A ragtag group of political amateurs has driven the protest movement against President Donald Trump, and now the heavyweights of the Democratic Party are trying to bring these novices into the institutional fold.
Next month, the liberal movement’s leading think tank is convening about 50 of the top activists for a daylong convention in Los Angeles. Those protest leaders who plan to attend say it will be their first chance to meet many fellow organizers who have become full-blown activists since Trump’s election.
The session, organized and co-hosted by the Center for American Progress’ political arm, is ostensibly meant to share best practices with these volunteer-driven groups, on subjects ranging from fundraising to organizing.
But it also reflects the effort underway within the Democratic Party, where operatives who have battled Republicans for years are now trying to cooperate with newcomers who have been more successful capturing the energy of anti-Trump Americans than the professional class was during the 2016 campaign.
“We’re trying to merge these two worlds, between the institutional left and the energy in the field,” said Emily Tisch Sussman, the Center for American Progress’ senior director of campaigns and advocacy. “I don’t think we should treat them as separate, but we have to be intentional about how we merge them.”
It’s a process both sides say needs to go well if Democrats want to turn the so-called anti-Trump “resistance” movement into a force that can win elections.
“If the institutional left tried to co-opt it, it would suffocate the energy,” Tisch Sussman added. “So we need to be in partnership.”
The relationship between the party’s activists and its institutions hasn’t always been smooth since Trump took office. To some progressives, Democratic leaders in Washington didn’t appreciate the anger that precipitated the women’s marches across the country the day after Trump’s inauguration, in which millions of men and women took to the streets to protest their new president.
At the time, those activists said they wanted a bare-knuckled fight with Trump, while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was talking about compromising on issues such as infrastructure funding.
Tensions have cooled since, thanks in part to the party’s unified opposition to Republican-led measures, including the American Health Care Act, which is meant to replace former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The meeting in Los Angeles could strengthen their partnership further. The Center for American Progress is co-hosting the event with five organizations that formed post-Trump and is expecting about 50 progressive leaders to attend. It’s the culmination, officials at the center say, of a relationship that actually began just weeks after Trump’s election, when officials from the group contacted activists and began offering guidance online.
In interviews, leaders of the progressive organizations said they were eager to work with anyone who could help them thwart the president.
“There is a harmony to be had with some of these older, bigger, better-funded organizations,” said Nathan Williams, managing director of a group called Town Hall Project. “To all their credit, I haven’t seen anyone try to take ownership of this movement or claim leadership.”
Williams, who is a volunteer for the group, which helps progressive activists find and locate town hall meetings for their congressional representatives, said he understood why some people were angry at the Democratic establishment after the loss in last year’s presidential race.
“At the same time, these institutions have enormous experience in this space,” Williams said. “They have very smart people. We’d be dumb not to talk to them.”
Right now, Democrats and their activist allies might have a bigger problem than their internal conflict: Many of them said the energy that was so prevalent in the weeks immediately following Trump’s election and inauguration had waned – what Tisch Sussman called a “fatigue moment.”
The progressive leaders said they were not yet worried. But they acknowledged that the widespread enthusiasm that helped some of their groups add as many as 50,000 members won’t be permanent.
It’s why these groups say they have to start thinking about how to sustain their movement.
“In the very beginning, there was just a lot of energy, a lot of emotion, a lot of frustration, and groups like mind swelled in numbers,” said Andy Kim, founder of Rise Stronger, a group that seeks to connect grass-roots organizers with policy experts. “This next phase is the strategic phase.”
The event in Los Angeles will be followed by a so-called “hackathon,” when the activists will team with progressive computer programmers to find ways for technology to help their cause.
Center for American Progress officials say they hope it’s enough to build these groups for the long haul.
“It’s not total fatigue, but it’s not the way it was at the women’s march,” Tisch Sussman said. “Now it’s incumbent upon . . . those who are in it for the long game to help build it in others. Three marches weren’t going to change an administration, so there has to be a little education done on our part.”