To Beat Trump, Dems Must Become “Peer Progressives”

Progressives are turning to peer networks to organize the resistance against Trump. But how prepared is the Democratic Party to be transformed into a “peer progressive” political party?

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As each speaker took to the stage at the 2017 Personal Democracy Forum (or PDF17), a mishmash of words appeared on the screen behind them. Words like “defend,” “boycott,” and “march” flashed diagonally and vertically, as if becoming intertwined and part of one very long stream of thought.

This image stuck with me after the two-day conference. I understand these phrases to be examples of what activists and civic hackers are doing to resist President Donald J. Trump’s regressive agenda.

There’s the “Indivisible” movement, which has introduced the disruptive protest tactics of the Tea Party to progressives. And there’s “Knock Every Door,” which is rebooting public engagement in politics by literally knocking on every door in the country.

But I also understand the image of the jumbled words as something indicative of how progressive Americans are being engaged in these campaigns and causes. To fight Trump, progressives aren’t choosing “boycotting” over “marching,” or “hacking” over “writing policy.” They’re choosing all of these actions, and working together with their peers to get it done.

Indivisible and Knock Every Door understand the power of online engagement, but they also understand the vital role “peer-to-peer practices” or “peer networks” can play in spreading your message. More than ever, the resistance against Trump and the Republican-held Congress is resembling a bit-torrent client instead of a giant megaphone blasting instructions to loyal followers.

“The real innovation is not so much about technology, but it’s about connecting volunteers with each other, and then unleashing them on the public,” Becky Bond, the founder of Knock Every Door, said during her talk at PDF17.

“Perhaps our biggest contribution is to support these volunteers and then get out of the way,” she added.

These peer-to-peer practices are by no means new. As technology writer Steven Johnson notes, peer networks have been used effectively throughout history. They were used in Renaissance Florence. It was used to seed music files on Napster and Soulseek. And it helped protesters in Hong Kong occupy Central for 79 days during the Umbrella Movement.

It helped fund Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, and helped mobilize the Tea Party’s taxpayer march in 2009. Now these practices are resurfacing again, and they’re scaling progressive movements in both blue states and red states, coastal states and fly-over states.

Image: Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible.

Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible.

For more evidence of cross-country scaling, look no further than Indivisible. Shortly after Trump’s shock victory, Indivisible co-creator Ezra Levin feared for the worst, and co-wrote a “how to guide” for resisting the Trump administration. He relied on his experience as a former congressional staffer and his observations of the Tea Party as they paralyzed Congress during the Obama administration. The “Indivisible Guide” shows how they can pressure their local member of Congress to listen. Seven months after Levin tweeted out the original document link, it has been downloaded or viewed over 3 million times.

But as Levin explains during his talk at PDF17, something unexpected happened next.

“People were forming physical groups in their own communities. There are now about 6,000 Indivisible groups throughout the country,” he said. “It’s not just NYC, or the West Coast. There are an average of 13 Indivisible groups in every congressional district in the country.”

But Levin is not calling the shots at Indivisible. The guide was created to “help the real leaders on the ground who are resisting Trump’s agenda on their home turf,” and gives details on how to organize their own Indivisible chapters.

Knock Every Door has also seen a decentralized splattering of local groups organizing across the U.S. through a peer-to-peer platform. Like Indivisible, the group sprouted up in the 2016 post-election period. Becky Bond, the group’s co-founder, is a former senior advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign. Bond wants to re-engage with voters who voted for “Change” in 2008, but stumped for “Making America Great Again” in 2016.

Image: Becky Bond, founder of Knock Every Door.

Becky Bond, founder of Knock Every Door.

“The first step of most campaigns is to hire an expensive consultant who identifies a path to victory that goes through the fewest possible voters to get to 50 percent plus 1,” said Bond during her PDF17 talk.

“To get the biggest bang for every dollar you raise, we’ve gone from trying to engage as many people as possible, to trying to figure out what’s the smallest number of people we can talk to, and still win,” she added.

That has left millions of Americans who don’t live in swing states feeling apathetic about the state of democracy. Knock Every Door takes a radical approach for progressives to re-engage with the American heartland: knock on your neighbor’s door, and ask what motivated them to vote for Trump (or Clinton)?

There’s another more interesting facet of the exercise of knocking on doors and talking to Trump-voting neighbors, and that’s Bond’s belief in the power of “deep canvasing.” Recent studies have shown that long conversations with canvassers have been beneficial to swaying opinions.

“In the age of Trump, it’s become a radical act to listen,” said Bond.

Knock Every Door has already mobilized thousands of people to canvass their neighborhoods in 37 states. The data collected by volunteers can then be passed on to progressive or non-establishment Democratic Party candidates to better understand their electorate.

Just like Indivisible, Knock Every Door takes a decentralized approach to recruiting volunteers. Anyone who wants to start canvassing gets a text message from the Knock Every Door team. They’re then invited to a conference call, and given the opportunity to join a local door knocking event. They’re also given coaching and tested scripts when they go out.

“What makes this work is we build teams in a specific way. We don’t ask who wants to lead, we ask who wants to get to work. This brings out a totally different group of people, and these are the kind of people we need to lead the resistance,” said Bond.

Indeed, “the people who want to work” are showing a high level of interest in peer-to-peer campaigns of all shapes and sizes. In order to maximize their impact, Knock Every Door partnered with other platforms like Indivisible and Swingleft, knitting a tighter community of progressives in cities across the U.S. Former members of the Bernie Sanders campaign have also introduced peer-to-peer text messaging strategies to groups like Color of Change.

These are all good examples of the positive impact the internet can have as a peer network. This is also a boon to Steven Johnson’s conception of “peer progressives,” people who are willing to come together online to work on a project for the greater good of the local or global community. Peer progressives contribute their free time to making a better Wikipedia or Duolingo. They help crowdfund on Kickstarter, or maybe attend a civic hackathon.

“In an age of great disillusionment with current institutions, I thought, here were individuals and groups that could inspire us, in part because they had attached themselves to a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy —more like the internet itself than the older models of Big Capital or Big Government,” writes Johnson.

This newfound passion for defending progressive causes and engaging communities disillusioned with politics is garnering the attention of the Democratic Party.

Speaking at PDF17, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York paid homage to these peer progressives that are mobilizing the public to stand up for progressive causes.

Image: US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the Democratic Party.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of the Democratic Party.

 “We must understand that the Democratic Party’s message is not going to come from Washington, it’s going to come from the grassroots, it’s going to come from regular people, their lives, and what needs to be fixed…and I can tell you, the people are pissed,” she said.

But how prepared is the Democratic Party for this new rank of decentralized, non-hierarchical, peer progressives?

Johnson remarked in 2012 that the peer progressive movement looked nothing like the Republican Party or Democratic Party. The peer progressives preferred “decentralized, bottom-up solutions”; they broke with big government, but “looked nothing like the “free market religion of the libertarian Right,” he wrote.

For the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020, they will have to turn to groups who have thoroughly tapped into peer networks to mobilize and re-engage Americans. Indeed, peer progressives will likely turn to the Democrats as likely vehicles to nominate non-establishment types to run in elections. Whether it’s a Tea Party-style takeover, or a quiet compromise, only time will tell.

Aaron Wytze is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Taipei, and an editor and reporter at