Parkland is about more than gun control. The next progressive (yes, liberal) era has begun.
Rosa Parks did not know that historians would point to her act of civil disobedience as the moment the modern civil rights movement began. On December 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white man sparking a city-wide boycott of the segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus service. Textbook authors and mainstream historians point to her non-violent protest and the ensuing economic impact that fueled the nationwide movement against American apartheid.
But the struggle for equality began decades before that moment in Montgomery. Civil disobedience, non-violent protests, and judicial action had all been used by civil rights leaders to push the needle forward, sometimes at a snail’s pace all the while meeting resistance from the established order and white supremacists. When did America recognize that there was a fundamental cultural change happening? When did African Americans know that “this time would be different?” Why did it take so long?
When it comes to movements, we often do not realize that we are in one until it is over. In the case of the civil rights, those who resisted change saw activists largely as communist sympathizers while passive observers typically ignored or cautiously approved until the struggle became violent. But still, it is usually left up to historians to explain the significance of an event or movement, based on what came before and after its conclusion. Rarely is the crystal ball so transparent.
So I come back to these basic questions. How do we differentiate a movement from an event? How do we know when an event has turned into a movement and are we in one now? If yes, what is it?
Movements and Events
Events are definitive. They start and stop. By this definition, wars, economic recessions, and presidential administrations are all events. Events can have significant impacts but they are straightforward and limited in scope. Movements, on the other hand, can be amorphous, taking shape gradually over a longer period of time. Movements typically require organization, planning, and money to succeed and even then, it can be a hard slog to the finish line.
Consider both the civil and women’s rights movements: both are unfinished and they have each been part of our national story since the founding. Movements ebb and flow. If reformers are lucky, they may finally see a piece of legislation passed to address a fundamental issue that they have championed. But that law is typically only one issue in a much larger portfolio. There is no end to movements, just a race to accomplish as much as possible before the public turns its attention elsewhere.
Is this a movement?
2017 was difficult. The DOW soared, unemployment was low, and yet in survey after survey, Americans felt that we were on the wrong track. (As a side – I hate this question. Pollsters never ask the next question: “why?”) For liberals, the government headed by the Trump Administration had a once in a lifetime opportunity to enact an agenda that progressives would describe as draconian. Conservatives under the Republican Party banner could redefine the relationship between government and the governed. The social contract was to be renegotiated.
But then something remarkable happened. Americans said no.
It started and could have easily ended with the Women’s March. But thanks to a stunned electorate and abetted by a really stupid decision to start with the repeal and replace of Obamacare, an issues-oriented grassroots effort gained momentum. Special elections at all levels saw significant swings from red to blue and judges ruled against voter suppression and gerrymandered districts. Perhaps most importantly, the “resistance” organized itself organically into a revolt not just against the President but also the conservative agenda.
While all this grassroots activity was reassuring, I was still unsure of whether this was a historical turning point. Had America truly hit rock bottom with the Trump Administration such that we are now slowly climbing out of a deep, dark hole? Was America ready for progressive reform? Or did we have more far-right conservatism to endure?
The Parkland kids answered my question.
The Parkland Kids and History
At the risk of sensationalizing a subject best known for its wars, let me briefly explain my view of history. (It’s not mine. Historians and political scientists much more learned than me have researched and studied these events for years. I am simply regurgitating what they have taught).
History is like Newton’s Third Law of Physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Long periods of progress in one direction will more than likely be followed by long periods of progress in the opposite direction. In America, that tends to mean periods of liberal progress followed by conservative retrenchment. That does not mean that the two sides simply roll-back each other’s policies and thus, society never moves forward. Rather, the cycle reoccurs in response to social, cultural, and economic changes seen over decades. As society changes, so do the two sides’ responses.
Since the mid-1970s, the United States has collectively moved to the right on social, economic, and foreign policy issues. Supported by the World War II and Baby Boomer generations, the Republican Party realigned to include northern and western farmers and conservatives, and former white southern democrats. The Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition of farmers, factory workers, and southerners split apart over Vietnam and civil rights. While the GOP consolidated its supporters around libertarian free-market ideology, evangelical Christianity, and strong anti-communist foreign policy, the Democrats first melted down over Vietnam and race; later rebuilding itself as “The New Democratic Party,” under Clinton – Gore (New Democrats had policy positions once held by liberal Republicans. Bill Clinton once referred to himself in private as an Eisenhower Republican – it was not meant to be a compliment). The Democratic Party emerged from the 60s and 70s as a coalition of minority groups, thus becoming castigated as a proponent of identity politics. In Obama, progressives saw reasons for hope, but 45 governed more from the center in a failed attempt to gain bipartisan consensus.
America has been ready for a reaction against conservatism. I was waiting for it. As the Republican Party moved to the far right in seemingly all aspects of the public debate, and certainly after the 2008 financial disaster and the never-ending wars, I expected a lengthy period of reform similar to what we saw in the 1930s. But then Trump happened and I was so focused on what he and the GOP majority were doing that I failed to recognize that the reaction against what was being proposed in Washington, D.C., was also an action FOR liberal and progressive activism and reform.
It took a few dozen teenagers to make me realize the significance of the moment.
There has been much discussion about the impact that the Parkland kids have had on the gun control debate, none of which I will regurgitate here. Whether they are the Montgomery bus boycott of this current movement will only be known with hindsight. But they are important, not only for their crusade for gun control but for the context and environment in which they fight. Their activism will go well beyond the gun issue. It will once again renegotiate the social contract between the government and the governed.
Stoneman Douglas High School Students Could Care Less About Your Thoughts and Prayers
They are the iPhone generation. They have been accused of needing instant gratification, being unprepared for the realities of life, and for harboring a myopic view of the world – one based on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat (I’m told that Facebook is social media for old people). And maybe the Parkman kids are just unique and that in a moment of crisis and abject sorrow, they read a tweet by their Senator offering “thoughts and prayers,” and said, “Save ’em. Get back to us when you’ve grown a backbone and solved this problem.”
And God bless ’em, these kids kept talking, tweeting and organizing. When internet trolls (foreign, domestic, and robots) started posting propaganda and claiming that several of the Parkland kids were “crisis actors,” they simply blew it all off. While GenX’ers were arguing with each other on Facebook over fake videos and what constituted a credible news source, these kids were ginning up support within their peer group through those very same phones we thought would be their downfall. As the adults in the room were suggesting other, more proper ways to protest, they were walking out of their schools in support of the 17 victims. And today, hundreds of thousands of kids have descended on Washington, D.C. and on cities around the country, to demand stronger gun control measures and an end to the killing.
Their confidence is inspiring. They have made a difference. And they can and will vote.
As the Stoneman Douglas students have elevated their clarion call for gun control at the federal level, I have made a few observations in the context of the other grassroots and resistance efforts against the Trump and GOP legislative agendas. Movements fail for many reasons including lack of organization, messaging, conflicting priorities, and money. Transforming a short-term backlash into a sustained and powerful force for change requires all of these things and more. These kids did not choose their issue, but now that they have their cause, they will run it to ground.
But I predict that the activism they demonstrate in the gun control debate will extend to other issues currently discussed in the public domain. The “school mass shooting” generation will get involved in other causes and discussions; they will help shape that new social contract I mentioned earlier. And they will do it from a context completely foreign to GenX’ers, most Millenials, and certainly Baby Boomers. Once you have been forced to hide in a closet with 10 of your classmates, not knowing if you will live or die while a gunman fires indiscriminately at your friends and teachers, marginal tax brackets seem less important. This generation – the ones anti-gun control advocates have placed in the line of fire – can now vote. I predict that they will support gun control legislation, but more broadly, other progressive reform issues. Ideological questions, particularly those based on principles over pragmatism – will be opposed. “The baker claiming artistic expression to deny service to gays? Are you kidding? My best friend just got shot by an AR-15 and you are bitching about baking a cake?”
And certainly, retrenchment and isolation from the world will be rebuked as will all forms of xenophobia and discrimination. These nonsense bans on Muslims, ridiculous border walls, and “religious liberty and bathroom bills” will all be relegated to the fringe, where they can be properly castigated and left to wither away. Like soldiers in a foxhole, when you have barricaded yourself and your friends into a classroom, those friends’ immigration status becomes insignificant. So will someone’s gender identity. When these kids go to the polls and ultimately run for office, “complex issues” will suddenly become much easier to solve. Maybe the culture war will finally end.
I predict a lot of “I call B.S.”
The Blue Wave, 21st Century Progressive Movement, Liberalism’s Rise
As democracy and international institutions have come under assault, older and wiser generations have warned against a future of “illiberalism,” the idea of democracy without the freedoms necessary to truly support it. The ascent of Trump and the limitations of a cowardly Congress to check his authoritarian impulses has frightened many of us about the future of our institutions and our democracy. I am still concerned given the ridiculous amounts of money in our political system and the obvious foreign influence over this administration.
But while these kids should have never been put in this situation, we are fortunate that they have found their voice and at such an early age. America must be doing something right to have produced a generation willing to stand up in the face of great opposition and power and say enough. They are speaking truth to power – and that truth is, “We see through your bullshit and we are done with you.”
Parkland lit and then threw a match on a smoldering progressive movement. What may appear to the casual observer as hundreds of thousands of teenagers marching for gun control is to the historian a watershed moment. It is a sea change. Candidates that support gun control also support other progressive reforms, including immigration, real tax reform, reproductive choice, campaign finance reform, affordable college tuition and universal health care (just to name a few).
The kids speaking today will not go away. They come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, races, and ethnicities. They’ve done their homework. And they do not care about political party.
Pundits predict a blue wave this November and that may prove accurate. But more important will be the quality of the candidates who win. By all accounts, the Democratic Party has done a remarkable job recruiting local officials with ties to their communities; individuals known to their neighbors and who understand local issues. These are candidates who believe that government is there to help foster an environment for the majority of Americans, not just those at the top. Candidates who subscribe to pragmatic approaches to problem-solving and not ideologues committed to ideological purity.
Regardless of what happens in the midterms this November, it is but a first step in a long progressive reform movement. There will be many priorities – many things to fix after decades of conservative-led stagnation. Perhaps most significant is the idea that government institutions must be well funded to work and that requires taxation. We must stymie the decades-long stigma of government incompetence cultivated by conservatives who have defunded programs and agencies; actions that have led to much of that perception.
Listening to these speeches and wrapping up this post, I understand why the NRA is nervous. Conservatives should be too. The movement they began in the 1950s as a response to the New Deal has ended with Donald Trump at the head of the once proud Republican Party, a role once held by General Eisenhower. Had the GOP chosen Ike’s brand of Republicanism, perhaps the modern conservative movement would have ended differently. Seeing what this generation has produced and how it will inspire those that came before and after it leaves me more convinced than ever that the modern conservative movement is effectively at its end. It may continue to do damage as remnants remain in office, but change is coming.
Get on board or get out of the way.