A month into the Trump administration, we can see the outline of Trump’s vision for America: An attorney general who prosecuted voting rights activists; a secretary of education devoted to dismantling our public education system; and a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who wants to dismantle environmental protections.
Between the emerging administration, and a Congress that is hell-bent on taking our country backwards—not just to before Obama, but to before Roosevelt’s New Deal—there is a clear need for citizen vigilance and activism. And Americans are meeting the moment: They’re flocking to marches, airports, and town halls; donating record amounts of money; and subscribing to responsible journalistic outlets that hold the government accountable.
Our system only works when we make sure our representatives are not legislating for themselves or their lobbyists, but for those who gave them the power to govern in the fi rst place: The American people.
Americans are showing up in record numbers, but it doesn’t actually take that many people to move the government. The Tea Party proved this in 2009, when a small segment of the electorate organized to thwart President Obama. It rallied its members against a president who had decisively won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and whose party held majorities in both Congressional chambers—a president who did, in fact, enjoy a sweeping popular mandate for his campaign promises. Yet by focusing their energy with laser-like precision on a local, defensive strategy, the Tea Party became a force in American politics.
What the Tea Party did was a Civics 101 lesson on constituent power: They engaged with their members of Congress, and reminded them that they have opinions—and that they vote. And they did it week after week after week.
Now we’re in the beginnings of a new movement, and we can use a similar playbook.
It worked here in Roanoke when our Congressman, Republican Bob Goodlatte, proposed legislation to gut the congressional ethics office. Constituents flooded the office with so many calls that his staff seemed dazed when they picked up the phone. Then, when the phone lines were continuously busy, 12 of us decided we were concerned enough to visit his district office in person.
We knew that it was our Representative’s staff’s job to listen to our concerns and report them to Mr. Goodlatte. But Congressional offices will also try to control the public narrative, and even silence constituents. We have now visited Mr. Goodlatte’s district office three times, and we were denied entry each time.
On our first visit we were forced to meet with his staff in a lobby on a different floor, where we delivered New Year’s cards with our messages (one of which read “Happy New Year! We expect better!”). On our second visit we were told the same lobby was private property and no longer available for constituent meetings, so we asked his staff to meet with us outside. There, a group of teachers and medical and insurance professionals urged Mr. Goodlatte to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unless he had a health care proposal to replace it. By our third visit a week later, building security physically blocked the lobby door to keep us outside. Once again, we called Mr. Goodlatte’s staff to meet us in the winter cold so we could deliver 80 letters from constituents asking Goodlatte to vote against a federal “personhood” bill that would criminalize abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control.
Like the woman from Utah who sent a message to her senator via pizza delivery when his voice mail was full, we have learned to improvise and be creative. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure our members of Congress hear our voices.
The first weeks of the Republic administration have shown that we can win some fights if we stand together. Congressional Republicans retreated from Goodlatte’s anti-ethics legislation, and the calls and visits demanding a replacement for the ACA before a reckless repeal throws millions of people off their health insurance have forced some Republicans to admit privately that they need to slow down and govern.
Civics 101 is working again.
Right now, we have the chance to do even more. This week, members of Congress are in their home states and districts. It is their job to listen to us, so find a local group and make sure that they do. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.
This is our republic, entrusted to each and every citizen. Every call and every visit to our representatives is another beat of the heart of our democracy. Our system only works when we make sure our representatives are not legislating for themselves or their lobbyists, but for those who gave them the power to govern in the first place: The American people.
Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes & Ezra Levin, Talk Poverty.