TODAY’S YOUTH are eager to engage in politics, provided that it entails painting one’s face, toting clever banners, chanting something scandalous and posting it on social media next to a trending hashtag.
This is excellent. Participating in protest movements is a good thing. Protests are identity-defining activities, allowing one to integrate politics into the most important emotional activity of early adulthood: creating one’s social persona. Since all politics is to some extent identity politics, this is a great way to mobilise people.
Yet at the risk of sounding like a harrumphing gramps, it is important to point out that in politics, protests are a sideshow, not the main event. Participation in protest movements risks becoming a substitute for engagement in party politics, in government or in civil-society institutions. Marching is great—but letting it crowd out more substantive forms of political activity is not.
Today’s popular movements, from Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March that followed Donald Trump’s election, to the anti-Brexit marches in Britain, the #MeToo protests and Greta Thunberg’s student climate strikes, have been extremely successful at mobilising supporters and gaining media attention. But are they producing the change they seek?
Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvador, two political activists in their 20s, argue in a recent commentary for The Economist’s Open Future initiative that citizen movements on specific issues can be the “new unifier” as political parties shrink. They see the parties as hidebound and untrustworthy, more interested in cultivating their own institutional power than in implementing the changes that citizens demand.
In other words, identifying with #Occupy or the #ClimateStrike is cool; joining a socialist or environmentalist party, apparently, is not. (The analogues on the other side of the political spectrum are not entirely clear; perhaps the #GiletsJaunes versus the Rassemblement National.)
This attitude, if held by most Millennials and members of Generation Z, is a recipe for irrelevance and failure. The risk is that young protesters flit from issue to issue, creating movements that work well to define one’s identify and boost awareness of an issue for half a day, but never turn the political activism into concrete power or legislative action.
This is politics as lifestyle, intended to give people a sense of meaning rather than to generate results. Indeed, the accomplishments of large protest movements over the past decade have been meagre.
#MeToo has led to the firing or prosecution of a number of powerful sexual harassers and rapists, which is a big deal. But what achievements do the Occupy movement, the Women’s Marches, the Remain movement, Extinction Rebellion, or for that matter the Gilets Jaunes have to boast of? What, apart from agenda-setting or the vague notion of “empowerment”?
The real work of translating popular sentiment into government action is done by the political parties whom Mr Venzon and Ms Cahen-Salvador say their generation disdains. It is the parties who must do the boring, gritty work of getting elected, fighting for legal and regulatory programmes, issuing reports, attending committee meetings, striking compromises—in a word, governing.
If non-party movements are seen as the exciting alternative to the dull world of party activism, then the parties will be starved of the popular attention and enthusiasm they need to win votes and power.
It is a bit odd that Mr Venon and Ms Cahen-Salvador evince such scepticism towards political parties, given that they are themselves very successful party activists. They founded the pan-European political party Volt with nothing but a few friends and a surplus of enthusiasm in 2017; within two years, Volt had won a seat in the European Parliament. It is not quite clear why they would turn away from that effort to form their new movement, NOW! Their argument is that young people are enthusiastic about single-issue movements, yet NOW! seems to address a smorgasbord of different issues with no clear explanation of what belongs under the rubric and what does not.
To get anything done in politics, one needs a theory of change. What do today’s non-party movement activists want to accomplish? How does turning out for a mass protest lead to the goal? In fact, some of today’s Millennial and Generation Z activists have thought these questions through. They employ sensible strategies that connect movement activism, protest and social-media campaigns with influence in political parties and government institutions.
The Green New Deal is a good example. Its initial leap to prominence came from the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots climate-change group that both staged protests and made campaign donations to environmentalist challengers in the 2018 congressional election. Many of the candidates it endorsed won, giving it immediate political power. It then led a sit-in of the office of the incoming Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, putting the Green New Deal on the map.
The policy proposals for the Green New Deal are being developed by a recently formed progressive think-tank, New Consensus. The celebrity achieved by one of the Sunrise Movement’s candidates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has made the group a powerful force within the Democratic Party at the same time as it retains its radical credentials and its ability to mobilise activists on the street.
This is a vision of activism not as an alternative to political parties, but as a complement to them. It recalls such successful campaigns as America’s Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which combined national black organisations, churches, mass rallies and civil disobedience, and close co-operation with sympathetic politicians within the Democratic Party.
For that matter, it recalls the lessons learned by the activists who grew out of the European student movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. Student radicals such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer started their political lives erecting barricades and founding autonomous communes, some linked to violent communist groups. It took them many years to embrace parliamentary politics, but they ultimately achieved great success with French and German Green parties.
This is the very generation Mr Venzon and Ms Cahen-Salvador describe in their article as idealistic yet ineffective: their parents. The Baby Boomers were movement activists too. Those who stuck with communes and sit-ins, shunning the institutions of power, were ultimately irrelevant. But those who married their passions with the political process achieved great things. It will save everyone a lot of disappointment if today’s youth movements quickly embrace that lesson, and use their energy to reinvigorate political parties rather than undermining them.
*first published in: www.economist.com