On January 21, 2017, Michael Moore was projected on a giant screen against a white backdrop, asking a crowd of nearly half a million in Washington, D.C., once, twice, to repeat the phone number of the Congressional switchboard, so they could call their representatives.
“Two oh two! Two two five! Three one two one!” shouted Moore. “Now you do it! Go!”
Endless pink hats against a blue sky answered, getting a little fuzzier with each digit. Two oh two. Two something something…
On that day, the Women’s March became one of the largest of its kind in American history: As many as 5 million people turned out across the country to protest the election of Donald Trump as president, as well as the unified Republican government. The cause was just and the energy was electric, but it was obvious, looking at that screen, that the protesters’ tools to hold Congress accountable were painfully lacking. Moore spoke for 16 minutes about what to do next, following the march, and his on-ramp for direct action was a phone number with a D.C. area code.
Later on, Moore would call out resources like the Action Group Network and 100 Days of Resistance, early anti-Trump websites. He left out rapid-response tools from the party committees, the DNC and the DCCC, which, if they existed, had no reach and less trust. By the day of Moore’s speech, new groups like Swing Left — “find and commit to supporting progressives in your closest Swing District” — and Indivisible — “regular, iterative, and increasingly complex actions to resist the GOP’s agenda” — had appeared out of nowhere and gathered thousands of activists. But the DNC had no hotline.
That was a choice, not an accident. The question millions of protesters asked that day — “what comes next?” — is one the Democratic Party had neglected for at least a decade, when organizers let Obama for America’s 2 million-person army go to seed, mothballing its programs in a dark corner of the DNC and using its email list to sell coffee mugs.
In the 10 years since, it has become standard practice for Democratic campaigns to use the people and knowledge at their disposal to extract resources rather than build movements. The Wednesday after every election, failed candidates toss volunteer data in the dumpster, to be rebuilt from scratch by some other campaign the next time around. Campaign workers “burn” email lists of supporters for cash with endless, apocalyptic messages: “This is not a joke,” screamed one Obama email in 2012. “It’s officially over.”
“It has become standard practice for Democratic campaigns to use the people and knowledge at their disposal to extract resources rather than build movements.”
In this endless loop, candidates and committees abandon and rediscover the core knowledge that separates a campaign from a movement again and again — not just who answers their door on a canvas, but who the super-volunteers are, where to plug into local networks of support, who may be a good potential candidate next time around. In the process, they maroon the volunteers and activists behind that data without direction or support until election time, when they’re treated as commodities to be burned. “What comes next?” goes unanswered for months, even years.
Small wonder the army Obama mustered in 2008, disillusioned and unmotivated, didn’t stand up to the conservative counter assault in 2010. Or in 2014, the lowest-turnout election in 70 years. Or in 2016.
This was the legacy millions of protesters were fighting that day in January, as much, if not more than, the new president. Republicans had fought dirty, to be sure. But Democrats had sent their activists into the battle with a decade of neglect and a phone number.
And this was the legacy the groups of the nascent resistance would have to overturn first. It’s important to remember that the biggest new groups’ ideas were not new: Swing Left didn’t invent the idea of targeting swing districts; Indivisible didn’t invent grassroots organizing. (In fact, they credited the Tea Party as their model.)
It’s also important to remember that it worked. Swing Left alone knocked 5 million doors and made 2.5 million phone calls; it helped flip at least 47 seats on its target list, many, like Abigail Spanberger’s in VA-7, that would have gone the other way without the extra push. Flippable, another Resistance group, flipped 4 state legislatures and elected 79 candidates. Dozens of other groups, large and small, contributed to a Democratic popular vote margin that smashed the record set after Watergate. All the same, though, the lines of volunteers stretching around the block in places like NY-11 were new in scale, but not in substance.
What was truly novel — at least in recent decades — was not what these groups did, but how they did it. Where campaigns extracted resources from their volunteers, these groups invested in them, creating trainings and tools like Swing Left Academy and the Indivisible Guide. Where party committees scared money out of supporters, these groups fundraised with respect: Swing Left alone raised more than $10 million, simply by explaining where their supporters could make the greatest impact.
“This is the last fundraising email we’re sending you this year,” said one message on Halloween. It went on to explain that, from here on out, the best way to help was to volunteer. Swing Left kept its promise, sending no more fundraising emails before the election. And its members followed its advice, knocking 2 million doors that weekend.
Most important of all, where campaigns operated like the day after Election Day didn’t exist, these groups emphasized that their current work was part of an ongoing effort. Swing Left’s motto was “It starts with the House” — ending to be determined. Indivisible concluded in its viral training guide, “This is not a panacea, and it is not intended to stand alone.”
In short, both groups, and legions of others, put the connection between early organizing and long-term success at the center of their 2018 campaigns. They are already doing the same with 2020: In a recent conference call, Swing Left announced a transition from “take back the House” to “take back all the Houses” — state legislatures and the Senate, the White House and districts hamstrung by gerrymandering. Flippable has published a timeline for the next year of activism, while The Arena will build on its experience training candidates to train 1,000 campaign hands for 2020. Indivisible has already published two new guides: one for going on the offense in Congress, and one for activism at the state level.
The new mandates these groups are claiming are huge, sprawling, and ambitious. But what will transform them from a loose collection of ideas into a coherent strategy is treating each initiative as part of a whole: remembering that what’s gained in each race informs the next, and that what’s experienced by each activist helps or hurts the broader mission. It’s a campaign architecture predicated on long-term thinking, not short-term wins. One that frames the next election as the next step, not the end that justifies any means.
In a way, 2018 proved the blue wave never existed. No unknown mass of voters materialized out of nowhere to sweep Republicans out of power this November. The “wave” was meticulously crafted over years, and the people in it were well-known and well-trained, empowered, and respected. Campaigns and legacy committees hoping to ride it will need to learn the technique.
Ben Resnik writes and works at the intersection of politics and technology. He was Product Manager at Swing Left during the 2018 midterm elections, and is now a speechwriter at the firm West Wing Writers. Get in touch through his website, benresnik.com.