After President Donald Trump was elected, two congressional staffers wrote a guide to “resisting the Trump agenda,” which immediately went viral. Known as “Indivisible,” the guide sparked a grassroots movement across the country, and invisible groups are now working across the country to advocate for progressive leaders and policies.
Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, who are married, are the cofounders and executive directors of Indivisible and have published a book about the story of the movement: “We are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump.” They join Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer in today’s episode to discuss.
Before starting Indivisible, Levin, an alumnus of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, was a federal antipoverty advocate. Greenberg was a human trafficking policy advocate on Capitol Hill. The two have been listed in Time’s “100 Most Influential People of 2019,” Politico 50 list, and GQ’s “50 Most Powerful People in Trump’s Washington.”
ABOUT THE HOSTS
Wang is a professor at Princeton University, appointed in neuroscience with affiliate appointments in the Program in Law and Public Affairs and the Center for Information Technology Policy. An alumnus of Caltech, where he received a B.S. with honors in physics, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Stanford University School of Medicine. He conducted postdoctoral research at Duke University Medical Center and at Bell Labs Lucent Technologies. He has also worked on science and education policy for the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He is noted for his application of data analytics and poll aggregation to American politics. He is leading an effort at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to build a 50-state data resource for legislative-quality citizen redistricting. His work to define a state-level legal theory to limit partisan gerrymandering recently won Common Cause’s Gerrymandering Standard Writing Contest. His neuroscience research concerns how the brain learns from sensory experience in early life, adulthood and autism.
Zelizer has been among the pioneers in the revival of American political history. He is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He has written more than 900 op-eds, including his popular weekly column for CNN.com and The Atlantic. This year, he is the distinguished senior fellow at the New York Historical Society, where he is writing a biography of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for Yale University's Jewish Lives Series. He is the author and editor of more than 19 books including, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society,” the winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the Best Book on Congress. In January 2019, Norton published his new book, co-authored with Kevin Kruse, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” In spring 2020, Penguin Press will publish his other book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” He has received fellowships from the Brookings Institution, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation and New America.
Hello and welcome back to Politics & Polls. I’m Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and I’m here with my colleague and co-host Sam Wang.
Zelizer: How do you take on the president of the United States? What happens when there’s a president who isn’t popular? What can average Americans do? How can they resist the president’s agenda? And how can they put pressure on Congress to move the country in a different direction? These are pretty fundamental questions that we face at every moment in American history, and they became very pertinent after President Trump was elected in November 2016 and a lot of the country felt disillusioned and unclear about the implications –– but not everyone. There was a group of formal Congressional staffers, who outlined a blueprint on Google, a Google document. Ultimately, they called themselves Indivisible. In the months that followed, in the years that followed, they became an incredibly powerful political force in our nation and have been one of the principal sources of opposition and restraint on the Trump presidency. So their group and the founders give us amazing insight into the way that American democracy works and some of the ways in which the grassroots can ultimately be powerful even as powerful as the president of the United States.
To discuss this, we have two of the founders of this organization, Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, who are the co-founders and executive directors of Indivisible, a grassroots movement that has been working to defend progressive programs and to elect progressive leaders, and ultimately, to defeat the Trump agenda. The organization formed shortly after the 2016 election. Levin was a federal anti-poverty advocate and Greenberg was a human trafficking policy advocate on Capitol Hill. They had both worked on the Hill for several years and had learned during the Obama administration a little bit about how the Tea Party was able to be so successful in mounting opposition. The two have been listed in Time’s 100 most influential people of 2019. Politico had them on their 50 top most important list, and GQ also listed them in the 50 most powerful people in Trump’s Washington. Today we’re going to discuss the history of what they have done as well as their new book “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy after Trump,” which has recently been published by One Signal Publishers and is available everywhere that books are sold.
Ezra and Leah, you just released a scorecard on the candidates. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how that came into being, how you scored the Democratic candidates and what you found.
Levin: Yea, happy to. Leah, do you want to jump in?
Greenberg: So this is an idea that came out of our first ever national convening in August when we brought together leaders from 44 states to talk about our strategy for the next couple of years and to talk about how we’re going to engage with the presidential race. What they were interested in was a set of ways to evaluate the candidates on their issues, on their strategies, on how they were running their campaigns and building movement support. And so, we’ve been working with both Indivisible leaders and with our own partners in the progressive movement to put together a scorecard that really got to each of these issues. 1) What were the progressive policy positions candidates were taking? 2) How are they building grassroots movements and support? 3) Were they committed to really the centerpiece of our own strategy, which is a day one democracy agenda that makes structural reforms to fix our democracy in 2021.
Levin: And that last piece feeds directly into the book. Literally the subtitle of the book “We Are Indivisible” is “A Blueprint for Democracy after Trump.” The book at large is about how do you fill [?] power and then how do you use that power to undo all the damage that has been done to our democracy, to actually combat the forces that allowed Trump to rise. So we really see part one of the strategy going forward is yes, we’ve got to beat Trump, but that doesn’t suddenly save democracy. Part two is we have to pass significant structural reforms to democracy in 2021 and that’s why we waited [weighted?] in the presidential primary scorecard.
Zelizer: And what did you find? How did the candidates come out?
Levin: So what we found is that many candidates scored very well on different individual items, those three that Leah mentioned –– the policy platform, the democracy focus, and the grassroots power –– Elizabeth Warren scores top overall. She scores very strongly in all. She has a focus on structural reforms to democracy, she has a visionary policy platform, and she’s dedicated to building grassroots power. So she got 95% in this scorecard, which is a live scorecard, it’s something we’ll update as time goes on. Other candidates scored well in one or two of the buckets. We know that, for instance, Senator Sanders and Secretary Castro both have a very strong immigration policy and a strong overall policy platform. We know Pete Buttigieg is very strong on democracy issues but pretty weak on grassroots power and pretty weak on his overall policy agenda. So different candidates had different strengths but at least at this time in the primary, Elizabeth Warren best reflects the values and priorities of the Indivisible movement.
Zelizer: So let me just move back a little bit and part of your book recounts how you guys came into being. I say in the intro that it’s a kind of, it’s a remarkable story of how the grassroots happens and actually be able to mount opposition to a president. Last I saw Ezra he was in my seminar here at the Wilson School and all of a sudden I’m reading this Google document and then all of a sudden you have together with your colleagues, really put together a formidable political force.
Wang: Right, Leah, Ezra, Angel Padilla, and collaborators.
Zelizer: We don’t need the whole history and people can read the book and you’ve talked about it, but kind of looking back, what were some of the pivotal decisions that you made that helped this become what it is? Maybe we could start with you, Ezra.
Levin: Sure. Pivotal decisions. Well one was, you know, I remember vividly the week after the election –– we tell this story in the book –– there were two events that set us on this path, and they happened within 24 hours of each other. One was a quote from a future Trump appointee who cited positively the Japanese internment camps during World War II as an example of what to do with Muslims, refugees, and immigrants in this country. Within 24 hours of that interview, there was another interview published by the New York Times by incoming minority leader Chuck Schumer on the Democratic side and he was telling the New York Times, well we lost the election, that happens, we’re just going to have to figure out how to work with the other side. We think there might be some room for bipartisan compromise on something like infrastructure. So that was really terrifying to me and Leah that that was the establishment Democratic party position, and we were looking at this potential future world in 2017 where the bipartisan consensus was that the roads to America’s new internment camps ought to be well paved. That was the realistic future we were looking at and you know, Leah and I, who are part of the nonprofit industrial complex here in D.C. We worked on anti-poverty work, that’s my background, Leah worked on [ending?] human trafficking, we were part of the people, you know, in this Capitol Hill/White House advocacy revolving door system, and we were doing this for our, you know, do-gooder reasons, but we were really part of the establishment. We just thought the establishment was totally ill equipped to combat the threat that was coming at us. So I think the big decision was to release something that the time we thought could be career ending. We tried to get a lot of other former Congressional staffers, existing Congressional staffers to sign on to this. People who behind closed doors who had helped construct the guide, and frankly, Angel Padilla, who was a grad school classmate of mine and was doing immigrant rights and healthcare advocacy, he was among the only ones –– him and Jeremy Haile, who I worked with in [inaudible]’s office. We asked more than a dozen, maybe two dozen other folks to do it and nobody was really willing to because it was perceived as being, you know, radical, as being against the grain. So I think a really momentous decision was choosing to publish and put our names on it at all.
Zelizer: Well I remember, yea Leah, you came up with the name Indivisible, right?
Greenberg: Yes, and I was going to say, I think one of the other decisions where we had no idea what the implications of it were was to name the guide Indivisible, which at the time was a subject of some hot debate because people were like, what is that and why would that be a thing, and that doesn’t make a ton of sense. And then just include this throw away line in the guide when we were talking to people about forming local groups that was something along the lines of, we recommend that you give your group a name that reflects the fact that it’s rooted in your community. You can take the Indivisible name and say, that you’re example, Indivisible Springfield if you want to but we won’t hold it against you if you don’t. Just put that in the guide on page 12 or something and that was probably a really really important decision in terms of being able to maintain an umbrella frame and brand for the grassroots pop-up movement that would come. There’s an alternate world where everybody chose their own name and we were not totally sure whether we were all working together at the beginning at all.
Wang: Well I remember over at my site, the Princeton Election Consortium, I went back to verify that I had done this, but you guys published –– I think on December 14th –– and on December 16th I posted on the Princeton Election Consortium what to do with this existential crisis for democracy. So the Chuck Schumer version is policy gets fought out –– I fight my fight, you fight your fight –– and sometimes we get some losses. And the thing that you all have put your finger on is not just policy wins and losses but the nature of our government, the nature of who we are as a democracy and as a nation. And I’m really interested in the fact that that was considered a risky move in December 2016 to notice that there was a major crisis brewing. So, do you think that people have come around? How long did it take people to come around?
Levin: It took some time; people have come around. I remember vividly people outside Diane Feinstein’s office –– the Democratic senator from California –– or Amy Klobucher’s office in Minnesota or Chuck Schumer’s office in New York protesting “Why Pompeo? Why Pompeo?” When Democratic senators were voting for Trump’s nominees, including at the time Pompeo for CIA director. That, I think, sent a wake-up call. The massive actions in early 2017 changed the political environment here in D.C. to the point that when Betsy DeVos a little while later was up for a nomination, you had every single Democrat voting against her. This is why we saw Democrats ultimately coming along with the idea that this was an administration to be resisted. I will say, it was not and has never been a switch that got flipped, that suddenly we had them on our side. We say this on the first page of the Indivisible guide that this incoming administration, this incoming Congress is an existential threat to everything we hold dear. And also, half the battle is getting your Democratic representatives and senators to stand up for your values. You need to actually ensure that they’ve got a spine so a lot of what Indivisible has done, in addition to putting pressure on Trump and his GOP supporters, is to get Democrats to fight. We tell this story in the book that I’ll never forget. It was Father’s Day 2017 and I was standing outside Leah’s parents’ house waiting to go in and I was on the phone with Angel and Chuck Schumer’s staff. And this was a week or so before the July 4th recess. The healthcare bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act was moving forward with great speed. I looked at my own journal and I was worried we were on the verge of losing at that point, and our goal was to get the Democrats to slow the process down to delay the process as much as possible, and we told Schumer’s staff that. We said, we want you to withhold consent and use this procedural maneuver in the Senate to grind the Senate down to a halt so we can get to the July 4th recess, which will allow us to put pressure on senators like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner and John McCain and Lisa Murkowski. Senators who are going to be at Fourth of July parades, and who we could approach at those parades and put pressure to oppose the bill and Schumer’s staff told us, no we’re not ready to do that. They view that tactic as too far outside the bounds of cordial Senate relationships and norms. And we said on that call, that’s fine. We understand that you aren’t willing to use this tool, but just so you know this Thursday, everyone at Senator Schumer’s offices across the state of New York there will be Indivisible members holding die-ins and sit-ins and asking you to withhold consent. And literally the next day Senator Schumer and the Democrats in the Senate announced that they were going to withhold consent. Now, that is how power works in Washington. You have to apply pressure in order to get what you want even if the side that you are applying pressure to generally agrees with you on goals.
Wang/Zelizer: And applying pressure from outside so relying on change to come from outside Washington rather than from inside Washington.
Levin: That’s exactly right.
Wang/Zelizer: So would either of you regard Schumer as now being on board and understanding how much things have broken down? I mean, he experiences it every day in the Senate chamber, but does he get it now?
Levin: I think the Senate Democrats are approving far too many of Donald Trump’s judges and other appointees. At this point in his presidency, Donald Trump has appointed fully 20% of the entire federal judiciary, and I think the Senate Democrats are acquiescing with his requests far too quickly. That said, I do think Schumer has, throughout battles on health care, on taxes, on some other issues, played a really helpful hand in working with the resistance. Again, I would say it’s sporadic, it’s not consistent, and it requires consistent pressure. I think we all have to recognize that political figures respond to external stimuli the same way as anybody else. They are making decisions based on the forces put on them. And if you just expect somebody to be your friend because they have a “D” next to their name on the ballot, you’re going to be disappointed repeatedly.
Greenberg: I would just add, I think there are a powerful set of incentives in Washington that are really about convincing people things are normal it’s business as usual. And so, I think the crucial part of this is just to continue to stage(?) grassroots pressure that is constantly reminding people that we are in crisis and this is not business as usual.
Zelizer: So, in your issue scorecard, just to touch on that briefly, and to connect with what you’re talking about here, your scorecard includes progressive priorities, includes grassroots organizing but I’m going to see if we can broaden this out a little bit. Some of these things that you are talking about are institutions of government and I would think those would be of interest independents, to conservatives, I mean, there are a few conservative voices from people who are not running for elective office and don’t make a living, say, you know, sucking away at Fox News’ milk dispenser. So how do you, how does one build a general feeling about American institutions that gets beyond progressives?
Levin: I mean, it’s a great question. I actually think that the democracy reform issues are not inherently partisan. There’s nothing that says that a conservative value is that it is easy to purchase elections and it is difficult to vote. That is not an inherently conservative value, and this isn’t just like my own idealistic theorizing, the proof is in the pudding. Look at what happened in Florida in 2018. In the midterm elections in Florida in 2018, the voters elected a Republican governor; they booted out a Democratic senator and elected a Republican senator. They elected a Republican state legislature and at the same time with super majority margins, more than 60%, they voted the largest expansion of voting rights since the passage of the 21st Amendment.
Greenberg: I think there are two things to consider on this. One is that a lot of the reforms we are pushing for, the reason why we need independent progressive power is that fundamentally they challenge entrenched power in a lot of forms. We are responding to a conservative Republican effort to [inaudible] in their favor, but that doesn’t mean that every reform we are talking about is good news for a Democratic incumbent. Gerrymandering can challenge a lot of people. Public financing for campaigns overturns people’s current [inaudible] for fundraising. A lot of these reforms actually do have real implications for entrenched power on both sides of the aisle. And that’s why you need people outside of the party for pushing for them. The other thing is we should be under no illusions that if we are trying to move this as a major Democratic agenda item in 2021, it will encounter ferocious resistance from the other side that will ultimately have the effect of making it look like a partisan issue even though what we’re talking about fundamentally is everyone should vote, it should be impossible to steal elections, people should be represented in equal ways, and that money should have less impact on campaigns.
Levin: One thing that I should amend, I said the 21st Amendment, which I believe repealed Prohibition, and although maybe that had some impact on voting, I actually meant the 19th Amendment, which extended the right to vote regardless of sex.
Zelizer(?): Let me ask you the origins of your group. Part of what influenced the way you think about politics was the Tea Party and its opposition to President Obama, and you saw from the Hill how they used local pressure on legislatures, and through that they were able to ultimately cause many problems for the president, and you know at the heart of this is in some ways part of how the Tea Party revealed the limits of presidential power. But you are also employing a model that comes from the right, and I wonder, how do you think of the parameters of what you are willing to recommend –– meaning, the story you told about Schumer. That’s a tension between how you govern and how the establishment seems the norms of governance and how others think you have to move in a more aggressive direction. How do you guys think about that? And how do you distinguish what you’re doing from some of what the Tea Party did?
Greenberg: I’d start by framing it a bit more broadly and say, part of the reason why we wrote the book and what we talk about in the book is we recognize we’re in a very dangerous moment for democracy because we have a political system that is guided by and greased by a whole set of norms and assumptions that are being broken systematically by one party. And we face this constant challenge, which is that norms that only apply to one party are actually part of the problem, and also it would be better if we were all upholding and adhering to those norms originally. And so, I think what we have to confront and the reason why we’re focused on structural reforms is that we have to get to the place where the rules actually line up with the incentives for both parties. And so what I would say is that the lens that we are taking to all of our politics, all of our policy recommendations, all of our strategy is, is this ultimately going to result in greater people power, more of a direct connection between elections, who wins elections, and what the results are, more of a direct relationship between how people vote and who wins the election. These are fundamentally about are these reforms putting more power in the hands of the people.
Wang(?): Well, just to focus on that a little bit, to return to the Florida example, the restoration of voting rights in Florida was an issue measure as opposed to a candidate measure and it strikes me that a big feature of politics in the last 20 years is the personalization of politics, where we talk about things like: where a candidate was born, who a candidate consulted for, and that sort of thing. That personal style seems to, at least to my eyes, leads to national 50/50 politics. Whereas this restoration of voting rights, that’s an issue, and I wonder whether Indivisible, whether you all are focused or if you’ve detected a focus on state-level action where it’s more possible to focus no issues through voter initiatives, through getting away from this politics of personal, either personal destruction or personal argument, personal animus.
Levin: Oh, interesting. Yea, I would love a historian’s input on, to what extent this focus on personalities is new. I would think that John F. Kennedy running was running on a personality election, Obama certainly ran on a personality election. And I would think George W. Bush ran on being the guy that you wanted to get a beer with. And so, I don’t know how new this is to American politics. But to your specific question ––
Zelizer/Wang: It’s not.
Levin: To your specific question, I think there’s a lot of good that can be done at the state level. We ran campaigns in Texas, in Florida on the issue that we just talked about, in New York after they got a trifecta with Democrats controlling the Senate assembly and the governorship, in Arizona playing defense. There is a lot of good that can be done at the state level just because there’s not so much gridlock. And you can in some cases push forward good democracy reforms, and if you don’t have a trifecta, if you don’t have Democrats in control who are pro-democracy, just a little bit of grassroots action can actually go a long way. There’s a great story from the campaigns we ran in Arizona where they were defensive campaigns I really love.
Wang/Zelizer: What’s a defensive campaign?
Levin: So the Republicans in the state legislature were trying to gut the early voting rules in Arizona and they had several bills to do so, and I spoke to Indivisible groups in, which is where Barry Goldwater launched his 1964 presidential campaign, a very red area and we had two or three hundred Indivisible group members out there for racial justice equity inclusion and training. But working with the Indivisible groups in Prescott and throughout the state, we were driving calls to state legislative offices saying vote against this bill to gut the early voting rules. And we got a quote from a state legislature and it was, “I’ll vote no, just make the calls stop,” which is exactly, that’s the goal. And you know, federal policy is very important because it impacts more than 300 million people, but it also requires a lot more grassroots action in order to affect federal level policy, whereas at the state level, really just a handful of calls just one or two events can really influence the thinking of a state legislator. Now, all that said, as much as state-level policy is important, I think we need to look something square in the face, which is we are on the verge of losing the federal government to reactionary conservatives permanently. And I mean this pretty literally. We view American democracy at a [crossroots? change to crossroads?] right now at the national level. In 20 years, half the country is going to live in eight states, 70% of the country is going to live in about 13 states and that 70% of the country is more progressive, is more diverse and they’re only going to have 26 senators. The 30% of the country that is concentrating or being spread out across the rest of the states are going to have disproportionate power in the Senate, and by connection, the courts. There’s a reason why Republicans have appointed the last 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices and it’s because they are engaging in a federal takeover of our democratic institutions and they’re just about done clenching that control. So we think that state-level policy, by all means, we should be working on that but that’s actually not going to save American democracy in 2021. The only pathway to saving democracy in 2021 is building a trifecta in 2020 and then making reforms to our democratic institutions that make them more reflective and responsive of the diversifying electorate.
Zelizer: So we’re talking a lot in the conversation about issues, about big picture structural reforms, but a lot of what both of you have done is to work with people and to get average citizens engaged in a political process that can seem frustrating and ugly to many people most of the time. I mean, you write in the book, you have a whole section on –– I can’t remember if it’s called “it’s a marathon not a spring” –– but you say Indivisible isn’t about winning the game or scoring political points, it’s about building power, not to hold it, but to do good with it. That means we don’t pack up and go home after we win or lose, we keep building and wielding that power. This is how we demand change and build the inclusive democracy we want to see. And I think Sam and I both agree with that principle, but how do you do that? How –– not you –– but how do you encourage all these Americans who have become part of the Indivisible movement with their local chapters, how do you make sure after 2018 that they’re right back at it, after this impeachment vote that they’re right back at it. You have been doing this so tell us, both of you, how does this work and how do you keep people invested in a broken political process?
Greenberg: A big part of the answer to that for us lies in the form and the structure that we’re encouraging folks to take. So, local group-based organizing that really brings together communities of volunteers who are committed not just to any individual campaign, but to each other. One of the things that we think is really important about Indivisible was that it met a need for community that people were feeling. Folks came together because they were upset about Trump, they stayed together because a lot of times Americans are actually, adult Americans are actually pretty lonely, and we are able to create these communities that have value, that are meaningful to people, that give you a sense of both impact and more connectivity. The other thing is we got involved to resist Trump but what folks found as they formed these communities was that there were a million different ways they could have impact. So people who came together to pressure their own elected officials at the federal level often then found out that there was a water rights issue, or a city council race, or that they themselves might want to run for office, and they found a lot of different other things to work on and to feel that power and that impact from. So what we see from folks is, you know, they got involved because of one thing but now they’re involved because this has changed their identity, this has changed their social networks, this has changed their sense of their own power.
Wang(?): And let me ask a different kind of question but also about your tactics, watching Washington from outside of Washington, certainly with the Republican party it appears nothing can change them. The House Republicans are on message, they are unmovable as are most Senate Republicans other than maybe one or two. At many critical turning points in this presidency, there’s all kinds of stories about turning points in breaking and the party doesn’t. Most of what your work focuses on is clearly Democrats, all kinds of districts, but is there any hope for your tactics from progressive sources actually altering the political dynamics in red states and red districts or is that just not on the table?
Levin: So some of our strongest Indivisible groups are actually in rural and red areas. It’s in places where there hasn’t been a lot of investment in progressive infrastructure. But before Donald Trump was elected and people, to Leah’s point, were searching around looking for community because they were in Trump-won districts or states and they felt alone. And when they reached out they found out that there were in fact many people who disagreed with exactly what Trump was doing to this country, even if folks in their district or state agreed with it. So I think a first step is building those locally led and owned groups that can change what people think is acceptable from this country. A radical action from some of these Indivisible groups isn’t just by starting by electing a new senator or electing a new congressperson, it’s standing out on a street corner with signs saying I don’t agree with the Muslim ban, and I don’t agree with family separation, I don’t agree with this president trying to take our health care and that changes how people feel. It actually does have a big impact. I know there’s a lot of attention in national circles, in conversations that were part of what is the right message? How do we reach out to these people? What do we need to poll test? And look, I’m all for message testing, then my bias is that’s not our specialty. Our specialty is changing who the messengers are. And if you don’t have people in these communities who are getting active and building power, you’re never going to change anything. So I do think there’s a possibility of in a medium or long term changing exactly what these communities look like in terms of their representation, but in the short term, that’s not what we’re doing. In the short term what we’re doing is we’re recognizing there are more of us than there are of them and if we get our people out, we’ll win. And we saw that in 2017 in the Virginia elections, we saw that in 2018 in the midterm elections and we saw that in 2019 in the elections in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. There are more of us then there are of them, if we get our people out we win and a prerequisite for doing anything else we want to do is to ensure that the Republican party is the minority party because right now it is a broken party and a broken party that is a direct threat to American democracy.
Zelizer: Well we want to be a little bit, going back to your point about most people living in about eight states, I want to synthesize that with what you just said about running candidates everywhere. I’m going to refer back to something I noticed back in 2016. Scholastics magazines, Scholastics books surveyed the preferences of K-12 kids and they found that those kids have political preferences that are almost identical to those of millenials. At the time, aged [up to?] 33, which is a 14 to 16 point margin favoring Democrats, and therefore one would presume progressives. And if you look at an electoral map, since Scholastic went to some efforts, if you look at an electoral map that’s something like 36 states, and it appears to be that Democrats at least in this K-12 sample seem to have majorities in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah, Idaho. And so it looks to me like these kinds of efforts converge. I have the distinct impression that what we’re talking about here is an effort to reform and fix democracy on a one decade time scale, and on time scales longer than a decade demographics can take root and you know, I get it that the Senate has this weird disproportionality, but it seems a little bit less dire than you’re painting on a time scale of one decade.
Greenberg: I guess what I would say to that is people have been predicting a permanent Democratic majority for literally decades at this point and it’s always on the horizon and it never quite arrives. I think it would be optimistic to assume that all of the trends that we’re currently seeing around youth voters and around voters of color automatically translate into that majority or even probably translate into that majority in the future without real work around representation and fixing the rules in the political game.
Wang: Okay let’s get pessimistic again. This is my last question, which is let’s imagine that in 2020 a Supreme Court vacancy comes up. Let’s just imagine. Let’s not get into the horrible details. Do you have a particular recommendation for what you would like to see happen at that point?
Levin: I mean, we need to be realistic, which is Mitch McConnell will absolutely appoint a federal society judge to fill that spot.
Wang: Oh, but not in the year before an election, are you sure about that?
Levin: Haha! Oh wow, what a ––
Greenberg: No, he wouldn’t.
Wang: I don’t know, man.
Levin: Man, to live in that world, I would love to. No, Mitch McConnell cares about power and he cares about accomplishing his policy agenda. He knows that his policy agenda is deeply unpopular, and so his success depends on ensuring that our democracy is as not responsive as possible to the electorate, and what better institution than the Supreme Court to affect his policy goals. And so he will absolutely replace any Supreme Court justice who drops off the Court with his own handpicked justice. And to be clear, there’s very little the Democrats can do to oppose that in 2020.
Levin: Procedurally, yes. They can try to slow down the process, they can make a lot of noise, they can try to [peel off?] some Republicans and maybe we can swing a Susan Collins or Cory Gardner or one of the other senators who is up for reelection in 2020 but frankly I think it’s going to be tough. I think probably Mitch McConnell is able to install that extremist judge on the court and then what we’ll be looking at is in 2021 where even if Democrats take the majority in Congress, even if they take the presidency, even if they prioritize democracy reforms and get rid of the filibuster in order to enact them, they are going to be facing a Supreme Court that is antagonistic not just to progressive policy goals but to democracy itself. I think the Supreme Court as currently structured will likely strike down D.C. statehood. I think they would likely strike down expansion to the voting rights, I think they would likely strike down restraints on money in politics. And that’s going to put a really hard choice in front of Democrats, which is how do you unpack the courts that have been packed by Conservatives for years. But how do you do it in such a way that maintains the courts as a legitimate democratic institution and doesn’t just further undermine their legitimacy. I think that’s tough. There are a few ideas out there. You could expand the court and at the same time add term limits. You could set a system in which every president gets to appoint new justices so it’s not just a Democrat packing, everybody gets to do it. You could have rotating justices. There are ideas out there, but it’s a clear danger in front of us. And that actually is true whether or not there’s a vacancy in 2020 because as we said earlier, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republicans, and they were appointed by Republicans precisely because they knew that legislative reforms were a danger and so we needed this anti-democratic institution and power to strike down anything that was a threat to GOP control.
Zelizer: Our time is running short, but let me end by asking, you’ve talked about the scorecard 220 [does he mean 2020?] is going to mean a lot. What are, can you tell people what Indivisible groups, what sorts of activities are they starting and what kinds of activities will they be involved in going into the election, and that people listening who are not in Washington can ultimately get involved with.
Levin: So let me just say one thing. I think there’s a common misconception in the public at large and even in some political circles that there are two types of ways of engaging in politics, and one is advocacy work and another is electoral work. And so there’s this idea that the way you win elections is you have a big get out the vote effort, and so in October and November, you knock on a lot of doors, you make a lot of calls, maybe send some direct mail, you run some ads and that’s how you win. And that’s one kind of work. And the other work is advocacy work. You care about healthcare, you care about climate, you care about taxes, you care about impeachment, whatever it is, and you show up at a congressional office. What we see at Indivisible is that this is a [virtual?] cycle, and that in reality, the way that you build a big blue wave, the way that we did that in 2018 was not just by a big get out the vote effort, although we contacted 12 million voters, but it’s not just that, it’s also building up that wave in the off years. So the first thing anybody listening to this should know is that the day before the vote in the House of Representatives on the two articles of impeachment, there will be national protests at Congressional district offices. You can find it at Indivisible.org or Impeach.org or you can find one that is near you. Now that’s important to do. That’s important to do on advocacy grounds because we want to build the public case for impeaching this president and convicting him in the Senate. But it’s also important to do because this is how we start building the wave in 2020. This is how we pull more people onto the movement and build what we need to build to actually have that trifecta in 2021. So it’s hard to think bout how do we win 11 months from now, how do we actually do this, what should I do right now? The answer is you should get involved right now. You should get involved right now. And the thing that is relevant right now is this impeachment work.
Zelizer: I think that’s a really, really profound point about how politics works and an important way to rethink debates about participation. I want to thank both of you, Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, who are the co-founders of Indivisible, who have a new book out “We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump,” which is published by One Signal Publishers. All the proceeds are going to Indivisible’s Save Democracy Fund. It’s a really good read in addition to being very instructive and relevant to the moment. And I think I said it when we interviewed Ezra shortly after you guys were founded, I might have said this, I don’t remember, but I’ll say it again. One of the pleasures of being a teacher is watching students who go off and do really great things in the world. And as I watch you, but also as I listened to you now, that’s the feeling I have so I want to give an extra thank you, for both of you, for joining the show.
Levin: Well thanks for making me read all those books on politics and leadership.
Zelizer: Once again, you can find us on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Spotify. You can visit also our new website politicspolls.princeton.edu with the show archives, with information, and contact material for guests and feel free to tweet at us with questions or comments as long as they’re nice @julianzelizer and @samwangphd. Thanks for joining us, we’ll be back soon on Politics & Polls.
Wang: Bye, everybody. […] Hey, that was great.
Levin: That was really, really fun.
Wang: Hey, I have a question for you guys. So stipulating, we actually are still recording but we can cut it out if you want. So I was looking at your wedding announcement in March 2015 in The New York Times, and by my calculations, 63% of your marriage has been consumed by Indivisible. So it’s getting close to two-thirds, it’s getting there. From your description there that fraction is going to increase. You okay with that? Is that consuming everything?
Levin: It does consume everything. I mean, I think what we talked about … so Leah and I are co-executive directors in addition to being co-founders and the two things I feel about this is 1) I honestly, you know we have a staff of 87 people now spread across the country so it’s a very large operation, I don’t know how anybody is a sole executive director in any organization. There is just so much to do between the internal work and the external work, the long-term planning, and immediate needs. I don’t know how anybody balances that. And also, I don’t know how anybody is the co-executive director with somebody they’re not married to because the amount of trust that you need and alignment you need is just extremely high. So I think that’s why we’ve been able to sustain this for three years. I will say that it’s something you wouldn’t necessarily want to do forever and at some point ––
Wang: You mean the Indivisible part?
Levin and Greenberg: Haha!
Wang: I hope. All right.
Levin: At some point we hope that we’re in a pro-Trump America with an actually functioning democracy and maybe life gets a little less hectic, but we’re planning to actually sleep a full night’s rest and maybe go on some vacation in 2021.
Wang: I was going to ask you what your number two topic is on date night after politics, but there might be a long pause on the mic.
Levin: No, it’s bad. We have a little dog, actually we got a new dog recently because our old pup died of old age after the last election, but we used to set a rule that we don’t talk about work while we walk the dog, although that sort of fell by the wayside pretty fast.
Greenberg: I think our second topic of conversation is the dog actually.
Levin: Yea, that’s actually true. A solid 30% of our conversations are about the pup.
Wang: All right, thank you.