Last Saturday was a rarity for me. I knew the Anchorage Women’s March was happening, but I’d already decided I wasn’t going. Spending a Saturday morning in a driving snowstorm listening to political speeches likely to go nowhere just didn’t register as interesting to me.
But for some reason, in spite of the frigid temperatures and waist-high snow that was mid-process of taking my little urban cabin hostage, I found myself pulling on the snow boots and dusting off the Camry for a trip down to the Park Strip to check it out.
I have to admit feeling a certain curiosity and anticipation no longer common to how I feel about politics. Too many years of being forcibly tethered to such events by professional obligation or personal loyalty has long since scrubbed my soul of anything approaching enthusiasm.
But still, I found myself eagerly wondering what I would find Downtown. On the Thursday before the event I attended what the Alaska Democratic Party billed as “A Dialog With Mark Begich,” where the Democratic former U.S. Senator tried to rally progressives with the idea they can rise, fight, and eventually defeat the new President, who would be sworn in the next morning.
It was a fine performance from Begich, but what stuck out to me was how many people in the audience were already ahead of him in voicing their passion for the Women’s March to take place two days later.
More than anything, it was that energy I’d detected that drove my subconscious need to see what the Women’s March would become.
After conquering the snow by road and on foot I arrived on the Delaney Park Strip. The scene was impressive. There were maybe two to three thousand people with signs of all sorts, anxious to voice their antipathy toward the man now in the White House who they see as the enemy of everything they believe in, along with speakers eager to evoke every ounce of that passion from the crowd.
It was the Tea Party. Well, the progressive version.
It’s not surprising that was my first impression. I had attended the first nationwide Tea Party rallies in Spring 2009 as a young Alaska Republican Party staffer. It was tax day, April 15th, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, crowded the street corner in front of the Federal Building in Downtown Anchorage to voice their opposition to then-newly elected President Barack Obama.
Here is a video from that first major Tea Party rally in Anchorage, and here is one from the Women’s March last Saturday. The crowds appear to be roughly the same size. Maybe the Women’s March was a bit bigger, but not by a lot.
Of course, there is room on both sides to offer a “yeah, but…”
The Women’s March was in a freezing snowstorm in January, whereas the Tea Party rally was on a mild day in April. Surely more people would have come in better weather, right, progressives?
Then again, the Women’s March was held midday on a Saturday, while that first Tea Party rally came in the middle of a work day. Surely the numbers would have been bigger if freedom-loving conservatives didn’t have to pull their weight by going to work that day, right, Tea Partiers?
Having experienced both firsthand, I can tell you the energy in the crowds was the same. There were plenty of people channeling their feelings into angry chants, but the true emotion underlying both events was fear: Fear the country they thought they knew was slipping away, and fear there was nothing they could do about it.
Neither group appeared to have much of a plan how to fight back, but each rallier knew they had to and they needed to tell someone. So they showed up, they marched, they yelled, and they communed. And like any great therapy session, there was a post-event rush of endorphins from finally being allowed to openly express feelings you’d been trying to bury deep inside.
Finally, I saw the same tinge of a new fear in the eyes of Women’s Marchers I had seen in the gaze of Tea Partiers that long ago day in April. It was the fear that comes with the thought, “what do we do now?”
In the months and years following those first successful Tea Party rallies, conservatives got to work making social change exactly the way we teach our kids Americans are supposed to do. They didn’t get violent or advocate for violence, but organized with one another, forming groups to give their shared concerns a voice. They recruited new candidates who shared their values to run for office, and then they spent hours helping them on their campaigns.
It is indisputable that the far-right-wing agenda now being deployed by Congressional leaders and the White House wouldn’t have happened but for the work of those Tea Partiers in the years that followed the 2009 rallies. They didn’t win every battle and it wasn’t always pretty, but they did succeed.
Were there powerful political and corporate institutions behind the Tea Party? Yes, but there always had been in conservative grassroots activities. This time was different because of the willingness of average citizens to take matters into their own hands, peacefully, went from an unfulfilled promise to committed action.
You may not love, or like, or even tolerate the Tea Party, but if you love American democracy, you should respect what they did and how they did it.
What Does The Future Hold For Women’s Marchers?
So can those that came out for the Anchorage Women’s March and their national compatriots be as successful as the Tea Party?
They’d sure like to. One of the event organizers, Jeanna Duryee, told me in an interview earlier this week they are looking to learn what they can from that movement. “We’re definitely taking notes from the Tea Party playbook,” she said.
Progressives may be trying to duplicate the Tea Party movement, but having been at both sets of events, I can tell you there are significant differences that could impact their success.
Early Bird Gets The Worm
The first thing to note is how quickly the progressive counter-movement against Trump has begun.
The first truly national Tea Party rallies didn’t begin until about six months after Obama was elected. It took conservatives that long to get up off the mat and get re-engaged after the disastrous 2008 elections.
Progressives organized an equal reaction to Trump on his second day in office. That gives progressives months more lead time to get their movement going before the next significant elections.
Those looking to take down the conservative agenda of President Trump and conservative members of Congress don’t just have a head start on their Tea Party predecessors in terms of time, they are also ahead in public perception of their target.
Here is an interesting chart from fivethirtyeight.com. It shows that when Barack Obama took office only 12% of people disapproved of him and the spread between his +/- was 56%. By contrast, Donald Trump starts with 45% of people disliking him and a +/- of 0. And those are his honeymoon numbers, when presumably a certain number of people who didn’t vote for him and don’t like his agenda still want to give their new President a chance.
This should mean progressives will have much more oxygen to breathe life into their movement at the outset.
Given that, what I am about to write is stunning.
I was struck as much by what was missing from the Women’s March as I was by how many people were there. Speaker after speaker came to the lectern and one-after-another they all left the name “Trump” out of their speeches.
I was wondering if that was a concerted effort, just a coincidence, or if I had some sort of post-traumatic-election disorder that caused me not to hear the man’s name. Another event organizer, Celeste Godfrey, told me my hearing was fine. She said they had received “guidance from the national movement” not to mention Trump.
That is a remarkable revelation.
Godfrey explained that organizers didn’t want the event to be about animosity towards Trump, but rather about building around the event’s slate of national issues they call their “Unity Principles.”
In case you’re interested, here is the list of those principles:
ENDING VIOLENCE (AGAINST WOMEN)
Rather than focus on defining and stopping “Trumpism,” organizers held a liberal causes fair at the end of the march route, with tables for all the different organizations that work on these issues.
That is just adorably liberal on so many levels.
First of all, I’m sorry to break the news to you, but the thousands of people around the state who came out for these marches didn’t do so primarily out of concern for these issues. If so many people were so motivated by these things then HILLARY CLINTON WOULD HAVE WON.
Did most people at the marches support these ideals? Absolutely. But that isn’t what got them off their rear ends and pushed them through the snow and cold to the rally. It was the harsh reality of hearing the words “President Donald J. Trump” and understanding what that means for our country that motivated them.
That isn’t to say progressives don’t need principles in their movement. That would be an absurd assertion. Of course, people need to hear a core policy message to understand what they are fighting for, but that message to needs to be a simple idea, not a recitation of random and seemingly unconnected causes.
The Tea Party was built on the idea that the guy in the Oval Office and the big, bad government he leads are coming for you. See how simple and powerful that message is? It allowed folks to fill in the scary policy of their choice. The faithful heard it this way: Obama is coming for your money (taxes, national debt), your job (environmental regulations), your gun (2nd Amendment), your God (gay marriage), and your unborn baby’s life (abortion).
What was the Women’s March’s core message? What was the connective tissue between those various causes? How do they connect to Trump? I listened but never heard an answer to those questions.
The Tea Party, for the record, had no problem pointing at President Obama and saying that is what they were fighting against. Was there a tinge of racism in that? Sure, but let’s stay focused here.
Conservatives instinctively realized what progressives seem to be running from: Having a poster child that every single person in the movement froths at the mouth with hatred toward is a massive gift from the political gods. While people might argue and infight around various policy differences surrounding these “Unity Principles,” a universal antipathy towards Trump is unifying and perpetually motivating. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Explaining the complexities of eight policy areas and why the movement’s position is better than the other side’s is horribly cumbersome and impossible for most people to digest. Progressives will have a hell of a time keeping those who came to the marches in the movement or attracting converts with this strategy.
Pointing at a picture of Trump and saying “we gotta stop that guy” is something everyone can understand and many will get on board with. You marry that with a simple narrative about why Trump and his agenda are bad for each and every one of us and, presto, now you have a powerful message a movement can be built around.
Look, I’m not telling progressives the way the world should be, I’m just dropping knowledge on how it really is.
Mostly, the biggest headwind this movement could face is a leadership vacuum. From talking to progressives who attended the march in Anchorage and some of the organizers, it seems this group might be succumbing to one of the key ills of the Occupy Wall Street movement — its aversion to strong leadership.
Progressives in America seem to have an affinity for the idea that their movement should be an egalitarian organization where there are no leaders and no followers and everyone’s voice is equal. Tra-la-la-la.
Conservative groups, on the other hand, pride themselves on a more military-style structure with strong leaders who are empowered by their members to make command decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of infighting and second-guessing going on, but these folks tend to respect positions of leadership and play their role. That makes organizing far more efficient.
Will progressive groups and leaders in Alaska come together to form a structural and strategic backbone that allows the energy seen on Saturday to coalesce, grow, and achieve something tangible at the ballot box, or will the movement decompose into a series of amorphous blobs of directionless sub-groups?
The answer isn’t clear right now.
One thing is apparent, there are literally thousands of folks in Alaska ready to do something to stop Donald Trump. The decisions made over the next few months by both local and national progressive leaders will determine if they are successful.