly dark time in American history. We faced a Trump-led trifecta in D.C. and Republican gains across the country. Incoming Republican leaders were pointing to the World War 2 Japanese internment camps as a guide for future policy (“Trump Camp’s Talk of Registry and Japanese Internment Raises Muslims’ Fears”). The incoming Speaker of the House was promising to remake the country in Trump’s image (“Paul Ryan: Now time to ‘go big, go bold’”). Leaders in the Democratic Party prioritized finding common ground with this authoritarian movement (Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align With Trump). We seemed to be living through a real-life enactment of that poem all high schoolers are forced to read, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But as dark as that moment was, we also had us. In blue, purple, and red districts around the country, we reached out and found each other. And when we pulled ourselves together, we found that there were more of us than there were of them — and through our collective will we could actually change what was politically possible. In this dark period of our history, we didn’t have Amanda Gorman’s words yet, but we viscerally felt what the poet laureate would describe in her 2021 inaugural poem: “[T]here is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
“Being the light” is a good description of what I’ve seen Indivisible leaders do all around the country for the last half a decade. We’ve taken on hard battles that we weren’t guaranteed to win but that we knew were right and necessary — defending the Affordable Care Act, building a blue wave in 2018 to take the House, defeating the incumbent president, and securing a Democratic trifecta. This young movement has brought quite a bit of light to our political world these past few years.
The problem with political despair
Just because we’ve notched some big wins doesn’t mean that it’s easy or automatic for Indivisible leaders or anyone else to keep “being the light” — it takes effort, a lot of effort. A couple of weeks ago, the ever-insightful Michelle Goldberg wrote The Problem of Political Despair, describing the problem as her sense and fear that many previously-engaged folks are giving up and tuning out. Trump is out of office, Congress is in its lethargic slog, and the GOP continues to fall down that ideological cliff it jumped off years ago. The filibuster. Manchin and Sinema. The lack of legislative momentum. The voter suppression. The gerrymandering. The looming threat of a coup in 2024. It’s so much. It’s too much. Why engage? What does it even matter if we do?
The problem with political despair is that it’s easy, alluring, and self-defeating. None of us wants to be a sucker, and nobody wants to waste their time. Cynicism can feel smart and reasonable, and it absolves us from responsibility or blame for the fires consuming our society. Not your problem anymore! You can watch Succession or Ted Lasso and live your own damn life! But of course, it’s also self-defeating — the other side, the anti-democracy authoritarians like McConnell and Trump, triumph when we give in to despair.
So what are we to do?
The answer to despair isn’t hope; it’s power
In the five years we’ve been organizing for democracy, here’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned: political despair doesn’t come from the challenges we face — it comes from feeling powerless to do anything about the challenges we face. The central task for all of us organizing within Indivisible is not to convince folks that things are OK; or that winning is as simple as signing a petition; or even that everyone should feel hopeful. The central task for a pro-democracy organizer is to identify what folks can actually do, and then give them a sense of their power to affect real-world change.
The title of the Indivisible Guide hit on that — it was a “practical” guide. This wasn’t some sort of philosophical essay on democracy — it was step-by-step instructions on building and applying national political power at the local level. The goal of that original Google Doc and the goal of Indivisible ever since then has been to look squarely at the problem, critically evaluate what is in our power to do that is worth a damn, and then translate that into actionable guidance for real people.
Five years ago, I didn’t know for sure that we would succeed in saving the Affordable Care Act, winning back congress, or defeating the incumbent president. But I believed that an engaged group of active leaders across the country could affect the outcome of these fights. And I had an idea of some specific strategies and tactics that would allow them to do that. The hope that came from that Guide and the organizing that followed was a product of newly-minted local leaders accepting, applying, and building their own personal and collective political power.
What that means for where we go next
Will we pass the Build Back Better bill before the end of the year? Will we amend the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act? Will pro-democracy forces survive the midterms? Will we avert a coup in 2024? Will we safeguard our republic thereafter? Will we overcome the challenges of gerrymandering, voter suppression, election subversion, and political violence?
I’m not here to tell you the future, and you shouldn’t trust anybody who claims to know how this will turn out.
But five years into this movement for democracy, I know that there are still more of us than there are of them. I know that we can still be the light. And I believe that an engaged group of leaders throughout the country can influence the course of our democracy — because I’ve seen it happen these past five years. I’ve seen an entire national political system bend to the will of an organized and fired-up constituency with a clear demand — again and again and again.
Here’s something I can predict with confidence. Our opponents will change, our challenges will shift, and our strategies and tactics will have to evolve. This is easy to predict because it’s characterized the Indivisible movement since our founding.
We started with a simple guide to congressional advocacy. Since then, we pressured our own elected, we registered voters, we set up community aid drives, we designed billboards, we held meetings in bars and church basements, we scheduled guest speakers, we ran and attended trainings on racial equity and inclusion, we shared recipes, we fundraised for candidates, we cajoled our friends, we hounded our opponents, we wrote millions of postcards, we sent millions of texts, we endorsed candidates, we ran debates, we ran for office, we stepped up, we recruited new leaders, we stepped back, we lost, we drank, we took a break, we rejoined, we won, we celebrated, we built communities, we built power.
This is the creative, persistent, locally-led, and ever-evolving Indivisible movement that I have been so proud to be a part of this last half-decade. When we were finishing up the Google Doc back then, I hoped someone might read it and find it useful. I did not dream that you all would take 23 pages of poorly copyedited text and turn it into a nationwide movement that would give me hope for our democracy. But here we are, still standing Indivisible, still changing the course of history together, come what may.
PS: You made it to the end! As promised, here’s Zeke at just about 14 months. He is confidently toddling his way around town now, exploring the world with an enthusiasm and adventurous spirit that brings Leah and me so much joy every day.