This is one part in a series of interviews with Democrats discussing their worries, plans, and hopes for the 2022 election.
Leah Greenberg’s response to Donald Trump’s 2016 election was to make a Google Doc. The brief was intended for inexperienced activists looking for ways to get involved in a shocking new political landscape. That resource went on to become the Indivisible Project, a progressive nonprofit that has since grown into an umbrella organization for thousands of local activist groups across the country. During Trump’s years in the White House, the nonprofit focused on opposing his agenda and electing Democrats to office. Many of the groups are still populated by people who were newly activated by Trump’s political ascent.
Now, Trump is out of office. If the governor’s race in Virginia is any indication, Democrats are still feeling out how much they should be reminding voters of the guy when he is not on the ballot. I spoke with Greenberg about what Democrats need to do to win in 2022, where the party’s messaging has failed, and how grassroots anti-Trump activists are redirecting their energies. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Christina Cauterucci: Were there any surprises for you in the 2021 elections?
Leah Greenberg: Look, we always head into elections hoping for the best and also realistic about where the winds are going. The polling had signaled some momentum for [Republican Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn] Youngkin for a while. So I think we were prepared for it to go either way. We are realistic about the fact that the national environment is sourer now than it was a few months ago.
You recently tweeted about knocking doors in Virginia in 2010. Can you tell me about that experience, and what you took away from it?
I worked for member of Congress, [Democrat] Tom Perriello, who had been elected with under a thousand-vote margin in 2008, in a quite red district. He had been really committed to taking hard votes in service of the Obama agenda—including the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill, and the health care bill—and then really aggressively communicating about those votes and why he believed they were the best thing for his district, which was not the approach that every Democratic member of Congress took at that time. I spent about a month in Danville, Virginia, which was an area that had unemployment [rates] hit around 20 percent during the Great Recession. A lot of folks were suffering in different ways.
What I really came away with from knocking on doors was that what was hurting us was the combination of a prolonged period of intraparty bickering and the fact that a lot of the internal debates had led to a crown jewel, the Affordable Care Act, that was weaker. It was designed in ways that had been intended to appease a whole set of constituencies, but not to make it easy to message to voters about how directly it would change their lives. Key selling points and benefits were not kicking in for years in the future, to keep it under a certain total price tag for the 10-year price window. All of that made it very hard to easily communicate directly to a voter: This bill passed, and this is how your life is going to be different as a result. And that gap allowed a lot of space for cynicism, for a general sense that this was just Washington not delivering once again, for disappointment with the process.
What are the lessons here? What can Democrats apply to what they’re doing now?
We need to have clear, tangible ways in which Build Back Better makes people’s lives better that they can feel before November 2022. They need to be as universal and as easily messaged as possible. Another lesson has been that there is a real danger to delaying benefits kicking in until later. It’s one thing to tell people that something is on the way in three years. It’s another thing to say, “Hey, you got your first check now.”
One of the biggest examples there in the ACA was the Medicaid expansion, where it took so long to kick in that a court challenge was able to proceed. By the time it was supposed to be up and running, Republican states were able to opt out. Thus we’ve been locked in an extended struggle to expand Medicaid for the last seven or eight years, instead of running on that benefit, which everyone should have had shortly after the Affordable Care Act passed.
The Affordable Care Act ended up, years later, becoming something that has benefited the Democrats in elections. Do you see Build Back Better possibly falling into that trap where, if it’s watered down enough, it would screw Dems over for 2022—only to be an incredibly popular plan years down the line?
I think the time scale matters a lot. We can set up Build Back Better such that people have seen tangible benefits that they are then afraid to lose by 2022, instead of setting up plans that go into motion in two years, in five years. It is certainly the case that it is easier—and it is often a simpler electoral pitch—to try to protect something than to try to enact something new.
Some Democrats in Congress are using the 2021 results to try to justify watering down the bill. What’s the logic there, based on what you’ve just told me?
We wrote an Indivisible Guide on what to expect in 2021. Our two points were, expect a resurgent right-wing backlash, and expect Democrats, in particular moderate Democrats, to get cold feet. It is extremely predictable and normal for a faction of our party to respond to basically everything—from an electoral loss to bad weather—by saying, “We’ve got to water down our agenda.” That’s super normal. That’s what they do.
It is simply the case that if it were up to the progressives in the party, we would’ve short-circuited a lot of these damaging internal debates about exactly how much we’re going to cut all these popular things. So, the news every day would not be about a big popular item that we are not going to do. It’d be about the actual bill that had already passed that contained a bunch of popular stuff.
I think there’s a broad consensus that Democrats need to focus on economic issues. And the Build Back Better plan would be giving people economic wins, like child care; that’s helping people keep more money in their wallet. But if you listen to what some of these more centrist Democrats are saying, you get the sense that voters are scared of these big government programs because they think their taxes are going to go up. That’s not part of the plan—only the very rich will see a tax increase. How can Democrats be making that difference clear? Like, yes, this is a lot of money, but no, you’re not going to be expected to pay for all of it?
Well, first of all, I think it’s been an enormous own goal on the part of moderates to be talking about the ultimate outlays within the package, as opposed to the fact that it is revenue-neutral or even revenue-positive. Second, it’s just important for every Democrat to be really clear and direct that this is coming from making rich people and corporations pay their equal share. That is one of the selling points of the package. Moving to a more equitable taxation system is itself one of the advantages that comes with Build Back Better.
This is not a fight between the progressive and the moderate wings of the party. It’s the fight between the vast majority of the Democratic Party across the political spectrum, who wants to actually act on the president’s agenda—that includes a lot of moderates and front-liners—and a relatively small number of folks who don’t frame things in those ways because they are more comfortable with a corporate agenda.
For all the talk about how important these economic wins are, it does seem like the banning-critical-race-theory stuff was pretty important to white Virginia voters. In fact, in one Virginia poll, when people were asked about major factors in their vote for governor, more people selected “school curriculums on race and history” than “taxes.” So is the hope that helping people make ends meet will make them forget about the racial grievance stuff?
I think you have to address racial appeals from the Republican Party head-on. This is a both-and situation. You need to be able to come to voters with tangible ways in which your governance has made their lives better and offer them an alternate story that brings us together, as opposed to the Republican approach to divide and conquer.
That looks like saying, “Republicans are trying to distract you with these race-based appeals. All of us, of every race, care about having schools that work well for our children. Unfortunately, some people are trying to divide us from each other because their actual agenda is unpopular. They want to get in and they want to cut taxes for the wealthy and gut services for everyone else. We don’t have to let that happen. We can join together to have the good public schools for everyone that we deserve.”
There’s a body of research around how Democrats can effectively neutralize and respond to racial and culture war appeals. It was adapted and developed by Anat Shenker-Osorio, and it’s called race-class narrative. It’s basically the idea that you can’t ignore a racial appeal, but you also need to give people a common set of values that they’re coming together around in order to address it.
I’ve spoken to a fair number of Indivisible activists in local groups over the past few years. And I remember one of them telling me, “One of the strengths of this organization is that we are united by an opposition to the Trump agenda. We don’t really have a proactive policy platform, because we would never agree on one.” Would you describe Indivisible in that way?
I think that’s certainly how we started. When we wrote our original Indivisible Guide, we said explicitly, “You do not have to all agree on exactly what the right policy is on health care to say that we need to defeat this Republican push on the Affordable Care Act.” That said, over time, what we’ve seen is a lot of evolution in how people think and how people have approached politics. One of the things that we’ve seen post–Donald Trump’s defeat was a really high level of unity across the network in pushing for structural democracy reform. They were activated by Donald Trump, but over years of activism, it became really clear that Donald Trump was not the problem. He was a symptom of the greater problem.
This was a very natural place to go for people who were activated by 2016. Because a really common emotional story was that they thought in 2016 that something about the existing system would prevent Donald Trump from being elected—whether that was the parties or the institutions or the media or something. And looking at the ways in which the system failed to stop this obviously unsuitable person from taking office, they had a strong interest in the rules of the game—everything from gerrymandering to voting rights to judicial nominations that were shaping how power was unfolding.
So what does that mean for local groups? How have people shifted their focus, now that Trump’s out of office?
Long before 2020, a lot of Indivisibles who had gotten started doing congressional and national advocacy were also finding ways to work locally and at the state level. They were running their own candidates for office. They were getting involved in fights around district attorneys and prosecutors. They were building up entities that could send folks to knock doors in other swing races.
We’ve also seen a lot of enthusiasm in pushing for a proactive agenda in Washington. People understand that the finish line was not getting Donald Trump out of office. It was actually enacting policies that would reflect the Democratic vision of the world—and that’s everything from big climate action to a pathway to citizenship to democracy reform. So for folks who got active after Trump’s election, four years ago, they were getting organized. Now they’ve got their member of Congress and chief of staff’s phone number, and they have weekly or monthly meetings with them.
I know there’s been some talk, especially around Virginia, about Democrats leaning too hard on Trump—the idea that maybe Virginia voters looked at Democrats trying to equate Youngkin with Trump and thought, “That’s ridiculous.” Does that ring true to you?
I think we would all have hoped that, after an armed insurrection left people dead in the Capitol earlier this year, Republicans would pay a higher political price for their failure to break from Trump. It is clear from Virginia that that is not the case. And I also think it is clear that once you are in power, voters are going to assess you first and foremost on whether you have delivered on your campaign promises, rather than on the specter of somebody who is out of power and largely out of the headlines. So while I think that it is important for us to continue to tie folks to Trump, we need to offer a compelling alternative based on the ways in which we tangibly improve people’s lives.
How are you feeling about 2022? What are your hopes and fears for the next year?
We all know midterms are hard. There is a body of data that suggests that the natural tendency is for midterms to be challenging for the president’s party. I think we all wish that we had passed this agenda two months ago. I think we especially feel that the delay in passing the For the People Act is enormously dangerous given the fact that redistricting has already begun and is moving forward fast.
I also think there is a potential world next year where COVID cases have fallen really dramatically. Everybody who wants a vaccine can have one. Kids are now getting vaccinated. The economy is roaring. The infrastructure package and Build Back Better have passed. People are feeling and seeing tangible benefits from a historic legislative agenda. We’re able to run on cutting child poverty by a third, on universal pre-K and child care, on elder care, on climate action, on roads and bridges. That is a really good place to be. That is a strong pitch that we can make to voters—but we have to do those things.