As the results came in on Nov. 8, 2016, liberals quite reasonably felt that they had suffered an absolute cataclysm. But it’s now looking increasingly possible that the election of Donald Trump could be the best thing that has happened to the left and the Democratic Party in decades.
Tens of millions of Americans have joined protests and rallies in the past two years, their activism often driven by admiration or outrage toward President Trump, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showing a new activism that could affect November elections.One in five Americans have protested in the streets or participated in political rallies since the beginning of 2016. Of those, 19 percent said they had never before joined a march or a political gathering.Overwhelmingly, recently motivated activists are critical of Trump. Thirty percent approve of the president, and 70 percent disapprove, according to the poll. And many said they plan to be more involved politically this year, with about one-third saying they intend to volunteer or work for a 2018 congressional campaign.
Those are extraordinary numbers. One in five American adults is around 50 million people who say they’ve participated in a protest or rally in the past two years. I can’t recall a time when we’ve had this many protests of this size and passion, whether they’re about women’s rights or gun reform or health care or immigration or education funding. How many times recently have you seen something like this:
It’s always possible that all this energy will just peter out. But the thing about activism is, it leads to more activism, just as voting leads to more voting — once you’re engaged you’ll probably stay engaged, at least to some degree. And while it’s often hard to get people who were mobilized by a campaign to keep the same intensity of involvement once the election is over, moving in the other direction can be easier. If you volunteered for Barack Obama in 2008, at some point you may have stopped responding to all those “We need you to contact your member of Congress about this bill!” emails. But if you’re out marching for women’s rights or gun reform, whatever else you do, you’re almost certainly going to vote in November at the very least.
Right now the Democrats have all the energy. They’ve been winning election after election, they have unprecedented numbers of new people running for office at all levels, and they’re more unified in purpose and ideology than ever. And boy, did they need it. After eight years of backlash against a black president and a party that wasn’t investing where it should have, they were left weaker than they’d been in decades, having lost Congress and suffered huge setbacks in governorships and state legislatures.
While we don’t know to what extent all that will be reversed in November, they’re certain to make substantial gains. And it’s worth considering where they’d be right now if 100,000 votes were shifted in the Rust Belt and Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college in addition to the popular vote. The Republican Congress not only wouldn’t pass any legislation even remotely favorable to liberal goals, it would be occupied with an orgy of investigation of everything the Clinton administration did — Benghazi times 100. There would be a new tea party taking to the streets and generating energy in advance of the 2018 elections. Those elections would be almost guaranteed to deepen the Republican hold on Congress and state legislatures. A whole new backlash would be underway.
But now, with the creation of a new generation of activists and candidates, we may well look back on this moment as a rebirth of liberal activism, just as the 1964 election began the flowering of conservative grass-roots action that grew out of the Goldwater campaign. In that case, it took 16 years before those activists seized control of the country’s politics and elected one of their own to the presidency, but things happen a lot faster these days.
None of this is to minimize the damage this administration and this Congress are doing on a daily basis — the upward transfer of wealth, the assault on the environment and workers’ rights, the sabotage of Americans’ health security, the appointment of a generation of reactionary judges, and so on. Nor is it to overlook the fact that Trump may well make any number of decisions with calamitous consequences before he’s through. On the other hand, a more traditional Republican president might well have been more competent in achieving conservative goals while simultaneously generating less mobilizing anger on the left.
We don’t yet know what the effects of all this activism will be in the long run. But I have zero doubt that in years to come there will be Democratic mayors, governors, senators and maybe even a president or two who will say, “Why did I get involved in politics? It all started when Donald Trump got elected.”