The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who saved Obamacare from the GOP? The American people.

Demonstrators show their support for the Affordable Care Act. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Constituent power is a wondrous thing in a representative democracy. After the election in November, political prognosticators speculated that President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was probably as good as dead. Some thought President Trump might even sign a “Trumpcare” bill on his first day. But on Friday, more than six months into Trump’s presidency, Senate Republicans announced that their attempt to repeal Obamacare had collapsed.

The defeat was months in the making. In December, we released a Google Doc titled “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” As former congressional staffers, we witnessed the rise of the tea party and saw the power of local, defensive congressional advocacy. After Trump’s election, we recommended that progressives implement the same strategies and tactics — minus the racism and violence. To our surprise, the Google Doc went viral, and today there are locally led Indivisible groups in every single congressional district in the country, full of members applying their constituent power.

Trumpcare was the victim of constituent power, which is based on a simple principle of American democracy: Members of Congress need their constituents to get reelected, which requires at least appearing to represent the constituent interests. When a sufficiently large group of constituents repeatedly demonstrate local opposition to a piece of legislation, it’s awfully tough for members of Congress from those precincts to support it. That’s constituent power in action.

Why a decentralized swarm of resistance is the best way to resist Trump

Make no mistake: The leaders of our new, unified, conservative federal government were desperate to enact Trumpcare. But the combined political might of the president of the United States, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate majority leader was no match for one simple thing: people showing up.

And show up they did, because constituent power is locally applied power. From town halls to “die-ins” to sit-ins to mailing protest potatoes, constituents took action not in Washington but in their home states. Since before Trump was even inaugurated, and in the months following, these local leaders relentlessly opposed Trumpcare at every local congressional office, town hall and rally at home.

While this local pressure may have surprised some, its power couldn’t have surprised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell, who has worked in politics since the Johnson administration, is an arch conservative and a brilliant legislator. Tasked with getting Trumpcare through the Senate, he allowed no public hearings and repeatedly attempted to move the legislation forward without divulging its details, even to his fellow Republican senators. Remarked one Senate Republican this month: “It’s an insane process.” But there was method in the madness. McConnell knew that a traditionally methodical and open Senate process would allow public pressure to build and that the only strategy with a chance of success was secrecy and speed — to try to hide from and outpace the people.

And yet, all his secretive machinations were not enough.

There were many twists and turns on the road to his defeat. Two weeks ago, a sufficient number of Republican senators announced their opposition to Trumpcare to kill the bill. While the bill was temporarily dead, McConnell announced that he’d move forward on a new vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement. But Republican senators came out against that effort within hours. In response, McConnell committed to voting on yet another Trumpcare iteration. Last week’s defeat of that effort marks yet another “death” of this zombie bill.

Why the false starts and failures? Across the country, local advocates have fought against Trumpcare using the only tool they have: constituent power. In Maine, Indivisible groups coordinated statewide visits to each of Sen. Susan Collins’s seven regional offices. In Alaska, they traveled to far-flung rural offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski to share their health-care stories. In Arizona, crowds of Indivisibles gathered under the blistering sun with umbrellas outside Sen. John McCain’s offices chanting, “Keep us covered!” And when it looked as though Trumpcare was on its last legs last week, Indivisible groups in nearly every state held more than 170 events on a single day at their local congressional offices to make clear that the opposition to Trumpcare is here to stay.

What is power — and how do you get it?

One of the striking things about the past several months was the breadth and depth of coordinated action across the progressive ecosystem. Indivisible groups cheered on or linked arms with activists from National ADAPT, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, Ultraviolet, Center for Popular Democracy and Credo Mobile, among others. The common feature of these organizations’ work over the past several months was simple: constituent power, relentlessly applied.

This pressure made the bill and McConnell’s political calculus unworkable, leaving senators across the ideological spectrum to sink the bill together. Thus, zombie Trumpcare is dead, again. We don’t know whether McConnell will attempt to resurrect it or move on to other Republican priorities. We do know that Republicans have been promising to repeal the ACA for more than seven years, and it isn’t gone yet.

And that leaves us with a couple of more lessons from the early Trump era: We know that when constituents across the country rise up and apply their power, they change what is politically possible nationwide. Our task now is to build and sustain that leadership and power because we also know that if we stand together, indivisible, we will win.