Disgust with President Donald Trump transformed 2017 into a year of protest. His critics gathered publicly in opposition to the inauguration; to march on behalf of women; to resist a travel ban that targeted Muslims; to insist on the importance of science; to express support for the rights of immigrants who are in the country illegally; and to decry America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
Many thought that taking to the streets was the best way to express patriotic dissent. And showing up made it easier to organize an infrastructure for ongoing “resistance.”
These public displays of opposition were an important civic statement in 2017. Prioritizing street protests in 2018, however, would be a grave error for Trump critics, as there are more effective and direct actions they can take to change the country’s trajectory. Namely, they can work to dominate the 2018 midterms.
The new year will bring the most important off-year elections in many of our lifetimes. As is true every two years, the entire House will be up for re-election. A legislative body that Republicans control 239 seats to 193 seats could flip, thwarting Trump’s ability to advance his domestic agenda and allowing Democrats to investigate his corruption. Whether or not a high crime triggers impeachment may hang in the balance.
Often I am ambivalent about who controls Congress. I’ve supported and opposed presidents and legislators from both political parties, neither of which match my public policy preferences. And in state politics, I’ve always voted based on individual candidates, as I will this year.
But I am rooting for Democrats to take the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms. Beyond the greater oversight and accountability that divided government brings, a decisive defeat of the GOP is the only tool voters have to repudiate Trump, in particular his tendency to stoke animus against minority groups to gain power. For elites in a multi-ethnic polity, there is no more irresponsible course. Proving that it leads — eventually, at least — to electoral ruin could help quash the tactic for a generation, sparing the country more bigotry from the burgeoning forces who rallied under swastikas in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Another factor at work in my cheerleading for Team Democrat is that I live in California. Having lost the Golden State, Trump and his allies have repeatedly sought to punish its residents. They’ve been slow to appropriate disaster relief, included provisions in their failed health care bill that would’ve hit California hard, and disadvantaged the state in the tax bill. Too often, the 14 Republicans in California’s House delegation have shown more loyalty to their partisan allies in Washington than to their Blue State constituents. Californians aren’t benefiting from having the most House members of any state. If they insist on change, however, Californians could help themselves even as they flip Congress for the whole country.
Democrats, though, tend to have a hard time turning out voters in off-year elections. And all the unhappiness with Trump evident in opinion polls won’t necessarily translate to the ballot box.
Seeking change through elections is hard, unheralded work. Registering voters, organizing phone trees, raising small donations and seeking permission to plant yard signs on front lawns isn’t as glamorous as marching beneath pithy signs amid tens of thousands as cable news cameras roll. Unlike righteous posts on social media, there’s no instant feedback. Some even regard it as woke to insist that America’s existing political system is so corrupt that voting doesn’t matter; only an egalitarian revolution will do the trick.
But if you want to save America’s soul, Mark Lilla advised in “The Once and Future Liberal,” leftists and moderates have to participate in the system. “Workshops and university seminars will not do it,” he wrote. “Online mobilizing and flash mobs will not do it. Protesting, acting up and acting out will not do it. The age of movement politics is over, at least for now. We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. And governors and state legislators and members of Congress.”
Taking the country back from Trump is as simple as turning out opponents of his presidency in large enough numbers come November.
Doing that work effectively is more important than any protest, rally, march or hashtag.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing opinion writer to the Los Angeles Times, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.
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