America's teenagers sent us a wake-up call: Did we hear it?

Parkland students — and many others across the nation — have challenged our cynicism and arrogance. Now we owe them

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 24, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Students march in support of gun reform legislation, February 21, 2018 (Getty/Win McNamee)
Students march in support of gun reform legislation, February 21, 2018 (Getty/Win McNamee)

It’s been another remarkable week in America under President Donald Trump, who if nothing else has definitely functioned as a “change agent,” if not entirely in the way he and his most loyal fans envisioned. This week we have seen American teenagers, widely supposed to be an apathetic and passive demographic wrapped in cocoons of electronic consumption, put the adult world to shame and provoke a moment of reckoning on a social issue most of us thought was intractable or impossible.

It would be easy, as the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shootings begins to fade, to retreat back to familiar and comfortable cynicism: Nothing is likely to change in terms of national gun policy in the United States, for a long list of much-discussed reasons. Public opinion is polarized into opposing camps with mutually incompatible worldviews, the Republican Party has been taken hostage by the NRA (and by the single-issue gun voters it represents) and anyway guns are so deeply entrenched in American culture and American life we’ll probably never get them out.

That’s an eminently reasonable and realistic view, and pretty close to the one I’ve held for years. For many centrist Democrats and left-wing progressives alike, the whole question of guns in America has long felt like a radioactive no-go zone. Democratic candidates in heartland states spent 20 years posing with shotguns and camo gear or displaying their NRA membership cards, a strategy that failed to a spectacular and almost tragicomic degree. As gun culture became inextricably intertwined with the most paranoid streams of far-right politics, a duck-hunting photo-op was ever enough to inoculate even the most milquetoast moderate from accusations of creeping crypto-socialism.

For progressive activists who actually were trying to re-energize some version of socialism -- or at least some version of class-based politics that could cut across racial and geographic divisions -- gun control became an issue to avoid as much as possible. That was largely the case, for example, with the pre-2016 career of Bernie Sanders as a congressman and senator from a rural state with high levels of gun ownership. Hillary Clinton called Sanders out on his lack of a clear record on the issue, and fair enough — but her husband was definitely a bi-curious gun prevaricator back in Arkansas.

But I think the importance of the Parkland moment goes well beyond any granular questions of what can or should be done about guns in America — although modest reforms suddenly seem conceivable that didn’t before — and speaks to the much larger question of political possibility. The fact that so many of us in the political and media castes keep reverting to the aforementioned “reasonable and realistic” positions, after all the seemingly crazy or impossible things that have happened over the course of the last two years, is either a sign of stubbornness, stupidity or deeply ingrained prejudice.

What we’ve seen in the last week is that the young people of Parkland, Florida, and many other places — and at least some of the adults in their lives — do not suffer from those flaws. Maybe they are too naïve to understand that all the Responsible People have agreed that nothing can be done, or maybe they see that as a conspiracy of cowardice and lies. In any case, they have refused to surrender to conventional wisdom that everybody supposedly knows, or to play their assigned roles in a scripted drama often marketed as “How could this happen here?” or “This was always the kind of town where folks took care of each other.”

It was profoundly satisfying to see Trump and Marco Rubio and NRA spokesbot Dana Loesch and various Fox News talking heads taken completely off guard, as a narrative they thought they understood spun out of control. How dare these kids express forceful and angry opinions, instead of weeping incoherently in the parking lot or organizing silent prayer vigils? The far-right conspiracy theories describing the Parkland young people and others like them as “crisis actors” — as far as I know, a term Alex Jones simply made up — is both a projection and an admission of weakness. Anyone who challenges the increasingly elaborate fictions through which the American right constructs its worldview must themselves be fictional.

President Trump’s note card, the one reportedly crafted by Hope Hicks that advised him to tell Parkland survivors “I hear you” and to ask “What can we do …?” made me feel, not for the first time, the man’s profound and pathetic incapacity. (I'm not claiming that’s a remotely appropriate reaction under these circumstances.) But I think it’s important to acknowledge that hypocritical right-wingers, much as they deserve a deep sheep-dip in the stinky ooze of shame, were not alone in their confusion. I didn’t see this coming, meaning the outpouring of protest and anger from the Parkland students and other teenagers across the nation, and if you’re old enough to remember the Clinton administration (or those before it), you probably didn’t either.

I think the big lesson of the Parkland insurrection is simple enough, and one we ought to have absorbed by now: We don’t know what’s going to happen, and our confidence in our own judgment, and in the patterns handed down from the past, is grossly misplaced. Almost nobody with expert credentials believed a reality-show celebrity could be elected president (with or without the assistance of Onion-style internet trolls in other countries), or that a septuagenarian socialist could spark a resurgence of youth activism, or that a neo-Nazi march in an American city would be sorta, kinda defended by the White House. But all those things happened, and many more that in almost any other period of history would seem ridiculous. So why do we still pretend we know what the hell is going on?

One thing that may be going on is that ordinary Americans are behaving as if the institutions of democracy and civil society actually worked as intended, despite the fact that most of us in the media-political bubble view them as a farce or a spectator sport. If Trump’s election was to some extent an uprising by a non-elite group that felt forgotten and mistreated, there’s no reason not to expect others. America’s teenagers told us this week, in no uncertain terms, that our inaction and our cynicism is literally killing them, and that our excuses about why we haven’t done anything are not acceptable. Maybe that moves the dial on gun control and maybe it doesn’t, but I think it’s a lesson that has much wider application, and one we should try to receive with humility.

I was similarly struck by Heather Digby Parton’s Friday column in Salon about political scientists Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol’s new report on the upsurge of grassroots activism among white suburban women. Their point is not that this represents some progressive vanguard; Putnam and Skocpol make clear that these women are not overwhelmingly liberal and aren’t much interested in the Democratic Party’s internecine battles. But they represent a major and dynamic shift that is specific to this moment: A demographic group long understood as politically agnostic or apathetic has been galvanized by a traumatic event (in this case, the #MeToo movement and the election of an overt misogynist as president).

It would be easy — much too easy — to say that a bunch of suburban women with no clear ideology have no hope of creating real change and will immediately be absorbed into the decaying zombie husk of our two-party system. Just as it was easy to feel certain that a bunch of high school students who don’t quite know what they want or how the system “works” couldn’t possibly put the gun lobby and the Republican Party on the defensive within a matter of days. If American democracy is to be renewed or redeemed (which is a pretty big if), its redeemers may come from unlikely places.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir