There have been at least 30 mass shootings since 19 children and two teachers were murdered at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. While Americans contend with their collective grief, national gun-control organizations have called for a wave of lobbying and peaceful protest, embracing the Tinkerbell theory of political action.
Confronted by lockstep Republican and anti-majoritarian obstructionism that makes legislative roads a dead end, Democrats keep “clapping for Tinkerbell”—insisting that, like the fairy in Peter Pan, progressive policy can stay alive as long as everyone demonstrates that they still believe.
Whether the issue is gun violence, abortion, or climate change, Democrats and mainstream progressive organizations continue to retread futile legislative paths, often while admonishing activists for adopting more confrontational approaches. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has embraced and normalized the antagonistic, extralegal, and even violent activism of its base. This asymmetry in political tactics is already having huge consequences for American politics.
The Supreme Court is poised to overturn federal abortion protections, but the pro-choice movement seems unprepared for the moment. Mainstream reproductive rights organizations are following an outdated playbook of one-day rallies and electoral politics that currently can achieve no more than a pro forma vote on doomed federal legislation. These groups have not invested in the kind of disruptive political strategies that are available to those excluded from the formal levers of political power. Even marginally in-your-face strategies have been criticized by pro-choice elites; when abortion rights activists protested peacefully outside the homes of conservative Supreme Court justices, the White House issued a statement condemning “violence, threats, or vandalism.”
In stark contrast, anti-abortion activists have long protested outside the private homes of abortion providers, a practice that receives few “tsks” of disapproval from Republican leaders. There is a fundamental imbalance of popular mobilization on the left and the right.
Republicans have found great success in encouraging the confrontational politics of their base. Early in the Obama administration, conservative media organized and legitimized the Tea Party movement, which disrupted town halls and local government meetings and helped rejuvenate the right at a moment of apparent Democratic ascendancy. Republicans recognize that clamorous popular politics can strengthen their insider political game. The “Stop the Steal” protests fit seamlessly with judicial rollbacks of voting rights, legislative efforts to suppress the vote, and administrative maneuvers to undermine election integrity. Today, there seems no limit to what elite Republicans will condone if it advances their agenda.
Meanwhile, Democrats cling tighter to formal inside-the-Beltway institutional procedures. Take the prolonged swan song of “Build Back Better.” Long after it was patently obvious that major climate legislation was dead in the water, national climate organizations continued to insist that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin would support a package that went against his self-interest and the interests of his fossil-fuel funders. Just last month, a coalition of climate groups held a “Climate Action Reboot” with the message that climate action was alive and well in Congress. Sure, if you just keep clapping!
By insisting that formal politics can achieve what it manifestly cannot, liberal elites risk delegitimizing the very institutions they are struggling to protect. Informing the public that the solution is lobbying, rallies, and voting, when control of the executive branch and the legislature is not enough to achieve extremely popular policy goals, is a good way to make people see civic participation as a fool’s errand.
If they close the doors on confrontational activism and civil disobedience, mainstream liberal and Democratic organizations cede a whole range of demonstrably effective tactics to their opponents. Progress in America has rarely occurred without disruption. The movements for civil rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights all required coordinated campaigns that interrupted the regular action of government and business and were often against the law. If Democrats insist that the only legitimate politics is carried out through our impotent political institutions, they risk isolating and undermining the locally embedded groups that are already applying the kind of tactics that overcame our frozen political system and achieved this country’s greatest social changes.
Rather than ineffectual, one-sided efforts at preserving the trappings of normal political times, establishment Democrats should grapple far more seriously with what to do when formal institutions fail. Part of the necessary preparation involves building much stronger ties of support between grassroots activists and the mainstream institutions that share their goals. These closer ties may be uncomfortable, but progress will never be made or preserved simply by clapping for Tinkerbell.