Editor’s Note: Lauren Duca is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York magazine, as well as her column for Teen Vogue, “Thigh-High Politics.” She is the author of the book “HOW TO START A REVOLUTION: Young People and the Future of American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
If you know the name Lauren Duca, it may be because you read “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” the viral Teen Vogue piece that catapulted me to public figuredom in December of 2016. Or maybe it’s because you watched an interview with Tucker Carlson about two weeks later – it ended with him telling me to “Stick to the thigh-high boots.” It’s also possible that you spotted me trending on Twitter last week, after Buzzfeed published a piece about my time teaching at NYU this summer, and the allegation that I targeted an international high school student in class. I’ve since addressed it all in an interview with Marie Claire. You are more than welcome to your opinion of me.
Regardless of the way I’ve hooked your attention, I’d love to focus it on something more important than what anyone might think of me – namely, America’s democratic crisis and our need for a revolution in personal political agency.
The good news is the political awakening movement is already underway and I document it in my new book “How to Start a Revolution.” It contains some of my personal story, like struggling to work as a political journalist while figuring out how to have a conversation with my Trump-supporting parents.
I started researching the post-Trump political awakening after the switch flipped for me. Before November 9, 2016, I misunderstood democracy as a historical achievement. I had read the poet and activist June Jordan, but it was only when Trump’s presidency was rendered reality that I truly internalized the meaning of her most iconic words: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
In less eloquent terms, I woke up the day after the election, and thought, “Holy s***, I have to do something about this.”
I’m a journalist, so I instinctually started talking to people about their sense of personal agency. The stories differ in detail and scope, but they share one striking similarity in their urgency of self-determination. No longer willing to accept unquestioned political authority, young people across the country have insisted on being the change they wish to see.
There are obvious examples of young people taking matters into their own hands, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was a 28-year-old bartender when she decided she was qualified to represent her district in Congress. I met her two weeks before a primary campaign that the New York Times felt no need to cover, and watched in the audience as she told a handful of potential voters that it’s in the small rooms where movements begin.
I found quieter examples of this across the country, like Heather Ward, an accounting major at Villanova who told me that she had covered the school board for her high school paper while she was a high school student. After Trump was elected during her senior year, she ran for a seat on the school board, and won. Others, like Kat Calvin, had experience with activism before Trump’s victory, but the shock of his win shifted their efforts into hyper gear. After the 2016 election, she set off to start a non-profit called Spread The Vote, aimed at expanding voting rights.
The post-Trump political transformation occurs along a spectrum. There are those who had no interest in politics before, and now feel it is their duty to follow the news and remain in contact with elected officials. Even at the lowest level of engagement, many young people have fundamentally altered their approach to politics. Before the 2016 election, politics seemed like “an important thing men did off in a room somewhere,” one recently graduated political science major told me. An engineering PhD student nailed the pre-Trump disconnect when he explained, “I understood that people could be going to town halls, but I didn’t understand that I should be doing that.”
Ocasio-Cortez, Ward and Calvin are a handful of outstanding examples of which there are many more, but the most thrilling thing about this attitude shift is that we can talk about it at generational scale. The 2017 Millennial Impact Report – a longitudinal, ethnographic study which aims to chart behaviors of millions of millennials – found a fundamental change in our approach to politics beyond the exceptional outliers. We were once convinced that our political problems were just the way things are, but that’s changed. We are now calling for climate change, gun reform, and student loan crisis policy solutions, among others, by protesting, organizing, and otherwise raising our voices.
It’s crucial to note that the heft of our civic glo-up is not about Trump, so much as it is a reaction to him. All of the young people I spoke to used their skill sets to address problems they cared about the most. Their epiphanies weren’t about this administration. They realized that they could no longer wait around for someone else to fix those problems. This awakening hinges on self-validation: we came to insist on the fact that government supposedly by and for the people requires our input.
We can see the post-Trump political awakening reflected in terms of the most basic, transactional mode of citizenship. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education, 31% of eligible people between 18 and 29 voted in the 2018 midterms – estimated to be the highest participation in a quarter-century. That number will almost certainly increase during the 2020 presidential election, during which millennials and members of Gen-Z will make up 37% of the electorate.
Voting is crucial, of course. To be clear: Register. Vote. Make sure all of your friends register and vote. Rinse and repeat. But civic participation must extend beyond that. Your options for participating in democracy include any method of making your political opinion heard. And it can’t just be a thing you do one time in response to the latest in the conveyor belt of atrocities emerging from the White House. Democratic citizenship must be a constant, daily ritual, not unlike brushing your teeth.
That sounds like a lot of work, because it is. Indeed, democracy is not a thing we have, it is a thing that we must do. If you have yet to undergo the post-Trump political awakening, make the choice to do so now. Active citizenship is about questioning who makes the rules and refusing to accept the status quo as “just the way things are.” It requires designing daily habits of democracy, and that starts with three steps:
1) Empower yourself with information. Democratic citizenship must start from a consensus of fact. Be a critical thinker and do your research on the issues that matter most to you. In the scope of human history it has never been so easy to just look things up. Seek out multiple sources on any given topic. Ask questions and keep reading until you have the answers you need.
2) Form an opinion about a political issue. Once you have a foundation of information, you are ready to form a political opinion. It’s important to note your stance on any given issue doesn’t need to be set in stone. Instead, you should be in dynamic conversation with your belief, always willing to consider new information with an open mind.
3) Put your beliefs into action. Making your voice heard refers to more than participating in the political conversation in real life and online. The practice of citizenship also includes organizing, protesting, and/or contacting elected officials. It might mean volunteering for an inspiring candidate or running for office yourself. Not everyone is going to launch their own campaign, and not everyone can show up to march, but you have to do something. Choose the activity or activities that best fit into your life, and then do the damn thing all the time.
Get our free weekly newsletter
It is a reality of the great American dumpster fire that, as a 2012 study from Princeton and Northwestern found, the average American’s voice is “statistically non-significant.” Moneyed interests make it so that the wealth and power of our nation are concentrated in the hands of billionaires and major corporations, but we can’t accept this daunting reality as an excuse for inaction.
I hope to hold up my story as an example of the evolution that is possible in the political awakening. I have made some mistakes in this journey, and I’m sure there will be more to come. What I can promise you is that I will do my best to continue to evolve. Do not hold yourself back with concerns that it’s too late, or that you’re not good enough. There will always be some form of criticism.
You must dedicate yourself to an active role in the political process, knowing you will stumble and fall, knowing you will get back up again. The best that you can do is commit to getting better all the time.