Jennifer Mosbacher cried in a doctor’s office the morning after Donald Trump’s election, unable to control herself during a routine physical. The 43-year-old Atlanta suburbanite had avoided politics her entire life but was overcome with shock by an outcome she never saw coming.
She decided to act on her anger. In the year since, a woman whose only previous political activity had been voting began to volunteer daily for Democratic campaigns. She contributed money. She attended “postcard parties” to send mailers for out-of-state candidates. She lobbied for legislation at Georgia’s state capitol. She even notarized local recall petitions.
“I don’t think you come out of that experience of awakening and close your eyes again, right?” she said. “I don’t know how you can do that.”
Mosbacher’s transformation is at the heart of an unprecedented movement inside the Democratic Party. Dubbed “The Resistance,” it has — in the year since Donald Trump’s inauguration — turned countless apolitical women and men into firebrand activists set on remaking the political system.
Their fury-driven activism explains why abortion-rights group Emily’s List has been contacted by more than 22,000 women interested in running for office, and why hundreds of progressive “pop-up” groups formed to help Democrats with everything from fundraising to website design. They are now part of the party’s political firmament in 2018, giving Democrats a candidate recruitment boost and an undeniable enthusiasm edge over the GOP.
But the impact of the Resistance will be deeper and more significant than a single election cycle. The birth of millions of activists, many of them concentrated in cities, is remaking local elections — and will put urban politics on a new trajectory for the foreseeable future.
It will reverberate, liberals say, for a generations, perhaps most of all in the leadership and approach of a Democratic Party that is now under almost as much scrutiny from the left as Trump himself.
“What we saw in 2017 was an unprecedented revival of grassroots democracy,” said Joe Dinkin, spokesman for the liberal Working Families Party. “People want to participate, not just in protest, but in changing who holds power. That's everything from knocking on doors to stepping up to run for office. That newly awakened spirit won't just shape 2018 — it could shape the identity, beliefs and activism of a generation of voters.”
A LIBERAL INSURGENCY
The Resistance isn’t the only movement within the Democratic Party, but its reach is far broader and deeper than its predecessors. The wave of energy that swept the party following the Iraq War was concentrated on one issue; the enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy was tied to one man. The Occupy Wall Street protests took place almost entirely beyond the party infrastructure.
This push is reshaping liberal and Democratic organizations alike. Erin Kramer remembers the first meeting in 2017 for her nonprofit in Pittsburgh, One Pennsylvania, which advocates for poor people across multiple issues. Typically only about 30 people attended her meetings, Kramer said, and only after she pressured people to show up.
That night’s gathering drew 150.
“The meeting was a lot longer than we expected it to be,” she said. “Folks really needed to get a lot out.”
One Pennsylvania is not part of the Democratic Party. It isn’t designed to help Democratic candidates in the midterm election later this year. But its surge in membership – Kramer expects 3,000 dues-paying members by the end of 2018 – can have a profound impact on politics, especially inside cities. Kramer said her group late last year advocated for a change in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for a moratorium on suspensions for children in pre-K through second grade. It’s making similar pushes for better work conditions for retail employees.
“The appetite is there,” Kramer said. “People are looking for clear-eyed, powerful organizations to contribute to and work with.”
Progressive leaders say the transformation of groups such as One Pennsylvania will be more important than a litany of midterm election victories in November. In urban politics, a heavy concentration of progressives awakened by the Trump administration is already reshaping the politicians elected to key positions — and the types of policies they pursue.
The movement’s biggest victory to date came in last year’s district attorney race in Philadelphia, where civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner won after promising to radically reshape how the law enforcement office does its business. Krasner has been highly critical of police as systematically racist and was an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Cities and counties have become laboratories of democracy for progressive politics the way you’ve never seen before,” said Asya Pikovsky, spokeswoman for The Center for Popular Democracy, a group that support liberal candidates at the local level. “I’ve seen people pushing policies that seemed like pipe dreams a few years ago.”
Pikovsky pointed to a push from some cities to prioritize investment in social services and jobs training over police, a departure she says from decades of policy.
Activist leaders are careful to say that Trump isn’t the sole motivation for this kind of response. Progressives have been building support for years, especially in cities, and what’s happening now is partially a product of those efforts.
But they don’t dispute that Trump’s election has accelerated the process.
“The threat of Trump has awoken the need for a really aggressive response,” Dinkin said. “People don’t just want to tweak around the edges, they want to reverse what Trump is doing and totally transform America.”
Dinkin hopes what started in cities can eventually remake the rest of the country. That vision includes not only the policies but the men and women who are now involved who have a lifetime of politics ahead of them.
“Are there going to be candidates who are running for Congress or Senate or president in 10 or 20 years who got their start as an activist in the Resistance?” Dinkin said. “I think it’ll be sooner than that.”
A PARTY TAKEOVER
The boiling progressive movement has been drawing comparisons for months to the loose confederation of conservative tea party activists who delivered a hearty boost of energy and enthusiasm to the GOP in 2010, after Barack Obama’s election.
But at its core, the tea party movement was also about shifting control of the party from its establishment to its grassroots on everything from policy priorities to the types of candidates recruited by Republicans to run. That has significantly reshaped how the GOP operates, and in the view of many party leaders and strategists, not always for the better.
Progressive leaders say they have a better relationship with the Democratic Party than they think Republicans had with their own grassroots movement. But they warned that things can still take a turn.
“The movement is showing the Democratic Party what’s possible,” Pikovsky said. “And in some ways they’ve responded, and in some ways they haven’t.
“It’s inevitable when you have a surge of energy that is motivated by the grassroots and not fully contained yet within the establishment, you’re going to have policies and ideas that move way, way ahead of any established institutions,” she added. “That’s kind of where I’d put it right now.”
Democrats received an early look at their new relationship with progressives during the dozens of races for the Virginia General Assembly. The party nearly pulled a shock upset, falling a single vote short in one delegate race that would have given Democrats and Republicans equal representation in the legislative body.
The Democratic campaigns were aided by the rise of progressive “pop-up” groups that wanted to assist the candidates with everything from canvassing voters to offering free legal advice. During one August meeting with officials from a top state delegate campaign, about 30 of these activists gathered in a church service to offer their help, with many vowing that they cared far more about defeating Republicans than settling ideological scores within the party.
“In many cases, these campaigns relied heavily or were even entirely staffed and coordinated by these new groups,” said Josh Stanfield, who ran a progressive PAC dedicated to the state delegate races. “They became the substitute for a robust party structure.”
This is the positive side of the progressive surge for Democrats, giving them an unmatched volunteer army the likes of which they haven’t seen for decades. But it has also created conflict.
According to Stanfield, many local Democrats readily accepted the help from the activists. Now he and his ideological allies want more; they are not content to sit back and watch party officials run things the way they’ve always been run.
“The Democratic Party is just a network,” he said. “If you don’t like what’s happening, you have to convince the nodes to change, or replace them.”
The recently elected Democrats are going to have to plan votes carefully, he added. The people who put them in office are going to expect results.
“Conclusions are going to be very publicly drawn,” he said. “In the past, nobody was watching.”
Mosbacher has her own frustrations with the Democratic Party. She was an avid supporter of Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate for a special House election last June who became a minor political celebrity after raising tens of millions of dollars from small-dollar online donors.
But Ossoff lost, and Mosbacher thinks the defeat was at least in part a reflection the Democrats’ bland campaign that “didn’t really speak to me.”
“I’m about the movement and change and social justice,” she said. “And the party seems to be about digging heels in the ground and doing things the way they’ve always done them.”
Not that she’s regretful about getting involved in politics. Mosbacher said the sadness she felt a day after Trump’s election faded about two months later, the day after Trump’s inauguration.
She and her daughter walked in the Atlanta Women’s March, and, surrounded by like-minded friends dead set on opposing the Trump administration, she felt hope.
“I’m raising a 10-year-old little girl who all of a sudden now understands what political activism is,” she said. “Her generation, all of a sudden, has become politically engaged.”