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New age of activism in the age of Donald Trump

Muslim men pray at a prayer and demonstration

Muslim men pray at a prayer and demonstration last month at Kennedy Airport to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.  Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Since the presidential election, our country has seen a groundswell of organizing as people band together in one of the most basic expressions of democracy: activism. The activism spans the gamut — from demonstrating at airports nationwide to protesting outside the Brooklyn apartment building of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer to packing the town hall meetings of members of Congress.

But between the headline-grabbing rallies, average people are doing the tedious work of democracy every day. Hundreds of strangers gather regularly in auditoriums, houses of worship and schools. Sometimes it’s a few friends in someone’s living room or workspace. And people are signing up to volunteer with grass-roots groups like Common Cause/NY in unprecedented numbers — demanding to be put to work at something that will make a difference.

New activists are asking for explanations of how government works so they can develop tactics to influence public policy. They want to know what to ask members of Congress (we’ve got tips), whether they should call and write their Assembly members (absolutely) and whether they can make an appointment to meet with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (let’s ask for one). New Yorkers from Babylon to Buffalo are writing and making phone calls to elected representatives. They’re drafting emails. They’re texting.

And they’re getting results:

  • It took just two days of demonstrations for the White House to reverse course and exempt green card holders from its executive order banning Muslims from seven countries.
  • After an avalanche of calls to the congressional switchboard, Vice President Mike Pence was forced to cast an unprecedented tiebreaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
  • After environmentalists, hunters and fishers made their outrage felt, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) backed off his plan to sell national parkland to private interests.
  • And, of course, the increasing public outcry from Americans who receive health care through the Affordable Care Act has slowed the Republican resolve for a quick repeal of Obamacare.

Six weeks after the inauguration, we don’t see any drop, but rather an uptick, in people volunteering. Just last week, new activists reached out to Common Cause/NY to ask for information on how to understand state government and affect how elections are run, topics that reveal a long-term orientation.

Politicians should take note: This is not some flash in the pan. The only way to survive politically is to engage. Hiding from constituents — as we saw Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) do when he canceled a town hall scheduled for April because activists planned to protest — is a dereliction of representative duty. In fact, constituents are organizing phone campaigns to call members of Congress, demanding that they meet those whom they represent. And if they don’t, constituents are holding town halls without them.

Activists Common Cause is hearing from plan months in advance. They’re talking strategically about ways to impact civic engagement and about mobilization strategies for elections in November and in 2018.

There’s a new awareness that democracy is a marathon, not a sprint; that trying to keep up with the latest news on every front is a distraction, not a strategy; and that there are many different ways to make your voice heard.

It’s become clear that Americans are remembering something essential: Democracy is not something we have, but something we do. In our situation, the signs show that isn’t something they are likely to forget anytime soon.

Susan Lerner is the executive Director of Common Cause/New York, a government reform group.