The Women’s March on Washington last month was a chance for hundreds of thousands of people to vent their anger and call for action to thwart President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Or it could be more.
Progressives hope that the Jan. 21 march will spark an effective, nationwide, grassroots resistance to what they fear will be a Republican rollback of progress for women, minorities, the LGBT community, the environment and health care coverage.
“Those of us who go have to come home and march. We have to come home and be activists,” said Rev. Mary H. Reaman, pastor of Tree of Life Community: A Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Dayton. “It can’t be a one-shot deal. We’re going to have to be organized.”
“My hope is that we are starting to generate a generation of women activists,” said Reaman, who organized a busload of mostly women to go to the march.
“We want to show our numbers. We want to show our voices,” said Chris Chifala, 53, of Dayton, who is going with her wife, Dalva Ireland, and her daughter. “There are a number of issues for me: women’s rights, gay rights, equal pay (and) abortion rights.”
Longtime progressive activist Nancy Grigsby-Williams, 59, said people are still in mourning over Trump’s election and the march cannot “just be another march.”
Using the tea party as a model
One model would be the success of the tea party movement, a political polar opposite of those organizing the women’s march.
Conservatives began rallying against President Barack Obama soon after his inauguration in 2009 and grew into what became known as the tea party movement.
Locally-based in communities across the nation and laser-focused on opposing Obama on fiscal issues, the tea party movement galvanized opposition to Obama’s signature health care reform effort by showing up at town halls organized by Republican lawmakers during the summer of 2009.
In less than two years the grassroots effort saw its supporters elected to national , state and local offices in a mid-term Republican landslide in November 2010.
“The tea party people they’ve gotten their people into everything.” said Barbara D. Davis, 72, a Riverside resident going to the march, “They got them onto library boards, they’ve gotten them into everything and we Democrats haven’t done that.”
Dayton Tea Party co-founder, Rob Scott, now Kettering vice mayor, said the key for the movement was that activists knocked on doors, made phone calls, held rallies and focused on issues.
“I think that’s why the tea party movement really took off because we talked about issues,” Scott said. “In 2010 it was like a big wave and it was handed over to the Republican Party.”
In 2016 Scott ran Trump’s Ohio primary campaign and was his general election deputy director, watching first-hand how the seeds of the grassroots movement he helped plant seven years ago grew into a strong base of support for Trump.
Ironically, it is Trump’s victory that Scott said will help the progressive movement the most.
“I think as President Trump takes office you will see these groups bind together. Nothing binds people together more than having a common enemy,” Scott said.
“(Democrats) are still licking their wounds but they will come back.”
Democrats have lost power nationally and in states
Political scientists Mark Caleb Smith at Cedarville University and Christopher Devine at the University of Dayton both said the march is an opportunity for progressives to begin mobilizing to reverse massive Democratic losses in the White House, Congress and statehouses across the nation.
But being effective in a democracy requires winning elective office. And what Democrats are in dire need of is “a bench,” people ready and willing to run for local office as well as seats in state capitols and Washington, D.C., said Devine, assistant professor of political science at UD.
“No matter what you think of Barack Obama’s legacy as a president, under his watch the Democratic Party suffered at the congressional level and it suffered at the state level,” said Smith, director of Cedarville’s Center for Political Studies. “If the party is going to do better it’s going to have to start drawing from the bottom.”
Losing badly in the 2010 mid-terms had an unusually strong impact on Democrats because of the 10-year redistricting that occurred in 2011. Republican-dominated state legislatures and reapportionment boards redrew legislative and congressional district boundaries in ways that Democrats say gerrymandered them out of contention for seats. In Ohio for example, of the state’s 16 members of Congress, only four are Democrats.
“Democrats will be starting further back than Democrats usually do because they’ll have so few office holders for recruitment,” Devine said.
“Maybe that is something the women’s march and Black Lives Matter can do - to recruit people to run for office,” he said. “That could be a concrete step for building an enduring movement and recruiting a Democratic bench for the future.”
But Smith and Devine said that won’t happen if progressives can’t get past disagreements over tactics and priorities and avoid the “purity” tests for Democratic candidates that fractured progressives and helped give Trump the presidency.
“The purity is what mobilizes people, it makes them aspirational and want to brave the cold weather. But that doesn’t ultimately get things done,” Devine said. “If you want to actually get results you’ll have to compromise.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million but lost in key states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, giving Trump the Electoral College win and the presidency. Those three states had not supported a Republican since former President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Those losses were so narrow that all Clinton would have needed to win was a fraction of the people who voted for third party candidates or who chose to not vote because they supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. in his bid for the Democratic nomination.
One example of the progressive purity test in action occurred the week after Republicans began coalescing around Trump after his nomination at the Republican National Convention. Sanders delegates at the Democratic National Convention used sit-ins and other protests to make clear their opposition to Clinton even after she clinched the nomination. They booed progressive ally, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for supporting Clinton. While Clinton supporters called for unity, many Sanders supporters said they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her.
That’s not to say conservatives haven’t had their share of infighting - much of it on display during the 2016 presidential election. But when November came, Republicans voted for their standard bearer, Trump. He’ll enter the White House on Jan. 20 with bills already passed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act that gave the conservative grassroots their big issue.
Longtime activists acknowledge that Democrats and unaligned progressives have to figure out a way to be more unified.
“It’s like herding cats,” quipped Sue Elam, 62, a veteran Dayton progressive, who believes the best path is for Democrats to embrace their left wing.
“I think one of the challenges for people on the progressive side of things is (that) we do think and work in a big tent,” Grigsby-Williams said. “Because Democrats have been historically concerned about working people and people of color and LGBT and immigrants it’s a big tent.
Rhiannon Childs, 38, of Columbus is co-director of the Women’s March Ohio Chapter and said she believes progressives can get past their differences.
“We have to start moving on and not having walls and mistrust between each other,” Childs said. “If we stand together we will be able to reach our goals.”
Elam and Dayton activist Teri Schoch, 62, said it is not like progressives have been sitting on their hands doing nothing. But both said Trump’s election has set off a reaction, particularly as the shock is wearing off and people are starting to figure out what happens next.
Schoch said she’s noticing more people becoming interested in getting involved in the nuts and bolts of party activism, realizing that that is the way to get candidates they support on the ballot and elected.
“I think the passion and the work and the focus is going to be there,” said Schoch. “People are scared enough now to actually do something.”
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