Many political commentators have drawn parallels between Brexit and the Trump victory. One important parallel is that some Brexit supporters didn’t believe Brexit would pass, nor did they necessarily want it to pass. They intended the vote to be a protest against the ruling elite, rather than as an expression of their true desires. There’s a nice compilation of anecdotes of Brexit supporters reacting to the election results; the level of ignorance and idiocy is hard to stomach.
The same probably happened with the American presidential election. People who didn’t necessarily like Trump voted for him to send a message to the political establishment, without regard to the actual consequences. And people who would have ordinarily held their noses and voted for Hillary stayed home because they believed that the election was fait accompli.
So while I’m glad the Women’s March happened, and that previously apathetic people are participating in the political process, I wish they had been just as vigilant before November 8th.
Regardless, I really enjoyed being part of it. I found it especially fun seeing people view politics with the same enthusiasm and urgency that I do.
But the March was also odd, in the same way that all giant political rallies are odd. They feature a bunch of people milling about for many hours, often in the bitter cold, holding obnoxious signs that are read by people who are already persuaded, chanting and applauding at slogans that would convince no person on the other side to change their beliefs. In other words, political rallies seem very insular. But that insularity is a feature, not a bug. It gives us comfort and strength.
The next four years are going to be a slog. There will be assaults on the Obama legacy (and the New Deal legacy) on every front; there will be an endless stream of bullshit (a.k.a. “alternative facts”); and there will certainly be media complacency and false equivalence, if not outright malfeasance. In the face of this onslaught, I understand the tendency to feel hopeless. Russia, James Comey, the New York Times, the capitalist elite, the populist Republicans, the Wall Street Republicans, the evangelical Republicans, and the deplorable Republicans (but, I repeat myself) are all arrayed against us. The Democratic Party seems deeply dysfunctional and ineffectual, not just at the national level but at all levels. The 2018 Senate map is miserable. The House is horribly gerrymandered. And, worst of all, much of the country didn’t seem to give a fuck that a major political party nominated a truly vile and despicable person to be president, and they’ll probably continue to give zero fucks over the next four years.
And, yet. Rallies like that on Saturday remind us that we, the people, are still strong, even if the Democratic Party and its politicians and its prospects seem weak. I enjoyed singing along to all of the chants at the Women’s March, no matter how inane, but the ones that touched me the most were the ones about the people. Like, “We! Are! The Popular Vote!”. Or, “The People! United! Will Never be Defeated!”
There’s an article in the Atlantic by Julia Ioffe that’s making the rounds. It’s entitled, “When Protest Fails”. It embodies the exact kind of defeatism that right-thinking people must avoid over the next 4 years. The main argument, if you can call it that, is that protests of a similarly shocking scale in Russia occurred in 2011 against Putin. (“On December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success.”) But, they were completely ineffectual, or, if anything, they provoked a backlash that worsened the situation. (“Putin went from being a non-ideological, pragmatic kleptocrat to a revanchist, nationalist neo-tsar.”).
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hmm, so democratic protests in a country that doesn’t give a shit about democracy sometimes don’t work. Who cares?” Ioffe devotes three words to this argument, saying, “America isn’t Russia”, before blithely continuing on as if this fact doesn’t completely shatter her argument. I sort of understand the need to write contrarian pieces after the largest political protest in American history. You want to warn people that the hard work is yet to come; that the Women’s March was not the final step but the first step.
But please. America isn’t Russia. It simply isn’t. This isn’t some third-world country (at least yet), where the president controls all of the media and can pass laws silencing free speech. This isn’t a dictatorship, where power is independent of votes. That is to say: Trump is not immune to popular criticism, nor can he ignore negative media coverage. (He understands this viscerally, which is why his response to the disappointing inauguration crowd and the yuuuge Women’s March has been so vehement and even unhinged.) Our voices matter, particularly when they’re directed at our political representatives instead of shouted into the ether on Twitter. We saw this back in 2010, when Democrats were caught unawares at the Republican/Tea Party “grassroots” uprising against Obamacare and against subsidizing “the losers’ mortgages”. The shoe is on the other foot this time. We can hit them even harder in 2017 than they did in 2010. We can compel them to listen.
Josh Marshall wrote a nice essay in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. I want to highlight this paragraph.
I’ve been reading various reader emails this morning. Thank you for all of them. Through almost 16 years of doing this, your emails have helped me think, see things I don’t see, learn. It’s been the center of my and then our editorial process. Many of these emails simply express shock, others anger and fear, to Trump, to the universe, to me. There is a lot of fear. I know. I feel it. At such a moment I come back to a thought I’ve told family members at times of stress or grief. Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in. If everything seems great, there’s no need for optimism. The river of good news just carries you along.
I’m temperamentally not as optimistic as Josh Marshall. I never felt as connected to Obama’s uplifting message of hope and change and “Yes we can!” as many others did. I was anxious for most of the Clinton-Trump election, while he struck me as unduly sanguine. What tends to stick in my mind are the negatives and the potential pitfalls of any situation (and this is true not just of my attitude towards politics, but also towards life)
But Josh Marshall is right that now is the time that we need optimism the most. It’s possible that, in line with despairing liberal conspiracies, Trump seizes complete power in some Reichstag fire type of event, and we’re all totally fucked. But it’s also possible that we use Trump’s victory as a kick in the pants, as the impetus to change this country for the better. And we’ll always end up in the former scenario, instead of the latter, if we give in to hopelessness and nihilism by thinking that nothing we do matters and thinking that America is Russia.
Think about what has happened in American politics over the last 40 years. After the successes of FDR, LBJ, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the feminists, the hippies, and the unions, the right wing decided to do something. Lewis Powell declared that
Business must learn the lesson…that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
And business did fight back, with the Christian Right serving as its footsoldiers (contrary to popular belief, they were initially pulled into politics not by Roe v. Wade, but instead in order to maintain segregated schools). They pumped money into organizations that were doppelgangers of trusted institutions: think tanks to mimic liberal academia, right-wing media to mimic “the liberal media”, and grassroots and astroturf organizations to mimic Ralph Nader’s (it seems odd from a contemporary perspective that Powell would view Nader as the principal enemy of corporate America, but he was a genuine consumer advocate and good guy back then).
Their approach worked. They captured the Supreme Court. They took over the House and Senate. They have a stranglehold on local and state legislatures, and they have influenced other areas of political life by turning school board and judicial elections into partisan contests.
Now we must fight back too, “aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic” of our side. And Trump is the perfect buffoon against which to do so. He draws into politics people who would otherwise be apathetic. He embarrasses his own supporters. And he mobilizes those already against him like no other politician could.
All of this is to say: this is a golden opportunity for bonafide populist liberalism. The Women’s March was not a gathering of left-centrist technocrats or incrementalists. It was a rally for people who were unafraid to say that they supported a woman’s right to choose, equality of gay and transgendered people, and tolerance towards immigrants and all religious beliefs. At the March, we discovered our voices and our power. We remembered why politics matters, and what we’re fighting for. And, if you believe in hard numbers instead of “alternative facts”, we won, at least this first skirmish.
The fight will only continue in the next four years, and I will do my damnedest to participate. We will fight to save Obamacare. To save Medicare. To save Social Security. To save the planet from global warming. To save the working man from rapacious capitalists. To save women’s choice from Mike Pence. But, most importantly, we will fight to save democracy from the fascists who would undermine it. That’s what the March was really about: not convincing the other side that we’re right, but convincing ourselves that we’re up to the challenge.
One thought on “The Women’s March”
How wonderfully expressed. Let us hope that we can keep the momentum going and enable people to examine the true principles they wish to live by. Yes, we have to show people why politics matters. Thank you for this.