The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Calling basic civics ‘resistance’ will only make it harder to stand up to Trump

Greenpeace protesters unfurl a banner that reads “Resist” at a construction site near the White House on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

As Democrats have begun to recover from the shock of the November election, and to regroup to oppose President Trump’s Cabinet appointments and early glimmers of policy-making, the word “resist” and its variation seem to be coming back into vogue. It’s a snappy addition to a Twitter bio, a way to ask people what they’ve done today to express their profound disagreement with the new administration, and even a way for progressive organizations to raise money.

Sometimes, when people talk about resistance, they’re talking about genuinely disruptive actions, such as Greenpeace’s scaling of a crane in downtown Washington to unfurl a “Resist” banner that floated evocatively over the White House. But a lot of the time, the term seems to be cropping up to sex up what might be better described as good, old-fashioned civic engagement: calling your members of Congress, learning what it takes to run for local office, or even educating yourself about the formerly square elements of the Constitution such as the emoluments clause.

This flowering of civic devotion is an awesome thing to witness. I spent much of my four years in college trying to convince my fellow students to register to vote where they actually lived, and to learn enough about local issues to make those votes meaningful. I know what a lonely lift it can be to convince people to visit a polling place once a year, much less to take civic action every single day. Experiences like that make this spike in engagement, or the sight of people streaming out of their houses and apartment buildings on the way to last weekend’s Women’s March, particularly exciting.

For all that it’s cliche to listen to politicians natter on about the miracle of the American political system, there is an awesome jolt of power that comes with truly understanding that we hired the people who represent us in Congress and the White House, and we have every right — in fact, we have the responsibility — to manage their performance and to fire them if they do poorly. I just wish we recognized that we’ve had this authority all along; that it took a Trump administration to activate it says as much about us as it does about his extraordinary disregard for our norms and institutions.

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I’m not blind to the fact that doing this work is hard, boring and often thankless. If you’re racing between multiple jobs and insufficient childcare, I fully respect that you may not be able to afford the time it takes to place a call to Washington, much less the hours you may have to spend in a blocks-long line to vote. That a country that brags so much about its political system has raised the costs for participation so high is a disgrace.

What I’m talking about here is something different.

I understand the power of a good re-branding. But re-branding can also carry unexpected consequences.

There’s no question that civic engagement is a way to stand firm against the degradation of a representative system of government. At the same time, recasting the fundamental building blocks of civic engagement not as essential tools of public engagement available to all citizens in all times, but as acts of resistance we deploy only against extraordinary threats to our system, is a quick way to get those acts tagged as radical rather than normal.

We should be wary of adopting a renamed version of civic engagement that seems mostly intended to make ourselves feel good and brave about doing things we should have been doing in the first place. Meeting our basic obligations as citizens is not the same thing as revolutionary action.

And we ought to be doubly wary about that re-branding if it opens the door for the basic functions of our political system to be recast as partisan and radical, rather than as fundamental and routine. If picking up phone calls from constituents makes our senators and representatives complicit in “resistance” against Trump, I would place a rather large bet that some lawmakers will use this as an excuse to stop taking calls.

I say all of this not because I’m opposed to more genuinely radical action, but because I want to preserve the possibility of it. When the basic functions of our civic life become radical acts of resistance, we’re not kicking down the door; we’re confining ourselves to screaming through a keyhole.