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The Climate Strike That Wasn’t: What’s Behind Declining Protest in 2021?

Photograph Source: Socialist Appeal – CC BY 2.0

You may have noticed that the “climate strike” actions on September 24 across the U.S. were incredibly thin compared to previous years. As progressive activists, we were disappointed after attending the local event in our area (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) to find perhaps four dozen participants this year for an event, which one of us participated in two years ago in the same location that previously brought out hundreds of demonstrators. The trend appears the same throughout the nation, with reporting from two years ago estimating the national turnout may have been in the hundreds of thousands in what was billed as the country’s “largest ever climate strike” to date. By comparison, reporting on participation this year was sparse, and when coverage was devoted to 9/24 events it emphasized actions across the globe, due to the anemic U.S. turnout. This is not to dismiss the energy of those who did attend. But it’s difficult to ignore the decline in participation this year compared to the past.

It’s important to look at longitudinal trends in protest to understand how mass political action has changed in recent years. Data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) makes clear that the frequency of demonstration events grew significantly in North America from the late 2000s and early 2010s – during the early Obama years – compared to in the mid-2010s, late in his presidency. Protest events were the most frequent during Trump’s first year in office, and relatively more common in 2018 and 2019 than during the Obama years. The CSIS estimates are not completely ideal, since they refer to all protests in North America, rather than to those in the U.S. However, our alternative measure of news coverage of both “protest” and “demonstrations,” drawn from the Nexis Uni academic database and covering The New York Times as the nation’s “paper of record,” reveals a similar trend. As the figure below demonstrates, total coverage of protests over the last 20 years – measured in number of articles per month – increased significantly over time, spiking in 2003 during the Iraq war, and later in 2011 coinciding with the Madison, Wisconsin protests of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s assault on state worker’s and collective bargaining and with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and finally during the mid-to-late 2010s with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protest coverage reached its highest point in 2020, coinciding with the rise of the George Floyd protests, only to fall dramatically in 2021.

If we were to offer a simplistic explanation for the dramatic decline in protest and protest coverage in 2021, we might adopt the much-repeated leftist platitude that the Democratic Party is the “graveyard of social movements,” and that the rise of Joe Biden’s presidency represents yet another example of how social movements are co-opted and assaulted by smooth-talking Democratic officials who promise to respond to rising protests during Republican administrations but deliver on little to none of their promises. There is some real substantive appeal to this explanation, in that there has been a dramatic decline in protest this year, and it does coincide with the rise of an administration that has promised action on the climate and to address concerns with racial inequality but has not thus far implemented solutions on these pressing crises.

The Achilles heel of what passes for modern “left” analysis these days is how shallow much of it is, by way of passing off platitudes as wisdom. The risk with platitudes is that they may be based on little more than rhetoric and that they may even be undermined by available evidence. Such is the case with the “graveyard of social movements” cliché. A critical observer can easily conclude from our data that the general trend during both Democratic and Republican administrations is the rising popularity and mainstreaming of protest in America. The rising frequency of protests, the data suggest, comes in waves, with the rise of the Iraq war protests in 2003 under Bush, Occupy in 2011 under Obama, and BLM in the mid-2010s and in 2020 under Obama and Trump. To put it simply, there’s little evidence when looking over a longer period like this that social movements march to the tune of one party or the other, being pacified and demobilized when Democrats get into office, and mobilizing only when Republicans rise to power. Protests can and do occur in each era of American history, regardless of which party is in the White House, even if some presidents – like Trump – are associated with even higher amounts of protest. And the lowest periods of protest mobilization happen under both parties – under Bush in the early 2000s and under Bush and Obama in the mid-to-late 2000s.

Does this mean that Biden’s election had no impact in terms of discouraging protest? That’s also a difficult position to defend. What’s probably going on right now is that many Americans have decided to give the Democratic President a grace period during his first year in office, expecting him to try and deliver on some of his promises in combating structural racism and addressing the intensifying environmental crisis. Time will tell how much the administration does to address racial discrimination and climate change, as the party is still seeking to pass legislation related to combating state voter laws that are likely to target poor people of color, and with the $3.5 trillion budget legislation that reportedly “includes tax incentives for clean energy and electric vehicles, a clean energy standard and the creation of a civilian climate corps program,” and would push the U.S. toward a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

Is this a “wise” strategy – deferring to the Democratic Party to act on promoting racial and climate justice? That choice is hard to defend at a time when the party has shown little ability to get voting legislation passed, and when scientists are calling for a transition to a carbon-neutral economy by 2030, as Democrats push legislation that might accomplish this goal 20 years too late. There’s no reason to put one’s faith in the Democratic Party to tackle the climate crisis or racial injustice when social movements will be needed to make significant progress toward curbing the worst effects of climate change and combating racial profiling and police brutality.

But pointing out that many Americans are on pause from protest is not the same as saying that social movements disappear during Democratic administrations. This was not the case during the Obama years and is unlikely to be the case during the Biden administration if it fails to take effective action on protecting black lives and on the climate. Young Americans, particularly those of Generation Z, have real grievances that are not going to suddenly disappear in an era that has seen the mainstreaming of political protest as a legitimate mechanism of political expression for those who are disillusioned with the socio-political and economic status quo.

A central theme in youth politics is anxiety about the future. Overwhelmingly, young Americans today are frustrated that a comfortable life is no longer guaranteed through hard work like it was for so many of their parents. Rising income inequality, high student loan debt, and a lack of youth representation in government create a sense of lack of control over one’s future. Many have been taught from a young age to do well in school, work hard, and build a proper life for themselves. However, it’s increasingly common for young people to face difficulties in affording college, and for new graduates to experience job insecurity and struggle with basics such as health care costs, managing student loan repayments, and affording a new home. Such insecurities in basic aspects of life stir frustration.

Further, matters are made worse by a general lack of empathy from older Americans, who are often more conservative in their politics. Among this group, many think that nothing is wrong with America itself, but rather that a new generation of young people are too “soft” to earn their way through life. Evidence points to the contrary, with the structural factors that the young face as related to health care costs, student loans, a stunted economy, and a dramatically deteriorating environment. The lack of recognition of these problems from much of the public and government furthers the divide amongst younger and older Americans when it comes to faith in government, society, and the future.

Generation Z has drawn its motivation from numerous activists and political establishment figures who have become focal points in the political fight to combat climate change and address economic inequality, including Greta Thunberg, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, among others. These figures are part of a rising movement dedicated to leading the charge for a Green New Deal, which seeks to link concerns with inequality and poverty to climate action by uniting support for campaigns such as universal health care with a shift to a green economy. They’ve explicitly appealed to youth activists in their efforts to challenge a plutocratic status quo that serves business interests over those of the many.

Gen Z-based mass movements are unlikely to be pacified by partisan propaganda and diversions. There is too much youth awareness of the problems at hand, drawing on a slew of compelling evidence, data, and studies, which now make it all but impossible to deny the increasingly urgent realities of record inequality, systemic racism in policing, and the threat of climate change. Armed with this evidence, youth activism has been propelled to new heights beyond previous waves of movement protests of previous decades. It’s only a matter of time before this activism rises again to pressure the political system for further action in the push for economic, racial, and social justice.