The Kids Are Alright

Friday, March 2, 2018

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Like most of the country, I’ve been amazed by the courage and conviction that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have shown over the last two weeks. In the wake of tragedy, these brave young people have shown that hope can never be silenced. But the students’ stand has also made me realize that today’s teenagers are a generation apart. While I’m less than ten years older than the Stoneman Douglas students, and we may like some of the same music or use some of the same slang, the circumstances in which came of age could not be more different.

The defining political moment of their lives was the 2016 election and the inauguration of Donald Trump. Mine—at least when I was their age—was the election of Barack Obama. But they were only 7 or 8 years old during that election. They don’t remember the exhilaration or the dashed hopes of 2008 the way I do.

This is what I and people my age remember. After eight long years, the Bush administration, in all of its evil, incompetence and stupidity, was coming to an end. Bush had been a nightmare—launching a destabilizing war under false pretenses; doing nothing to stop the flooding of one of America’s greatest cities; congratulating the Pope for an “awesome speech”—and now, finally, he was out the door. And so was everything he represented. The forces of good were on the rise; the United States would probably never fight a war or elect a Republican president again .

That so many of us believed this may sound silly today. But Barack Obama wasn’t just some charismatic politician, like Bill Clinton or JFK before him. Liberals supported those candidates because they spoke to them, and promised to enact the policies in which they believed. Obama was different. Not only was he everything his predecessor had not been, but he was everything the Presidency had not been—intelligent, eloquent, pacifistic and, most incredibly, black. His election heralded an age of miracles; if somebody like him could become President, it meant that something fundamental about the country had already changed. When he said that his election could be the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” it didn’t sound hyperbolic or self-absorbed. It just sounded right. And when he took office in January 2009, buoyed by sweeping majorities in both houses, the future seemed limitless.

It wasn’t. Obama was never who liberal America hoped he would be. The story of his failure is by now well-known: the naive new President, full of once-in-a-generation rhetorical skills but unskilled in Washington horsetrading, facing unprecedented Republican intransigence, tried to enact a boldly liberal agenda and whiffed it. In 2010, he lost the House, “shellacking” any chance of enacting his progressive vision. In 2012, he held onto the White House, but became the first incumbent president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944 to be reelected by a smaller margin than in the previous election. In 2014, he lost the Senate. And in 2016…well, you know.

That narrative misses something important, though. It misses why we stuck with him.

For all his shortcomings, Obama was empathetic and wise—two highly unusual traits for a politician. Throughout his presidency, liberals could content themselves with the knowledge that whatever he supported, from the Affordable Care Act to drone strikes, was probably the only sane course of action once you really thought it through.

Publicly disagreeing with him was unthinkable. Consider the guys who opposed Obama early in his presidency—craven hustlers like Mitch McConnell; unhinged zealots like Glenn Beck; greedy plutocrats like the Koch brothers. Up against people like that, how could he be anything but right? There was no way to criticize the system he led, not without joining them.

It’s why so much of the grassroots activism of the Obama years fell short. While some people Occupied against a rigged financial system, or protested police brutality in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, many more stayed at home, put on an episode of Breaking Bad, and hoped that their president could figure something out. They couldn’t see the point in agitating against a president they instinctively trusted, and who mostly agreed with them, anyway.

So by the end of Obama’s presidency, many left-leaning Americans, the inheritors of an intellectual tradition descended from abolitionism and the New Deal, had stopped thinking critically about politics, and come to regard meaningful policy change as impossible. Not all of them felt this way, obviously—Bernie Sanders, with his proposals for breaking up the banks, free public college and single-payer healthcare, proved that there was still a large constituency for wide-ranging reform. But Sanders never had the support of the Democratic Party or the majority of its primary voters, many of whom dismissed his plans as pie-in-the-sky fantasies—what Hillary Clinton would later mock in her campaign memoir What Happened as “I think America should get a pony.” These voters wanted a sober-minded caretaker like Obama, somebody who could run the government sensibly in the face of chaos. Even if Hilary Clinton lacked an exciting vision, she seemed like she could do that well enough.

And then she lost. For the cohort whose political views for eight years had been “whatever Barack thinks,” the rudderless past 18 months have been difficult. The compassionate, well-run Obama White House has been replaced by a scarily dysfunctional administration presided over by an impulsive maniac and committed to shockingly barbaric policies. The only hope most liberals have these days is Robert Mueller—a Republican, yes, but one very much in the caretaker mold. And yet again, the progressive movement is in for major disappointment. Even if Mueller’s investigation forces Trump out of office, the Democrats have lost the ability to articulate a clear alternative, and it seems like it’s going to stay that way.

Or at least, it seemed that way until last month.

When a 19-year-old former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killed fourteen of his classmates and three teachers two weeks ago, it was demoralizing how familiar the story felt. Yet again, an evil, alienated man had used an easily acquired gun to inflict on others his own rage and hurt. And as with all these stories, we could imagine what would happen next: tearful TV appearances, useless postures by politicians, and then, once the news cycle had moved on, no concrete legislation, or even serious reflection on the pervasiveness of violence in America. Just grim acceptance.

But something different has happened this time. Almost immediately, the students began organizing. In the weeks since the shooting, they’ve spoken at rallies for gun control; interacted directly with the media; and confronted their representatives in town hall meetings and in their offices.

And along the way, their crusade for gun control has gradually become a struggle against corruption and apathy. As student activist Emma Gonzalez so powerfully said at a rally in Fort Lauderdale:

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and who are prepared to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers nowadays, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”

For what feels like the first time, the victims of a shooting are speaking out, and directing their message at the real culprits. Gonzalez is right to call out the media’s portrayal of millennials as a spoiled, self-absorbed generation. Entitlement can be a powerful motivator for reform, and she and her classmates do deserve many things—a world without gun violence, a world where they can trust their leaders to vote for their best interests, a world where amoral groups like the NRA don’t decide whether high school students live or die.

The students have targeted their representatives, too. At a CNN Town Hall last week, student Cameron Kasky asked his senator, Marco Rubio, to refuse contributions from the NRA. Rubio, never the sharpest improviser, dodged and evaded clumsily. “That’s the wrong way to look at it,” he explained. “People buy into my agenda.” 

Kasky, somehow unimpressed by his Senator’s proud admission of total venality, pressed further. “In the name of 17 people, you cannot ask the NRA to keep their money out of your campaign?” he asked. Rubio, unprepared for such an unyielding line of questioning, equivocated some more before folding and promising to reconsider some gun control measures.

It wasn’t much of a concession, but after a decade of passivity, seeing a private citizen badger his representative into actually doing something for his constituents felt  thrilling. And it hasn’t ended there—in the past few days, the students have also successfully pressured Republican governor Rick Scott and President Trump to support stricter gun laws.

So far, the politicians’ promises have been vague, and they may be broken yet (indeed, reports have already surfaced that Trump has changed his mind). But something has been proven. Idealism is not dead. Progress is still possible. And it doesn’t come from groveling or civility, but from bull-headed obstinance, unyielding ideological purity and, when necessary, well-deployed mockery. It comes from reminding elected leaders that even with special interests funding their campaigns, they still might lose.

As student David Hogg said, he hoped that politicians would not “take money from people that want to keep lessening gun legislation and making it even easier for these horrifying people to get guns. If you can’t get elected without taking money from child murderers, why are you running?”

In 2012, that sort of rhetoric would have been called unfair, or unproductive, or cynical. But right now, it feels like the beginnings of a powerful movement, one that can accomplish anything. It feels pretty damn great.

So where has all this activism come from? Is it driven solely by discontent with Trump and his policies? Is it what anybody would do in the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy? I see something else—a generation that never had a government it could believe in.

These kids have grown up in a world where the government can kill unarmed black men with impunity. Where the polar icecaps are allowed to melt and the oceans to rise because it’s profitable. And where students are gunned down for no good reason. Unlike me, they never had a political hero. The President Obama they grew up with was reasonable, smart and totally ineffectual, nothing like the superman I remember from 2008. These kids don’t have anybody like that guy. They only have themselves.



A Miracle on Madison

Madison Avenue retailers rolled out the red carpet