Indivisible Madison doesn’t plan to endorse candidates, but might oppose those who don’t uphold progressive values.
Crystal Ketterhagen was never really into politics. A self-described “mom-preneur,” she’s spent much of her professional life in the creative field, working as a photographer, an international yoga magazine editor and apron designer. Then the 2016 election happened.
“Trump woke me up,” Ketterhagen says. With the president’s far-right administration now in power, suddenly the freedoms and civil liberties that she’d always taken for granted seemed frighteningly vulnerable. “I decided something had to change, and that change had to start with me,” she says. “I wanted to use my skills, my education, my privileges to help.”
Ketterhagen found solidarity with other concerned progressives who had huddled on social media to process the election results and plot what became known as #TheResistance. At the same time, an activism manual written by former Democratic congressional staffers was circulating online. The document, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” became a playbook for the burgeoning grassroots activist network. Today, there are more than 6,000 confirmed Indivisible groups in all 435 of the nation’s congressional districts.
Indivisible Madison met for the first time Feb. 6, drawing about 120 people, says Ketterhagen, who has become one of the group’s core organizers. “People are super-passionate, ready to organize and eager to get started,” Kettering says.
As the group has expanded its reach and membership, its organizational structure has grown as well. Members have launched a number of initiatives, including an “empty chair” town hall for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) that drew hundreds of attendees. Johnson declined to attend. They also hold #ResistTrump meetups every Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the state Capitol. Indivisible activists have also been meeting regularly with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s staffers and successfully pressured Baldwin (D-Madison) into holding a town hall meeting in Milwaukee. The group doesn’t plan to endorse candidates, but might “anti-endorse” candidates who don’t uphold progressive values.
“The first tier of what we want to do is resist, and the other side of that is reform,” Kettering says. The group’s long-term plan is to “get dark money out of politics, get good people into seats of power, and to vote in representatives that represent the people and not the corporation that pays them to be corrupt puppets.”
Indivisible Madison is shaping up to be the state’s flagship chapter, and there’s an effort to create a “state-level resistance guide” that will help unite the various Indivisible groups popping up throughout the state. Interest and enthusiasm from members is high, but many challenges remain.
“None of us are professional organizers,” says Adam Wood, an Indivisible volunteer who works as a transportation and land-use planner. There are logistical hurdles to overcome — gaining nonprofit status, redesigning the IndivisibleMadison.org website, recruiting new members, delegating responsibilities and planning for future efforts. And then there’s the issue of keeping up the momentum. “Preventing activism fatigue is a huge issue,” Wood says.
Wood is optimistic about the idea of a progressive tea party movement, and he believes the message of the Indivisible movement is inherently more positive. “The tea party was all about preventing something from happening — they were more about resisting and opposing,” he says. “We’re looking to get people in place to make things better than they were in the past. That’s the definition of being a progressive.”
Indivisible isn’t the only grassroots movement spawned in the wake of the election. Groups like the Forward Action Women’s Network and the Women’s Huddle are also using the Indivisible playbook, says Dale Ivarie, an activist and political analyst. The groups are unabashedly left-leaning, but not explicitly affiliated with the Democrats, and they’re trying to find their place within existing social justice organizations in the state.
Ivarie says some Indivisible chapters around the state are open to working with Democrats, while others are saying, “screw it; let’s vote them out.” “The people on the left, they’re fragmented into these little groups and they in-fight all the time,” he says. “But we need to come together and work together — that’s the whole point of the Indivisible group.”
Staffers in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin are aware of the Indivisible groups around the state and are doing their “due diligence to reach out” to progressive activists, says Brandon Weathersby, the party’s communications director.
“What they’re doing on the ground is incredible,” Weathersby says. “What we’re trying to do is to be a resource, helping amplify the message, helping mobilize people to [Indivisible] chapters.”
Weathersby hopes that the activism will continue into the midterm elections and beyond. But he says there’s a key difference that could end up benefiting the Democratic Party down the road.
“Eventually, the tea party movement cannibalized conservatives and Republicans, but I don’t get the sense that that’s the Indivisible groups’ priority [with regards to Democrats],” he says. “I think right now their priority is to identify individuals who are not supporting a progressive agenda and holding those folks accountable, so their focus is primarily on Republicans and conservatives.”
Mike Wagner, a professor of political science and journalism at UW-Madison, says the Indivisible movement’s collective strategy will give it a greater chance of being politically effective. The fact that Indivisible isn’t endorsing candidates will help them get more credibility with liberal activists, but at some point they’re going to need to find and support candidates who will help further their agenda, Wagner says. “They may not want to start that way, [because] endorsing can cause problems and can splinter a group, but if Indivisible has long-term designs of advocating policies, electing candidates is essential.”
However, in order to have sustained success, Wagner believes Indivisible will have to eventually work through the existing system. He cautions them against staying away from the party system for too long.
Says Wagner: “Groups that do that don’t tend to last.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Crystal Ketterhagen's name.