This weekend, an estimated 800,000 people marched in Washington, calling for stricter gun control, in response to the Parkland shootings. In January, 500,000 people came to the Washington MeToo March.
Many liberals – myself among them – have worked themselves into a coronary over the wave of populism that’s rolling over western democracies, and with it a terrifying list of ass-backwards impacts – Brexit, Trump, immigration ban. Democracy can be a scary thing when the ‘wrong’ people start to embrace it too fully. It can remind us that humans – we’re a frightened, angry, tribal little lot. When we feel threatened we can do some pretty nasty things.. or elect some pretty nasty people.
But populism can also give power to some pretty progressive movements as well. When people began revealing themselves as victims of sexual assault on Facebook, it didn’t take long for over 12 million people to raise their digital hangs and create the greatest force condemning sexual violence the world has ever seen. Similarly, after countless school and mass shootings – all of which lead to a grand total of zero serious gun control efforts – the shooting at Parkland and the popular response to this one seems to, finally, be changing the debate on gun violence and gun control in America.
Populism is tribalism at its worst. And, at times, at its best. It seems to kick in most strongly when we feel under threat. So, when white, low income Americans felt they were losing their jobs to immigrants and trade liberalization, they elect racists and protectionists. The result – border walls, immigration bans and nullified trade agreements.
But similarly, when young people get fed up that their friends are being shot and politicians to nothing in response, as they kowtow to the NRA… maybe you get meaningful gun control for the first time in American history.
The response of the youth to Parkland is exactly the same as the response of middle American whites to job loss. They come together get angry and demand that their interests get served. This isn’t a popular sentiment. We tend to see something as nasty populism when it gives rise to a cause we disagree with. But when a coming together aligns with our values, its a social movement. I will admit to feeling similar.
Parkland and MeToo are social justice movements. Trumpism is racist populism. But I have tried to put myself in the shoes of those feeling threatened by job loss and feeling hopeless as their communities crumble in ‘middle America’. And, while I loathe their response and their anger and their seeing propensity to violence, I do get it.