Up until the 2016 election, Brandi Calvert, a real estate agent in Wichita, Kansas, hadn’t gotten involved in national politics. She dutifully voted in presidential cycles, and had liberal leanings, but wasn’t affiliated with either party. “I’ve always been very involved in [my son’s] school, a small-town school right outside of Wichita — did a lot of organizing for class field trips or parties, but nothing political up until the election,” she said.
Since Calvert, now 36, was a little girl, she had admired Hillary Clinton, and was among the sliver of the electorate who backed her enthusiastically. “I spent a good two weeks in mourning, angry and crying,” she said, describing the same stages of grief that marked the post-election lives of millions of liberals around the country.
Then she heard about the Women’s March in Washington and started looking into ways to make the trip happen. “Ultimately, I thought, if I went to Washington it would be an incredible experience, but it wouldn’t change anything here,” she said. “In Kansas, unfortunately and somewhat fortunately, we already know what America is in for under the Trump administration” — a reference to the conservative domination of state government. “So I thought maybe in this very dark situation, we could be ahead of the curve. I decided I was going to try to organize a Women’s March by myself.”
Nothing like that had happened in decades in Wichita. Calvert said her friends and family chuckled at the prospect of her doing political organizing. “I got laughed at quite a bit,” she said. “I was prepared, 20 or 30 women would show.”
That spark in Calvert was just one of millions like it lit by the election of President Donald Trump. And the new political force Trump uncorked may become the most lasting legacy of his presidency.
That the American people are disengaged from politics is a commonly held piece of conventional wisdom, and one that has plenty of evidence over the years to back it up. Turnout for midterm and special elections is anemic. Most people can’t name their member of Congress, let alone who represents them in the state legislature. Supreme Court Justice pop quiz? Forget about it.
Broaden the definition of politics just slightly, however, and the American people are deeply involved. If politics is thought of as engaging with a local or national community toward a specific goal, there may be no country on earth with a more engaged citizenry. It was, indeed, the very thing that blew away Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840s when he traveled the United States and did the research that resulted in his defining treatise, “Democracy in America.”
“Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations,” he wrote in one of his most famous passages. “They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”
An aristocrat, Tocqueville’s purpose was to make a case to his elite countrymen back home in France that they ought to be doing the same as a buffer against the rapidly expanding power of the French Republic. “I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion,” he wrote, “and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”
Another contemporary American, Lauren Park, at first described her pre-2017 community engagement as non-political. She helped fundraise for local schools, she said in an interview with The Intercept, and joined the board of an autism society after her son’s diagnosis. For six years, she was on the board of the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center.
Park and Calvert, in working with local schools and other community groups, are part of that civic body Tocqueville witnessed, a body that also includes the neighborhood book club, the potluck dinner, and the fundraiser for this or that cause. There’s volunteer work, cures to be raced for, nonprofit boards to join, and awareness to be raised. In authoritarian societies, these free associations are surveilled or suppressed, no matter how innocuous the cause, because power resides in the mere act of organizing.
There’s so much of this sort of activism Tocqueville witnessed still around today that one element of it, neighborhood preservation, has earned its own moniker. A NIMBY — not in my backyard — is a local activist who organizes her neighborhood in a battle against the city, the state, a school, the federal government, or a business that wants to build or demolish something in the local area. There may be little sympathy for the typical NIMBY activist, whose myopia can often stand in the way of a broader public good, but there’s no denying their power. Ask any developer of a condo project, a landfill, an incinerator, or even a playground: NIMBYs are a force to be reckoned with.
In 2016, for the first time, Park started volunteering for a presidential candidate. ”I worked for the Hillary campaign in Boulder doing voter registration in the summer,” she said. “It was the first time dipping my toes into that, and I felt pretty positive the whole time, taking this feminist stand and ushering in our new woman president.”
That, of course, didn’t happen — though Clinton did win Colorado — and Park’s political activism went from fledgling to full bore. On the day after inauguration, she joined a local Women’s March. She helped found the Boulder chapter of Indivisible, a group working to organize citizen townhalls with members of Congress; Park guessed the Boulder chapter is about 80 percent women. She joined another local women-only group that just recently opened up membership to men. She started going to townhalls and protests, and started making calls and giving money for special elections. Both Calvert and Park have gone deeper, even testifying before their respective state legislatures.
At the townhalls and protests, Park said, the breakdown is fairly equal along gender lines. But the organizing that takes part beforehand is more one-sided. “The meetings, the grunt work, the organization piece,” she said, “that’s mostly women.”
In Georgia’s special Congressional election, the army behind Jon Ossoff was so overwhelmingly female he began making references to the phenomenon on the trail. “This is a story about women in this community,” Ossoff, the Democrat in this week’s election, said after advancing to a run-off.
At each polling location I visited in Georgia during the run-up to the initial vote, the activists manning the street corners were almost exclusively women. Many were getting actively involved in politics for the first time. Several had their teenage daughters with them, signaling that Trump may have stirred more than just one generation of women into action.
Larisa Pearlman, a local OB-GYN, canvassed between her 24 hour shifts, going days with barely any sleep ahead of the primary. I had seen her early that April day at a polling location before running into her again at Ossoff’s victory party. Later, Pearlman texted to ask me to connect her with my sister-in-law, who lives in the area, and a colleague, whom she’d met at the party. Pearlman needed Spanish speakers — a persistent deficit among a movement dominated by white people — and she wanted to recruit my Latina sister-in-law and her colleague. The connection represented just one instance among thousands of this network growing and strengthening organically, with no leaders or paid organizers nearby. During the weekend before the final runoff, Pearlman brought her husband out on the trail with her, and said he took to it well.
The bonds she was forming, she said in an interview this week, felt permanent. “It’s a community of educators, innovators, so many powerful women,” she texted after meeting Cecile Richards at a campaign event. “We are all close, even physically. We introduce ourselves and hug almost immediately. Some women are renting rooms together at the canvass watch party hotel. I’ve not had so many new friends since college.” Interviews with women across the country yielded similar stories. “I never thought,” Pearlman said, “I’d be a part of something so powerful.”
Women like Pearlman, Park and Calvert are following in the footsteps of Phyllis Schlafly’s army, if with the shoe worn on the other foot. In 1972, Schlafly sparked a movement against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She tapped into cadres of conservative church goers who became radicalized in opposition to the counterculture, the sexual revolution, and the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Schlafly did not invent a new network, but merely activated one. It was not that these women had been previously disengaged; it was that they had been mostly disengaged from national politics. And this network of women’s entry into the arena transformed the country.
There is no one defining characteristic of what is now loosely known as “the resistance.” It is more an upsurge of energy across the board than it is a movement that can be traced to a founding or a set of goals. The phrase that most often pops up in conversations with new members of the resistance is the need to “do something.”
What exactly that “something” is has many potential allies skeptical of this new political force. That Calvert enthusiastically backed Hillary Clinton pegs her and those like her as suspect in the eyes of some who backed Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders.
In debates with progressive skeptics, the Clinton campaign often refers back to how she ran on “the most progressive platform in American history.” Sanders backers respond that it was his campaign that forced her to go there and, besides, she was unlikely to have stood by much of it. And they have evidence, citing, for instance, Terry McAuliffe’s assurance that, whatever Clinton said during the campaign, she’d end up signing the TransPacific Partnership regardless.
That skepticism, however, makes a fundamental mistake by looking at the candidate Calvert supported, rather than at the supporter herself. Calvert is not Clinton. She has never spoken to an audience of Goldman Sachs bankers. She didn’t vote to invade Iraq. And one reason Clinton could sign onto such a progressive platform was that her own supporters, like Calvert, were already there for it.
The suspicion has trickled down to the candidates running in the various special elections. Folks like Calvert, in the wake of the Women’s March, threw themselves into the campaign of Jon Ossoff. Ossoff had nearly won now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s congressional seat outright in April, in a jungle primary where all the candidates from either party competed against each other.
Finishing with 48.1 percent of the vote — 1.9 points shy of the 50 he needed for a knockout win — Ossoff is now engaged in a general election contest, set for June 20, against Republican Karen Handel. Polls have Ossoff in the lead. The 30-year-old political neophyte, however, has been reluctant to precisely identify his politics, defining himself more as anti-Trump than anything else. The squishiness has led to some ambivalence from Sanders himself, along with some of his supporters.
Ossoff’s is just one of a spate of special elections where Democrats have been suprisingly competitive. In Montana and in Kansas, Sanders and his group Our Revolution backed Rob Quist and James Thompson, respectively. Both ran as unabashed progressive-populists in deeply red territory. Thompson fell 7 points short in a district where now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo carried by some 20 points. In Montana, where Trump carried the state by 20 points, Sanders spent the weekend before the election crisscrossing the state with Quist, who narrowed that Republican margin to six.
On the ground and across the country, Quist and Thompson had the strong support of people like Calvert. In fact, if not for Calvert, there may have been no Thompson.
“The success of the Women’s March in Wichita is one of the reasons we felt we had a chance to win here,” Thompson told The Intercept. “Many volunteers told me they just had to ‘do something.’” Calvert, said Thompson, became one of his strongest campaigners, and was just one of many women volunteering for the campaign who were brand new to politics. Thompson rode that energy and surprised the Kansas Democratic establishment by besting their preferred candidate in the primary, before briefly capturing the nation’s attention with his unapologetically liberal campaign.
For his part, Quist, with little help from national Democrats beyond Sanders, managed to raise more than $5 million for his campaign, much of it from small-dollar donors around the country. Attention was focused on Thompson only late in the game, but activists pumped several hundreds thousand dollars into his campaign in the final week, most of it through the Democratic grassroots site Daily Kos, which had its own battles with Sanders backers during the primary.
The Democratic Party is far more divided at the top than it is at the bottom. The alliance of Sanders, Daily Kos and the women who make up the backbone of the resistance behind candidates like Thompson and Quist demonstrates how the Democratic Party’s future is likely to not resemble its past.
The PTA mom behind it all is more radical than you think. And she is part of a wave of resistance Trump unleashed that would be no surprise to Tocqueville. As he saw them, the value of these free associations, these endless community groups, was in their distinction from the state. Nearly 200 years later, the American political system is responding in just the way Tocqueville would have predicted. The resistance didn’t build a network of activists and organizers from scratch. It flipped the switch on the book club.
A few days before the Women’s March, Calvert started to get a sense that there would be a bit more than 20 people showing up, and she kicked her organizing into high gear, making sure the city was prepared, the speakers were lined up, and all the logistics were set.
Thousands of people wound up flooding the streets of downtown Wichita. “Planning a birthday party sure was a lot different than planning a Women’s March for 4,000 people,” she said, “but I at least had some type of structure and understanding of how to put it together.”