Here Are the Reasons You Should Be Paying Attention to the Recent Spike in Activism

January 13th 2015

Millennials took a lot of heat a few months ago for not showing up to vote -- a mere 12 percent of individuals who voted last November were younger than 30. On the other hand, 37 percent of the electorate was comprised of people over the age of 60 – the voters likely responsible for giving the Republicans 12 new seats in the House and seven in the Senate.  
Why are Millennials disengaging from our electoral system even though it seems they deeply care about many political and social issues (climate change, income inequality, immigration, to name just a few)?

Americans feel totally at a loss for how to feel an actual sense of engagement in government, even if they do vote, according to Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. 

The reason for this is that the shape of civics is changing.

We are not seeing a crisis in civics, argues Zuckerman, as much as we’re suffering a crisis in empowerment. That is, Americans increasingly feel like their vote has less of an impact on the status quo because their vote literally counts less. 

Your vote has less and less power

At our founding, each member of the House of Representatives, on average, represented 50,000 people. That meant a person, on average, was only sharing his or her representative with 49,000 other people. Today? The average member represents 600,000 people. That means the average person today is sharing his or her representative with more than half a million other people.

The result is that people feel disconnected from the process and have no sense of personal responsibility to participate in congressional elections. This is confirmed by a report from Circle that said “my vote does not count” was one of the two primary reasons Millennials did not vote last November. (The other was being too busy.)

The political structure just looks hopeless compared to the digital landscape.

Compare Congress’ stale, impenetrable structure to the digital space. We as Millennials are used to the idea that we have a real voice that is heard in the digital space. In June 2009, new media expert Clay Shirky gave a TED Talk in which he claimed that today’s era marks “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

And it’s true: we know that we have the power to Tweet an idea or write a Facebook status about a political issue, and there is a great chance that someone will respond to it, or recirculate our idea. 

By contrast, our interactions with political representatives are highly, highly mediated at best. In addition to fellow constituents, voters also compete with other stakeholders for their representative's attention -- such as party leadership, donors, and business or labor groups.

Finding the right lever of power

So what’s the solution? Certainly not what many associate with the notion of digital engagement: you know, easy, totally symbolic “engagement” such as “liking” a Facebook group or cause – a phenomenon increasingly known as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism,” critiqued most eloquently by Evvgeny Morozv in his book To Save Everything Click. 

Citing a number of innovative examples of digital activism, Zuckerman also asserted that we need to think more critically about how we compartmentalize the notions of politics and activism in our culture. This is something that Millennials certainly do: We care about certain issues, yet we don’t care much about voting for those issues.

So this is where we come full circle, and must re-confront not just the problem of our arguably obsolete political system – but why we are focusing so much on it. 

Zuckerman remarked that we, as individuals and as a society, think about what “levers of change” we are trying to pull on. We tend to “pull the legislative lever,” which is not the only tool at our disposal. Marriage equality laws are great, but they don’t necessarily ensure equality for LGBTQ citizens. So, we also need to focus on larger, more nuanced campaigns. For example, The Trevor Project solely focuses on protecting LGBTQ youth from committing suicide, rather than focusing on national legal change regarding marriage equality.

The long-term power of activism

We also need to be aware that activism can also lead to political change. The American Civil Rights movement and Gandhi’s protests against the British in India are opportunities to explore the mechanism of how activism actually translates into political change. In both of these cases, as Zuckerman pointed out in his speech, protest participants put themselves at a real risk, and in a highly public way, to galvanize public opinion at scale. 

Where are there opportunities for activism in the United States?

But if we also look quickly, incompletely, at instances of politically “successful” activism in our current day, we can consider further how grassroots activity might convert into even greater political “success” in America.

Individuals like Emma Sulkowicz, a woman who has vowed to carry her mattress around the campus of Columbia University (in a dual act of protest and performance art) until the school expels her alleged rapist, are drawing unprecedented attention to deepening our understanding of Title IX and issues around sexual assault. This kind of activism has not only led to greater public consciousness of these issues, but it has also led to new Department of Education policies

Another great example is the online, grassroots movement that destroyed SOPA and PIPA – two internet freedom bills – in 2011.

The reaction we are seeing in response to Ferguson and Garner’s death has already resulted in presidential action – including a request that Congress invest $263 million in a “community policing initiative.”

It’s important that we think about political engagement in terms of concrete questions and concrete action. As Zuckerman explained, “We need to help people climb ladders of engagement while broadening their understanding of issues.” That way, “they can build their own ladders for others to climb.” 

Thinking about activism in terms of scalable action and concrete impact will lead to shift in public opinion and likely will galvanize the attention of the “authority lever” – electoral politics in other words. We can believe again in the meaning of political engagement – during November but also during the other 11 months of the year. It will just take work. From all of us.