In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as president of the US in November, a Macalester professor decided to form a group to organize against the new president’s agenda.
The result was the Facebook group “Indivisible Saint Paul,” part of a larger resistance movement against Trump started by a collection of former Democratic congressional staffers. Indivisible, born in December, now has thousands of chapters across the country.
The Saint Paul branch has a decidedly Macalester bent.
More than 40 Macalester employees across academic departments as well the Library, Residential Life, and administrative staffs are current members of the group, which also contains a number of alumni and current students.
In addition to being formed by a Macalester professor, all four of the chapter’s administrators have ties to the school.
In the last several months, “Indivisible Saint Paul” has taken off in popularity.
“When I joined, there were less than 200 members. There are 1,600 members as of today,” said Ronny Watkins Bradtke ’10. “About half of those members have connected through the Indivisible Guide website.”
Much of that growth has come through Macalester connections. Shortly after joining, Watkins Bradtke invited her senior year housemate, Laura Eash ’10, to join. “I have been active in the Indivisible Saint Paul group since about a week after it was formed in January,” Eash said.
The group’s focus is intentionally narrow: it aims to pressure the state’s two senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, as well as the area’s US representative Betty McCollum, to oppose Trump at every turn.
“Every day we put out a call to action,” Watkins Bradtke said. “Most of the time those calls to action are, ‘call your two Senators and thank them for this great thing they did’, or ‘call them and tell them to do this.’”
Macalester professor Adrienne Christiansen, who teachers in the political science department and directs the college’s Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching, said she likes the concept.
“Indivisible Saint Paul” wants to hold Minnesota legislators accountable.
“Klobuchar voted for Pompeo for C.I.A. director, and she hasn’t given any statement on why,” Watkins Bradtke said. “But she did it, she knew we weren’t going to like it, and she won’t talk to us.”
“The party line isn’t enough,” she said of elected Democrats. “We need you to oppose everything that’s going on, and we need you to explain what you’re doing.”
The playbook being used by the “Indivisible Saint Paul” group is strongly reminiscent of that used by the Tea Party in the wake of President Obama’s election in 2008. According to Watkins Bradtke, that isn’t an accident.
“The Indivisible Guide is explicitly modeling itself on Tea Party tactics,” Watkins Bradtke said. “It was written by former Democratic staffers in D.C. So although we disagree [with the Tea Party] on everything we’re fighting for, the tactics are the same.”
That means barnstorming town hall events, pressuring elected leaders in their own party and, if necessary, threatening to defeat them in primaries with more ideologically uncompromising candidates moving forward.
“I think it will become more explicit the closer we get to 2018, but the underlying implication is that we’re asking you to do these things, and if you won’t, we’ll find somebody who will,” Watkins Bradtke said.
Christiansen, for one, said she would consider voting against Klobuchar in a 2018 primary.
“It pains me to give Amy Klobuchar heat,” Christiansen said. “I don’t like threatening liberal politicians who I otherwise admire. But I note that the first five of Trump’s nominees for his cabinet, she voted for. When she voted to confirm Mike Pompeo of Kansas — who supports waterboarding and torture — it was too much.”
Is the group comfortable with adopting these kinds of extreme tactics? And, more broadly, do they cut against traditional Democratic beliefs in institutions and government as a whole?
“If I was a congressperson, then I might be thinking differently,” Watkins Bradtke said. “But as a member of this group, I’m in a position to say ‘nope, I don’t like any of this.’”
“The Democratic Party has tried for a long time to be reasonable and make the country work,” she continued. “It hasn’t worked. Now we’re trying something new, and I’m not ruling out any tactic.”
“Too much progress has been made — and still needs to be made — on too many issues to not take action in the ways promoted by Indivisible,” Eash said.
Christiansen, who led a Macalester delegation at the Women’s March in Washington in January, agreed. “Maybe this is just a massive rationalization on my part to say that things feel different [now], that things feel different in the Age of Trump,” she said.
“I would like to see our constitutional republic hold,” Christiansen said. “I would like to see civil liberties hold. Our silence will not save us. It’s not just that I dislike certain policies, but that they feel immoral to me. They feel unkind and indecent and inhumane. In the face of that, it’s very important that people who feel appalled stand up and say ‘no.’”
“I don’t think the comparison is made incorrectly,” said Kate Ryan Reiling ’00, Macalester’s Entrepreneur in Residence.
“What the Tea Party was able to do was animate and mobilize a base of supporters who were able to — as a minority group — make a major impact,” Ryan Reiling said. “That seems to be a fairly powerful model to follow.”
“I think of this less as resisting as shaping the conversation and supporting representatives to do what we their constituents hope they would do,” she continued.
But is it a problem when some forty-plus educators at a school are engaged in such a partisan way?
“When I was in high school, I took an AP government class by a teacher who never once revealed her political leanings,” Ryan Reiling said. “Her big push was about getting people involved in grassroots activism and understanding how government worked.”
“She was able to do that, in part, because there was no social media,” Ryan Reiling continued. “It was harder to find out where people are at. There’s just more information publicly out there now.”
“I think you want to create an opportunity for students to come to their own conclusions and support their own actions in ways that resonate with their own value system. And I don’t see that as being distinct from what I’m doing as long I’m not putting my belief system on students,” she said.
Mac GOP has no problem with the activism either.
“As an organization of Republicans we recognize that every individual is endowed with the right to their own beliefs,” said the group’s Vice Chair Jed Buchholz ’19 in a statement to The Mac Weekly. “We take no issue with the fact that these individuals are doing what they believe is right. Just as we may work to further our own agenda, so too should every American, as that is what democracy is.”
Eash said that current Macalester students are welcome to join the effort.
“On Facebook, request an invite to join Indivisible Saint Paul — a closed group — to get engaged at the federal level, and there’s a public group called Indivisible Minnesota Local focused on state issues,” Eash said.
Of all the groups that Ryan Reiling — a Minneapolis resident — has joined since November, Indivisible Saint Paul stands out.
“I think the Indivisible group in Saint Paul is really one of the best,” she said. “It’s clear, it’s really specific, it’s simple and it’s not overwhelming. It’s also really hopeful. There are summaries provided of things that are working — it is really important when you’re trying to prevent a boulder from rolling down a hill to see what’s going well.”
Christiansen echoed those thoughts, and credited Indivisible — along with other grassroots organizations like Senator Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution and the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation — for keeping her spirits up.
“I need fellow travelers,” Christiansen said. “I need people to say, ‘hang in there.’ This is a long-haul. And I need compatriots to help keep my spirits up… This really gives me some hope.”