The Trump presidency has brought a political awakening for American progressives. It began even before he took office, with the organizing for the Women’s March. Then came the citizen activists who protested at airports and later helped save health insurance for millions of people. Now high school students are trying to transform the gun debate.
In a new article in the journal Democracy, two academic researchers tell the story of the energized progressive movement. The leaders are most often suburban women alarmed by President Donald Trump’s assaults on decency and the rule of law. The movement is more bottom-up than top-down, more face-to-face than virtual, more Middle American than coastal. It does not always identify itself with the Democratic Party, even if it supports almost exclusively Democrats.
The movement is “pervasively pragmatic,” write the researchers, Lara Putnam of the University of Pittsburgh and Theda Skocpol of Harvard. It spans “the broad ideological range from center to left” and (despite media coverage to the contrary, they argue) spends little time on Bernie-versus-Hillary fights. Above all, it is trying to elect progressives, including to oft-ignored local offices — and it’s now focused on the 2018 midterms.
That’s smart. Elections are precisely what progressives should be emphasizing. Protests can have an effect, as happened with Obamacare repeal and is happening on guns. But major progress on almost every issue — climate change, immigration, middle-class living standards and gun deaths — depends on electing people who want to make progress. Trump and the current leaders of Congress plainly do not.
Political movements have two main ways to win elections: persuasion and turnout. On persuasion, I think progressives’ best hope is an economic message that focuses the white working class on the working-class part of its identity, rather than the white part. But today I want to concentrate on turnout, because it has an even greater potential to change American politics.
Voter turnout is the biggest opportunity — and biggest challenge — for the new progressive movement. The problem is easy enough to describe: Progressives don’t vote as often as conservatives do.
Americans under age 30, for example, lean notably left. They are socially liberal, worried about climate change and favor higher taxes on the rich. But most of them don’t vote, especially outside of presidential elections. In the 2014 midterms — when Republicans took control of the Senate and held the House — only 1 of every 6 citizens between 18 and 29 voted. One in six! The same year, more than half of people aged 60 or older voted.
The pattern also holds among Latinos and Asian-Americans. They’re mostly liberal and vote at lower rates than whites. African-Americans are the exception — a big, left-leaning demographic group that votes at fairly high rates, despite the barriers they often face.
Yet if the turnout problem is easy to describe, it’s hard to solve. Young people, Latinos and Asian-Americans have long voted at lower rates. (The gap didn’t used to matter so much, because political views didn’t split as sharply by age and ethnicity.)
The new progressive movement has made some early headway on turnout. In both the recent Virginia and Alabama elections, national groups ran huge get-of-the-vote operations, with vital help from the grass roots. The results were impressive. Turnout was surprisingly high, including among younger voters, and Democrats won some shocking upsets. The same has happened elsewhere in special elections for state legislature seats.
But lifting turnout in a one-off election, where activists can focus their energies, is easier than doing so in a nationwide midterm. And even in the recent victories, progressives have closed only a small portion of the turnout gap.
The crucial point is that the Trump presidency has created an opportunity to jump-start progress — an opportunity that doesn’t come along often. People who don’t normally pay much attention to politics are doing so. For some, it could become habit. So could voting.
The entire progressive movement — from the top of the Democratic Party to the new neighborhood groups — should be thinking about how to lift turnout. They should be pushing for laws that make it easier to vote, as is happening in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and elsewhere. They should be spending time and money to register voters. They should be asking progressive entrepreneurs how the iPhone, Alexa, social media, podcasts and yet-to-be-built apps can inspire (and nag) people to vote. They should be ruthlessly evaluating what works and what does not.
They can also be talking with family and friends about the singular power of voting. When I spoke with Skocpol last week, she told me that some of the new progressive activists are doing exactly this, encouraging their children and grandchildren to register.
The mechanics of voter turnout aren’t exciting. But the results can be: Fewer gun deaths. Less climate damage. Less inequality. Higher living standards. And a government that better reflects the views of all its citizens.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times.