No matter your views on gun control, what the country witnessed this past weekend – millions of people participating in marches across the country – is a welcome development in a troubled time. It’s just what the U.S. needs, young people choosing political engagement instead of apathy. It’s the kind of energy that can transform policy and save lives.
The bulk of the marches grew out of the aftermath of the horrific Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida, with the majority of protesters demanding various gun control options, including banning so-called assault rifles and improving background checks. There were also marchers who believe an American-style democracy cannot be sustained without the Second Amendment. The voices of the young, supported by a variety of groups and adults, were the most prominent.
It’s not the first time America's youth has been on the front line of critical social movements. Children stared down dogs and water hoses during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. College students, including those in North Carolina, began transforming the world with sit-ins. This past weekend, busloads of middle school students from places such as Conway, S.C., left in the dead of night to join others in Washington to build upon that legacy. It was democracy at its best.
The cynics have tried to reduce what we saw to little more than politics as usual, as just the latest in the tired debate between liberals and conservatives to determine which major political party will benefit in the midterms and beyond. Don’t let them. If young people are more politically active, it means Democrats and Republicans and third-party candidates must vie for their support. That becomes truer by the day as millennials begin outnumbering boomers. It seeds the ground for a re-examination of the nation’s priorities.
Such as: What is the proper balance between sensible gun control and honoring the Second Amendment? Between supporting welfare programs and tackling the debt? Is the tax system too progressive? Not progressive enough? Can we treat the undocumented with dignity while enforcing clear borders? Should government pay more of the higher education costs? Or less?
These are sensitive, complex issues. When millions of Americans don’t bother to participate – roughly 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016, and the percentage of voters ages 18-29 was closer to 50 – the most extreme voices shape the debate and policies. Until young people turn out to vote in greater numbers, office holders have reason to doubt the true impact of days like Saturday.
It’s true there were recent spikes in such engagement during the Bush era by anti-war and anti-capitalism protesters, by the Tea Party under President Obama and the unprecedented women’s march last year. Let’s hope what we saw this weekend is just the beginning.