In America, the public response in the wake of a mass shooting follows a predictable pattern. Progressives focus intensely on the need for reform for a few days, maybe a week. But gun advocates do not blink, the national political dialogue eventually shifts, and nothing changes. This dynamic has persisted for decades.
On Saturday, student gun activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized a march on Washington — and an estimated 800,000 showed up in the nation’s capital.
The march comes just 10 days after students in at least 3,100 schools left their desks to participate in a nationwide walkout, and it happened alongside at least 450 companion marches in cities across the country. It’s been more than a month since the shooting in Parkland, FL, and the call for reform is still going strong.
While the movement launched by the Stoneman Douglas students is a unique and powerful example of social activism, the acts of protest they’ve inspired should also help us understand a broader point: Our civic landscape, the way in which we exercise our rights and freedoms, has fundamentally changed since Donald Trump won the 2016 election.
The past 17 months have produced an unprecedented groundswell of collective participation — with Americans from all walks of life seeking new opportunities to support the causes they believe in and bring about policy change. One profound idea has been central to all this activism: Discrete actions, at scale, can produce outsized results.
The Women’s March in 2017 was the single biggest act of protest in American history, drawing 5.2 million people to more than 400 events across the country. As the year moved forward, activists kept marching for a range of issues — to stand up for science, to demand that the president release his tax returns, to call attention to climate change. People showed up at airports, at town halls, and at Independence Day parades to give voice to progressive values.
And none of those events were singular — participation became a persistent fact over time. In January 2018, for instance, one year after the inaugural Women’s March, 2.5 million activists turned out for the second version, at events across the country.
That resilience is now a defining theme of this new iteration of the progressive movement.
Throughout 2017, health care activists had to stay plugged in, as they battled through five distinct attacks on the Affordable Care Act — stretching from January to October. The intensity of their interest in the fight throughout those 10 months never waned. And each time a new repeal effort failed, the value of each phone call, email, or social post from an activist was ratified. And engagement grew because of it.
That experience has helped activists shift their expectations of what’s required to make change happen. The millions of student activists fighting right now to reform gun laws keep saying that they’re prepared for a struggle that could stretch into years. In much the same way, climate activists talk about their work as a decades-long effort. No matter the timeline, progressives are looking at the challenges ahead with clear eyes.
And that clarity helps us understand that there are structural barriers we’ll need to overcome if we want to make progress a reality.
We’re living in a time when the news cycle turns over so quickly — and when there are so many causes worthy of attention — that it can be difficult for any one particular set of issues to stand out and capture the public imagination for an extended period of time. Donald Trump exacerbates this. With one early-morning tweet, an advocacy campaign weeks in planning might no longer be relevant because suddenly the news cycle is focused on a different issue altogether.
As a movement, there are also still limits in our understanding of the degree to which societal problems are interconnected. We cannot reduce economic inequality without confronting systemic racism. Environmental issues can quickly lead to crises in public health. Today, the best and most dynamic organizing in America is happening in places where activists make a point to embrace intersectionality, and that approach has to become the norm.
Finally, we should be realistic about the fact that, even with an unprecedented show of force from activists — on a range of important issues — progressives have lost ground since Donald Trump became president. Republicans control all three branches of government in Washington. They hold majorities in statehouses across the country. Until Democrats regain the levers of power, while there are things we can do locally, the best measure of our effectiveness will be in the damage we are able to prevent.
But still, we have plenty of reason to be optimistic. If 2016 taught the progressive movement not to take progress for granted, the months since have shown that the promise of what we can achieve as one movement is enough to keep millions engaged.
Matt Compton is Director of Advocacy and Engagement at Blue State Digital. In 2016, he was the deputy digital director at Hillary for America.
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