I am greatly encouraged by the displays of public opposition since January 20. The protests against the immigration executive order and the powerful showing at Republican town halls in particular have been gratifying—resisting intolerance and bigotry and xenophobia and holding elected officials accountable represents the best of what America can be. The future looks considerably brighter if we as a society can maintain that level of caring and energy and focus.
Now let me talk about what worries me. We are in the honeymoon period of activism—everything this administration does is being scrutinized carefully not just by journalists (who have collectively stepped up their game since the election—better late than never) but a significant number of still shocked and angry citizens. Protesting is no longer a fringe activity, the domain only of radicals, idealogues, and racial minorities*; it has become mainstream, a quasi-frequent part of everyday life. “Protesting is the New Brunch,” a slogan which has moved from protest signs to t-shirts supporting the ACLU, more or less sums up the shift in the appeal and reach of social activism which has taken place since November 8.
In a word, protesting is “In.” The internet has fallen over itself penning takes and counter-takes on how best to protest, how not to burn yourself out, why protesting is useless, why protesting is paramount, how to have fun while protesting, etc. Buzzfeed slideshows of the nine best dressed protesters and fifteen funniest protest signs abound (personal favorite: Not Usually a Sign Guy But Geez). Protesting is sexy and fun and empowering.
You know what is not sexy or fun or empowering? Voting. Working or volunteering on political campaigns. Canvassing for twelve hours the Saturday before an election does not provide the same adrenaline rush of thousands of people marching together. But at the end of the day, it is politicians who make policy, and it is our job to hold them accountable for their actions and, if they are failing in their duties, to replace them with someone better. The energy pulsing through the grassroots left right now is palpable. But without direct electoral engagement, the capacity for us to create change is significantly reduced.
Which is why I think we need to split the difference between protesting and direct electoral engagement. Out of all the resistance organizations and movements which have sprung up in the past few months, the one I think shows the most promise is Indivisible. Founded by former congressional staffers, Indivisible bills itself as “A Practical Guide For Resisting the Trump Agenda.” The prospectus which they have put together outlines a strategy for combating the Republican agenda, provides insight into how a Member of Congress (MoC) thinks, and recommends actionable ways to influence them. It was partially thanks to Indivisible that Republican town halls in January were inundated with protesters demanding reasons for their positions on the ACA, government oversight, immigration, and other issues.
The power of protests lies in the ability of the populace to draw the attention of politicians to issues which are important. Depending on the size of the protest, this can have an impact at the highest levels of government—think about the Trump administration backtracking on their claim that the refugee executive order would also apply to green card holders and permanent residents. But if protests can work at that level, think about how much impact organized resistance can have on congressional, state, and local elections. As the Indivisible Guide states, “MoCs care much more about getting reelected than they care about any specific issue.” Inform them that their re-election is in doubt. If they persist, campaign against them. If they don’t have a challenger, grab a clipboard, go gather signatures, and run against them yourself. In the words of our forty-fourth president: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
And by all means, keep up the energy and the activism and the brunching. We need it now more than ever.
*IMPORTANT: I am not in any way implying that protests in the recent past have been illegitimate; quite the opposite. I am merely noting that the pool of protesters has expanded greatly in the past few months to include people who were not previously inclined towards protesting.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.