The DNC Wants to Join the Resistance. Will Activists Allow It?

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez rallies with protesters against President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, outside the White House in Washington, May 10. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

The Democratic Party is trying to join the #Resistance. On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is kicking off a campaign it has dubbed "Resistance Summer" in an effort to tap into the anti-Trump energy that has bubbled up since November's election. But is there a place in this grassroots movement for the organization that epitomizes establishment Democratic politics—one many progressive activists distrust?

Related: New Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez promises to focus on grassroots organizing

The #Resistance, after all, is not an explicitly partisan movement. It is an amorphous set of groups and activities aimed at challenging President Donald Trump and derailing his policy priorities. Many of the organizations that have formed in the wake of Trump's victory, like Indivisible, are nonprofits that aren't allowed to formally coordinate with a party. With Resistance Summer, the DNC is pretty up-front about its effort to take the progressive pushback to Trump and steer it toward Democratic candidates. As the party explains in a press release on the campaign, it's "not just about holding Trump accountable—it's about electing Democrats who will prioritize the needs of middle class and working families."

To that end, Resistance Summer is built around a grant program to fund state Democratic Party organizing efforts, with the aim of recruiting and training thousands of new volunteers. The hope is the same grassroots activists showing up to protest Republican congressmen at their town halls and to march for climate change and science can be persuaded to volunteer for Democrats running for local and state offices. Liberal organizers, however, warn that the party needs to tread carefully to avoid suffocating a movement that's not necessarily tied to its agenda.

"The party is not the center of the [Resistance] energy, nor should it be," says Emily Tisch Sussman, campaign director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The group, the advocacy arm of the liberal D.C. think tank Center for American Progress, has made a concerted effort to help connect and advise the growing universe of progressive groups that have formed out of the ashes of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's defeat last year. The best thing for the DNC to do, Sussman says, is to recognize and appreciate the grassroots energy, "without trying to bigfoot it." That, she warns, would just alienate activists further.

As it is, the DNC is struggling to heal the wounds left by the 2016 presidential primary, which pitted Clinton, the party establishment's favorite, against cantankerous Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—who is not even a registered Democrat. Despite that, Sanders became the darling of the progressive left during the primary, with a particularly strong following among millennials turned off by traditional politics. They resented the way the DNC favored Clinton in the primary race, both tacitly and—as the party committee's hacked emails revealed last summer—explicitly. Despite their shared disgust of Trump, many Bernie supporters have not yet forgiven the party for that behavior.

That was evident this spring during the party's "Unity Tour," in which Sanders and new DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Obama's former labor secretary, held a series of town halls around the country in an attempt at solidarity. Sanders supporters, however, boo'ed the DNC and Perez, while Sanders declined to embrace the party label. "I am an independent," he told MSNBC. And even as progressive groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have seen a surge in small-dollar donations since the election, DNC fundraising has lagged in 2017.

But at least some Democratic strategists say the party needs to continue that kind of outreach, even if its risks a less-than-hospitable reception. "Some parts of that engagement will be bumpy," says Jesse Ferguson, who served as Clinton's deputy national press secretary in 2016 and before that was with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But "the solution can't be to have the DNC ignore the progressive movement." Instead, Ferguson argues, Democratic leaders need to work to rebuild grassroots confidence in the DNC and other parts of the party infrastructure.

Ferguson and Sussman agree that the DNC's strength lies in election organizing. "It's the DNC's job to put the tools in the field," as Ferguson puts it. The national party has access to voter rolls, online databases, campaign expertise and donors, things that most upstart Resistance groups may not even have a concept of. "They don't have a ton of institutional resources," says Sussman. "They are hungry for information."

Understanding its lane, then, will be crucial for the DNC as it figures out how to rebuild in the Trump era. The Resistance Summer kick-off is a case in point. The party has been touting it heavily. Yet the campaign's nationwide launch features events in just a little over a dozen cities, spearheaded by a rally in Minneapolis with Representative Keith Ellison, a Sanders ally who became the party committee's deputy chairman after coming in second to Perez in the race for chairman.

Compare that to the turnout expected for the #MarchforTruth, which also happens to be taking place Saturday. Marches are slated for 130 cities around the country to protest President Trump's ties to Russia. The sponsors include progressive groups like MoveOn, Indivisible, Rock the Vote and Swing Left. It's a signal that Democratic Party leaders may want to stick to the organizing nuts and bolts—and leave the splashy activism to Resistance groups.