The Accidental Activist
Tufts alumnus Ethan Todras-Whitehill's career path took an unforeseen detour following the 2016 presidential election
By Dan O'Sullivan
Ethan Todras-Whitehill, B.A., '02, founded the
organization Swing Left.
President Donald Trump's stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton left some Americans ecstatic and others devastated. Ethan Todras-Whitehill, B.A., '02, fell into the latter category. But his sense of despair didn't keep him down for long.
"It was 10 a.m. the day after the election that I had the idea," he said. "I'm someone who goes through phases of grief quickly, I guess. I was already onto acceptance and trying to figure out what I could do next."
Todras-Whitehill's idea? Swing Left, a political organization that's mobilizing progressive voters to take back the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections and thus thwart the Trump/Republican agenda.
Of the 435 seats in the House, Swing Left considers 70 to be competitive. The organization is seeking a net gain of 24 seats from this group to enable the Democrats to regain control of the House. Visitors to swingleft.org can support progressive candidates in these so-called "swing districts" by volunteering time and donating money.
Just over a year since its launch, Swing Left is making a big splash. The question is, will it see its mission fulfilled this November?
A Sudden Change in Direction
Todras-Whitehill didn't grow up aspiring to a career in politics. At Tufts, he majored in English and political science, but the latter studies consisted primarily of political philosophy courses. "I didn't take a single class in the type of political science I'm doing now—nothing about elections," he noted.
In 2010, Todras-Whitehill married Jennifer Mendel Whitehill, B.S., '04, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They have two children and live in Shutesbury, Mass. As of 2016, Todras-Whitehill was working as a fiction writer, journalist and GMAT instructor. Political activism still wasn't on his radar.
Trump's longshot victory instantly changed Todras-Whitehill's priorities. After a long search that post-election morning, he realized there should be a tool for citizens to find their nearest swing district. Two of his friends, one a developer and the other a brand strategist, signed on to the idea. Together, they built the Swing Left website in December 2016 and then launched it the day before Trump's inauguration.
The response far exceeded Todras-Whitehill's expectations. "Through Google Analytics, I could see the number of users on the site at any given moment," he explained. "At first, it would be 20 or 30. Then a celebrity like Sarah Silverman or Chelsea Handler would tweet about us, and it'd go to a few thousand people. Pretty soon, we had 300,000 volunteers expecting us to tell them how to take back the House. I remember thinking, 'What are we going to do with all these people?'"
In true grassroots fashion, Swing Left has sparked the formation of self-organized teams around the country. Their collective focus, according to Todras-Whitehill, is on producing tangible results, not just doing something that "feels good."
"Two things that we know make a difference are raising money for a candidate and knocking on doors and talking to voters on behalf of a candidate," he said. "Those activities are critical, especially with midterm elections."
On the fundraising front, Swing Left has come up with an innovative way to support Democrats running for the House. Through an initiative called District Funds, donors can give to a pot of money that will go to the eventual Democratic nominee in a swing district. (Democratic incumbents receive the money right away, while Democratic challengers need to win their primary first.) As of late January, Swing Left had raised nearly $4 million for this purpose.
No Time for Complacency
Although Todras-Whitehill didn't study election politics at Tufts, he feels his education prepared him well for what has become a full-time role with Swing Left.
"It wasn't so much about any particular subject matter I learned there. It was about developing pathways in my brain," he said. "I gained different perspectives through exploring different disciplines, and that's something I bring to my current work. I like exploring new ideas and trying them out. The spirit of experimentation and interdisciplinary connections are things you develop as part of a liberal arts education."
Looking ahead to November, Todras-Whitehill is optimistic about the Democrats' chances of taking back the House. After all, the party of the sitting president has historically lost seats during midterm elections, and Trump's approval rating remains mired around 40 percent.
"Generally, the odds look good," he offered. "We could win 24, 30, 40 seats—nobody knows. But we have to put our nose to the grindstone and get to work. Because if 2016 taught us anything, it's that we can't sit back and wait for progress to happen. It's up to us to make it happen."