In case you were camping or comatose all weekend, you should know that something momentous happened. No, not the inauguration. On Saturday, millions participated in Women’s Marches across the country, representing the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. In my own insignificant hometown of Clemson, South Carolina, there was a sister march attended by about 400 (a far cry from the recent victory celebration for the Clemson Tigers’ National Championship win over Alabama, which drew in more than 70,000). For those of us not directly involved, the gleeful saturation of coverage on social media meant it was hard not to hear about the marches. I had the feeling that everyone knew someone who was there.
I think this is a good thing. The race between not-Bernie and now-President Trump saw the lowest voter turnout in twenty years. Clearly, something is wrong when only 55 percent of enfranchised citizens are voting. But this Saturday, millions of Americans willingly left their living rooms and their Netflix accounts behind and took physical action to demonstrate their ongoing concern for the country’s future, gathering for the slowest, most political 5K of their lives. If I set aside wondering how many of them voted for Jill Stein on principle, I still have to commend the marchers for their heartfelt political engagement. In this, I don’t mean to mock. How could I ever discourage an earnest desire to affect positive change through the political process? If your values are any good at all, they’re worth a raising a ruckus when they come under threat.
Still, I find myself wondering what exactly the message of the Women’s Marches were. In its purest distillation, it seems to be “standing against Trump.” At this point, though, the man at the center of all this mobilizing is really beside the point. Overstuffed with -phobias and -isms, Trump has become an all-encompassing representation of the opposing side in the culture wars that have defined the last half of Obama’s presidency. It’s to the Left’s great credit that their fight for social justice has become mainstream across America, adopted by a generation of young people who get their politics from the Internet. The priorities of social justice have been both a birthright and a moral burden to those of us who came of age in the last eight years, and it’s precisely that liberal vision of the future that gives the Women’s March its hopeful tone.
This line of attack will suffice so long as Democrats have no real hope of pushing their legislative agenda. The movement has plenty of enthusiasm, but is short on concrete suggestions. Indeed, its “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles” reads like a social justice drinking game. Supreme care is taken in each bullet to mention every conceivable combination of intersecting identities, while civil rights, economic justice, cultural biases and structural racism are all thrown carelessly into the mix. The document ends with a beautiful call to “end war and live in peace with our sisters and brothers around the world,” which, the writers clarify, really means removing political power from “the hands of a wealthy elite.” So, perhaps I’m wrong to ask what the Women’s March is about — it turns out they don’t stand for any one thing at all, but for everything.
I hope what we’re now hearing is the last gasp of this losing strategy. I’m not at all suggesting liberals give up on the values that brought them this far (Surprise: They’re my values too!). But it’s one thing to rile up your ideological base and another to channel that frustration and energy into something productive. See, Trump managed to do just that, and he’s now enjoying his taco bowls in the Oval Office because of it. During the campaign, the widespread liberal approach was to paint Trump as morally abhorrent, and in key states, that tactic didn’t work. Working class white people (along with 29 percent of Hispanics, eight percent of blacks and 37 percent of young people) saw something in Trump that made them willing to overlook his obvious character faults. Rather than reiterate those faults (louder this time!), liberals should make a good-faith attempt to understand what Trump offered that Hillary didn’t. Who’s to say what this course of self-reflection will yield, but an economic message would be a solid starting point.
Instead, the Left has opted for either self-congratulation or self-cannibalization. Case in point, Women’s March protestors with signs like “White Feminism was built on the backs of People of Color.” Rather than offer vindictive internal critiques, perhaps they should, in the words of Sinead O’Connor, fight the real enemy. This is a symptom of the Democratic Party’s ongoing identity crisis. Lived experiences have so far failed to cohere into policy suggestions, as is clear from the Women’s March manifesto. Good at calling out inequities but poor at providing actionable steps to correct them, in 2017 the Democratic Party has only opposition to offer.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.