By Ezra Levin, Indivisible co-founder
There’s no better time for my monthly newsletter than immediately after the highest-stakes congressional fight of the year. At Indivisible, we’re always learning and growing, so for this newsletter, I want to do a quick postmortem and take in some of your thoughts about what did or didn’t work during this MAGA Default Crisis fight.
Before I get there though, one follow-up from last month’s survey question about how to make this newsletter work better for you: The most requested change (and it wasn’t close) was the addition of a short, simple summary. So I’ll bow to public will and start with the three main takeaways:
- We made it through alive, but not unscathed. We took some hits, but we survived the hostage negotiation. It wasn’t pretty, but the national economy did not implode, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were not touched, and there were no teacher cuts, veterans cuts, or big new tax cuts for rich GOP donors. It wasn’t a clean debt ceiling bill though — the GOP, Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema supported some bad concessions.
- Inside-outside organizing was essential. Outside grassroots pressure opened up space for our side to play hardball in negotiations. McCarthy repeatedly conceded to pressure to abandon his demands, and the result was that our side largely — though not entirely — won the fight. I cannot overemphasize the critical role of active Indivisible leaders working hand-in-glove with their organizers on our national campaigns teams. We heard it directly from our allies in the White House and Congress — outside pressure made the difference.
- Calling bluffs and fighting back works. As we head into the coming legislative fights of the year, let’s take the right lessons from this fight. Fighting back worked. Calling bluffs worked. Bucking up our allies, and focusing public pressure on the most vulnerable members of the GOP worked.
For those who want more details or more baby pics (the second-most common request!), read on.
How we fought this fight
Since we beat the odds in the 2022 midterms, I’ve been clear on what our goals are for the next two years: I want to see Indivisible hold down the harm done by the MAGA House, hold those MAGA members accountable, and retake power so we can reform the filibuster, codify Roe, and pass democracy reform. That’s what gets me up each morning.
This MAGA default fight was about harm mitigation and accountability — and that’s what we did. Specifically, we focused on three strategies:
- Weaponize MAGA extremism against the GOP.
- Keep Democrats unified to fight back.
- Limit the harm done from concessions.
I’d argue that the Indivisible movement did a fantastic job on all three fronts. Let’s review.
Weaponize MAGA extremism against the GOP? Check. We had constituent-led, media-attention-attracting events in almost all of the vulnerable GOP districts. Indivisible leaders from California to Arizona to New York showed up in force to apply public pressure to these GOP members. During our week of action we saw 176 events, hundreds of letters to the editor, and uncountable numbers of calls to congressional offices, disproportionately in these districts. If you look around at who was getting press over the last month in local papers around the country, it was local Indivisible leaders. We showed up. Loudly. And Congress was forced to listen.
Keep Dems unified? Check. Our big fear here was that some group of conservative Dems — like those in Problem Causers Caucus — would link arms with Republicans in order to pressure Biden to accept more GOP demands. Indivisible leaders in dozens of blue and purple districts held events cheering on our Dem allies and encouraging them to fight back. While bad actors like Manchin snuck some bad stuff into the final agreement (most egregiously, a terrible new pipeline project), there was no coordinated Dem insurgency. Every single Dem joined the discharge petition to put pressure on vulnerable Republicans and take away leverage from McCarthy. We were largely unified in this fight, which provided maximum leverage to Biden in the negotiation.
Limit harm from concessions? Check. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some bad stuff in this bill. This isn’t a “clean” debt ceiling bill. It includes a dirty deal for a dirty pipeline (championed by Manchin), modest but cruel cuts to welfare, a two-year cap on spending for essential popular programs. There’s a reason many of our friends in the House Progressive Caucus voted against it, along with some of our Senate heroes like Elizabeth Warren (though not a single one of them threatened default like the MAGAs).
Eliminate the harm? Unfortunately, no. But mitigate we did. Remember where we started at the beginning of the year. First, Republicans wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare. We protested them and Biden boxed them in at the State of the Union. They dropped the demand. Then the Republicans wanted to cut Medicaid for kids with disabilities and eliminate 100,000 teachers’ jobs, among other ridiculous cuts. We protested them and Biden flatly said no. They dropped those demands too. In the end, they extracted some modest concessions — more than face-saving but not much more.
Some historical context for the power of inside-outside organizing
I was a House staffer for a progressive Member of Congress when Republicans plotted the last debt ceiling hostage negotiation in 2011. Similarly at that time, we had the Presidency and the Senate, but not the House. But we got fleeced. Massive cuts. A decade-long commitment to austerity that slowed the recovery from the Great Recession. While the deal has largely been forgotten, it is arguably the greatest legislative blunder of the Obama era. The proto-MAGAs at the time — known then as the Tea Party — were triumphant. This time around, the MAGAs are incensed — threatening mutiny within the GOP! They lost and they know it.
Why? Why was 2023 different from 2011?
Back then we didn’t have a massive movement of people applying pressure and getting local attention. There wasn’t a sophisticated, organized force on the ground that weaponized the extremism of the Tea Party against the rest of the GOP. There were no local events or waves of constituent-led, earned media protesting GOP recklessness.
Indivisible didn’t exist in 2011. But in 2023, local Indivisible groups held events all across the country, including in frontliner Dem and vulnerable Republican districts during the climactic moment of this fight. Every week, in our meetings with the White House and congressional leadership, we gave readouts of what local Indivisible groups were doing in rural California, in upstate New York, in the suburbs of Phoenix. Repeatedly we heard the same thing — as Vice President Harris said, “Organize, activate our communities and remind folks of what’s at stake.” Time and time again we heard from our allies at the White House and in congressional leadership: Get your people out there and make some noise. That’s what Indivisible did.
As a movement, we started preparing for the coming crisis on the national default months ago — long before it was dominating the headlines. Back in March, I was talking to you all about how this was “The worst thing MAGAs might do that nobody’s talking about.” We knew we couldn’t wait for the press to pay attention — because by then it’d be too late.
We had to organize.
Indivisible worked with national partners on message testing and held trainings for local leaders to make the most impactful arguments to their neighbors. We wrote up explainers (If you google “discharge petition,” Indivisible’s own resource is the first to come up after the official House of Representatives site). We worked with our organizers to disseminate our messaging, strategies, and tactics to Indivisible leaders in the turf. We sent swag and signs and other support all around the country to support local events.
And Indivisibles SHOWED UP IN FORCE. 176 local events all over the country. Of the 18 Biden-won districts represented by a Republican, local Indivisible groups orchestrated local, media-earning events in 14 of them. I can’t list all the press we got, but here’s a smattering:
- Rep. Fitzpatrick (PA-01): Rallies Across Bucks To Protest “National MAGA Default Crisis”
- Rep: Lawler (NY-17): Veterans rally against potential VA funding cuts amid debt ceiling negotiations
- Rep. Williams (NY-22): Residents protest against Williams’ vote on Limit, Save, Grow Act
- Rep. Molinaro (NY-19): Protestors gather in front of Molinaro’s office over debt-ceiling concerns
For Indivisible, this wasn’t a superficial effort or just about flashy spectacle. When we show up to a fight, it’s not about sending an email, posting a tweet, or pushing a petition. We show up in person, on the ground, everywhere. 176 events. Dozens of local press hits. Countless letters to the editor. Untold number of calls into Congress — to Democrats to encourage them to keep up the fight; and to Republicans to weaken their resolve.
“Organize, activate our communities and remind folks of what’s at stake,” as the Vice President encouraged. We did. And it worked.
A note on bragging
Am I bragging? Sure, maybe, yeah. There are few things I love more than bragging about the Indivisible leaders around the country that are doing the real, hard work of fighting MAGA and saving democracy. But this isn’t just for show. And you’ll note that there’s no fundraising request in this email. I’m actually bragging for…strategic reasons — and I encourage you to do the same.
For those of us engaged in the long, hard slog of fighting for our democracy, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with anger at the cruel and grotesque displays from the MAGAs. It’s tempting to see Manchin’s successful demands for a dirty pipeline and throw up our hands in disgust. It’s reasonable to look at concessions — mitigated as they are — and decide the whole system is just rotten to the core. But it’s dangerous to believe that nothing we do can make a difference — that absolves us from having to do anything. MAGA is the enemy — but the most pernicious threat we face is dejection, disillusionment, and despair.
That’s why when we have an impact, we CELEBRATE our power. Acknowledging, celebrating, and, yes, bragging about that impact drives us towards continued impact in the future. And I can tell you right now: The MAGAs are gearing up for another fight this fall over the September 30th government funding deadline. They’ll threaten a government shutdown. They’ll try to extract more cruel and painful cuts. And unless there is an organized, countervailing grassroots movement pushing back, MAGA will get its way.
I am not willing to accept that. So I embrace our partial victory this time around, warts and all. I am proud of this slight disappointment of a legislative compromise. I am energized by our success in sidelining the worst of MAGA. “It could have been worse!” I yell proudly — because it could have been, and would have been without us. Better is better, and we made it better.
In a political world that wants to ignore you, diminish you, convince you that you’re powerless, bragging about what you’ve accomplished is one the most effective, rebellious, forward-looking acts of civic engagement in your democratic arsenal.
Damn right I’m bragging. We should all be bragging.
PS: And as always, it’s baby picture time. Some more bragging: It’s a somewhat idyllic time in the Levin-Greenberg household. Lila just turned 10 weeks old this month, and she has really been putting in the tummy time work — the doctor says she has the neck strength of a 4-month-old. And meanwhile, Zeke’s obsession with dinosaurs knows no bounds — at this point he knows the names of approximately 50 different dinosaurs and will happily tutor you on the subtle differences between the T. Rex, Carnotaurus, and Albertosaurus, or correct your pronunciation of Ankylosaurus.