One of the things any beginner activist and organizer with a decent gut has to learn out of the gate is that coalitions are the only way to accomplish the at-large mission of your organization. Quick shot actions or one-time vote pushes can be great as part of larger coordinated campaigns, but the only way to make long-term progress on an issue is to focus on a larger yet quantifiable goal that falls underneath your organizational mission, whether that mission is social, philanthropic, or legislative.
Indivisible Houston’s mission is to advocate for a government of, by and for The People through education, engagement, and resistance. Our methods do not focus on electoral outcomes as an organization; we want The People to know what they need to know and have actual leverage in their democracy because the government belongs to them, not to powerful politicians or other fat cat stakeholders.
We also push for a progressive worldview that doesn’t always align with the politicians of either large political party. Our organization is unabashed in what it believes in on specific issues. We organized to pack IAH and push back against the wretched, unconstitutional, unAmerican Muslim Ban. We pushed crowds to the offices of Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, and John Culberson multiple times to pressure them against voting to repeal ACA. And we have demonstrated using banner drops, marches, and bird dogging techniques alongside DREAMERS, against the Trump Tax Scam, and in favor of Net Neutrality. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Given our positions and the current fight we have undertaken- as well as the inspiration behind the original Indivisible Guide- we are occasionally asked:
“What makes you different from the Democratic Party?”
A political party’s job- no matter what that party is- is to build some political and electoral coalition that establishes power in branches of government. Their chief method of achieving that goal is through electoral outcomes based on partisan standards. As a result, the party ends up inherently compromising to some degree through something euphemistically referred to as a “big tent”. Generally speaking (but not always), the tent is as large as political strategists think they need to make it to win without crossing a line that outright abandons the party’s ideological principles. The location of that ideological line in the sand is determined by party officials and members with the power to affect the party rules and processes through conventions, committees, or whatever other mechanism they have at their disposal that is available to them. The fact that this process is tied to the general electoral population means that the tent is often based on a strategic decision-making process that may or may not acquiesce to standards of good governance. As a result, the political parties are mostly focused on winning the game based on the rules of the process or changing the rules so they are in their favor. They advocate for themselves, and how much they advocate for The People is determined partly by how much (or in worst-case scenarios, how little) they can or want to represent The People in their areas.
The nature of parties shows us why in spite of potentially deep ideological divides between the rank and file and leadership in a given party, rank and file members tend to fall in line with leadership. Parties are designed that way by mechanism. Remember, it is in their NATURE. They are SUPPOSED to be that way.
As soon as an activist group becomes an arm of a party, trouble begins to brew for that group. The group can coordinate with a party on a given issue or goal, of course. Just as we have worked with United We Dream, Our Revolution, Pantsuit Republic Houston, Black Lives Matter Houston, and a range of other groups, we can work with parties if we so choose to kill a specific bill or get the word out about something.
But if the group is an arm of the party, it must get pulled into doing its bidding. And since that bidding is related to electoral power and whatever the party strategists decide it will take to win elections, the organization becomes compromised, particularly when it comes to electoral pressure.
Let’s consider a specific example. As I write this article, the news cycle is filled with actions and reactions in the wake of yet another school shooting in Parkland, Florida near Ft. Lauderdale that left 17 students and faculty dead. Students appear to be ready to act in the wake of this shooting, with a series of coordinated walkouts and other actions planned for the months ahead. Student-led rallies are scheduled for both March 24th and April 20th. There is talk of a march in Washington.
Inside of Indivisible Houston’s chosen territory is TX-29, Gene Green’s congressional district. Representative Green (Gene, not Al) has decided to retire. His seat is up for grabs by 11 different filed candidates.
Yet while Representative Green is still in the chair, it is his job to make decisions in Washington on behalf of his Houston area district. And Green’s position on guns, from a progressive perspective, is a mixed bag to say the least. February 16th of this year, Texas Monthly broke that Green used campaign funds he raised to pay $300 for his NRA membership back in 2011, a decision that is somewhat questionable in context of not only his position on guns but also election ethics. FEC rules state that such memberships are allowable, but only if they would not have been purchased outside of political campaigns. In other words, Green’s purchase of a membership inherently is a statement that he only paid for the membership for political purposes. His Texas delegation colleague across the aisle Louis Gohmert gave the organization $1500.
Green has a fairly good overall score from the NRA over the course of his now ending congressional career, as outlined by Politifact in an article from the time period when he fended off a primary challenge from Adrian Garcia in 2016:
1992: rated “A” and endorsed
1994: rated “C,” not endorsed
1996: rated “A+” and endorsed
From 1998-2010: rated “A” and endorsed
2012: rated “A-,” not endorsed
2014: rated “A-,” not endorsed
After 2012, Green claimed he did not want the support of the NRA, stating it had become too aligned with the Republican Party. But they did still give him high marks.
Green is not alone in the Texas Democratic delegation on receiving support from the NRA. Henry Cuellar received $3000 in the 2016 cycle, good for the second most heavily NRA-supported Democratic candidate of that election.
Naturally, Green’s Republican counterparts in the Houston area are positively swimming in NRA blood cash. This cycle, John Culberson has received $5,950 from the NRA. Pete Olson has gotten $3500. Kevin Brady, Brian Babin, and Ted Poe have each received $2000.
Indivisible Houston doesn’t have to worry about the election prospects of any of these candidates. It’s not our job. Our concern is holding them accountable, showing others how to do the same, and pushing them for policies of, by, and for The People. Therefore, we push back against their extremist position on firearms and the corporate cronyism that writes their election checks.
Another example comes in the form of an action we executed last week when we visited the Harris County Commissioners Court. While the court is mostly Republican, it does include a Democratic lawmaker. We were very clear about our concern with the county’s handling of Hurricane Harvey, particularly its failure to prepare as outlined by ProPublica in a damning report issued 24 hours before our testimony during the open comments session. In fact, near the end of comments, we stated clearly that the issue was “above politics” and that it was “time to acknowledge mistakes- hurricane-sized mistakes made by the county”.
There are plenty of other examples and scenarios we could unpack in the Texas Legislature, public boycotts, social justice, and even at the municipal level (as the City of Houston’s policies on homelessness have been abhorrent). In each of the examples you will find the same story: power made mistakes or abused its authority and we leaned against it.
Arms of a major political party cannot act with that sort of agency. They are just what they sound like: arms. They do the bidding of the party. And when they rebel, the party either begins to fray as an organization or someone finds the leadership mantle and reconsolidates its overall bloc position for electoral or legislative purposes. They either force the arms to get back to doing their work, or chop them off. In the end, it has the appearance of something akin to what we’re accustomed to seeing in professional sports: the parties treat themselves as a team, cheering for their own players as they rise and wincing as they fall, demonizing the opposition, and hoping they can come out on top in various “championships” ranging from state special elections all the way up to the presidency.
Activist groups free of party rule, however, do not have the same internal pressure to comply. They fight for what they believe in and keep politicians honest without the shackles of partisanship. As a result, they not only improve the impact the parties themselves have on society as a whole but also improve the world directly by giving people the tools to engage and move the needle on issues they care about.
Indivisible Houston cares fiercely about maintaining that independence regardless of the allegiance of individual members of the Indivisible Houston community. When officials speak to us, it will be to speak to our values or face questions on them.
Our concern is our mission; whether that aligns with a party is up to the parties themselves.