The Women’s March and What Comes Next

Ari Schwartz | @arischwartz | Medium Talk Contributor 

When more than 1 in 100 Americans engage in coordinated protest, it’s a milestone event. Last weekend’s women’s marches drew millions into the streets across the country, in what some estimate to be the largest demonstration in American history.

Voter turnout in midterm elections hovers around 40 percent; having one percent of Americans actively engaged in resistance to Donald Trump’s agenda could shape our politics throughout his term and for years to come. So we should ask: what do the women’s marches signify for our country’s politics and for resistance to the Trump administration? What do they mean for the future of the American left and the Democratic Party? 

The incredible size of the marches suggests that a large segment of America is not willing to accept the agenda of our new President. The marches quickly became a social phenomenon, with many people gathering to support the values of equality and women’s rights, and others simply to vent or taunt the President. But mass rallies can achieve more than providing a venue for signs, speeches and selfies. Mass rallies can alter our politics if they are channeled into an organized constituency.

More than the Clinton coalition?

I spent Saturday at the women’s march in DC. The sheer size and scope of the crowds, both downtown and uptown and pouring out of the metro stations, was incredible. But as I wandered through the mostly white crowd holding witty signs, I wondered if this wasn’t just the activist core of the Hillary Clinton coalition. To build a real opposition to the Republican Party, that will not be enough.

Let me be clear: the Clinton-led Democratic Party is in shambles. It lost the Presidency to the most unpopular candidate since the creation of polling. It lost the Senate and the House. Conservatives will soon control the Supreme Court and many lower courts as Trump nominates hundreds of judges. Democrats control only 16 governors’ mansions, and only six states with a trifecta of governor and both legislative chambers. Republicans, in contrast, control state legislatures in 32 states, up from 14 in 2010. Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislature seats since 2009. The first step is admitting Democrats have failed at every level to prevent right-wing takeover of our representative government. 

So how does the Democratic Party expand the Clinton coalition and become relevant once again? The women’s march gave us part of the blueprint, and the Clinton campaign showed us what to leave behind. Clinton’s campaign made a strategic decision to center its general election campaign around Trump being unfit for the Presidency. At times, she seemed to dispense with drawing contrasts on the issues entirely. I saw a similar focus on the villainy of Trump at the women’s march. Yet I also saw the encouraging outlines of a defined constituency with issue-based grievances against Trump. Lots of people marched explicitly because Trump and the Republican Party have pledged to strip health insurance from millions, to de-fund women’s healthcare, and to overturn Roe v. Wade. That is a horrifying agenda around which you can build an organized base and a platform of demands. Issues and how they affect people cut across various identities and political loyalties. To get from the women’s march to an organized movement— one that is larger and more coherent than Clinton’s campaign—will require organizing around clear and bold demands. 

Building organized groups of people relies on moments that turn bystanders into activists. The women’s march was one such moment. Yes, it was disproportionately white and upper middle-class. True, it did not have a sharp enough set of political demands. Those critiques need to be addressed. But as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, not many people start as radicals and politically mature activists. For a fledgling movement to become a mass movement, it must welcome people new to politics and organizing, and train them to take further action.

The Koch and DeVos-funded FreedomWorks capitalized on Tea Party demonstrations back in 2009 to build a grassroots base and an agenda against Obama. So what organized constituencies and political demands will emerge from the women’s march? That is the central question as we plunge into an era of unified Republican government.

Demands will determine the aftermath of the women’s march

David Brooks, who inexplicably still gets paid to write opinions, wrote that the women’s march “focuses on the wrong issues,” like reproductive rights, equal pay, and affordable health care. He dismisses these as “voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities.” Of course he cannot see past his multi-million dollar house to begin to understand how voters think. And he is misguided to think that those are the wrong issues. Both upper-middle class and poor people care about healthcare. They care about access to contraception and abortion. They care about wages. The issues are clear, but what are the moments that galvanize millions of people around those demands?

If the women’s march is the beginning of a movement for single payer healthcare that includes reproductive rights and the government ensuring that all Americans — men and women — can get good, equal paying jobs, then we will remember it as a turning point in history. If it does not produce any bold, clear demands, it becomes yet another one-off mass march.