A deep dive into political alienation, millennials, and revolutionary potentialInterview Democracy
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lauren Duca, author of How to Start a Revolution. As potentially a millennial myself (Oregon Trail Generation by some calculations), I wanted to find out what this generation is meant to do with its revolutionary potential. What follows is our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity.
Corrie Hulse: What made you decide that it was time to jump from articles to “I gotta do a book?”
Lauren Duca: I was freelancing around the 2016 election for about a year, and it’s hard to freelance. It’s feast or famine. It’s also hard to write about politics regularly. When Trump won, I experienced this political awakening and felt compelled to use my greatest and only skill to take on the dumpster fire. So I wrote this book proposal basically sending prayer hands out into the world that I would be able to pay my rent and afford health care while focusing on this all the time. It was also always a dream of mine to write a book. I had no comprehension of what that process then would entail. It was a difficult transition to be sure.
I loved how you included your dynamic with your parents, and the story of your experience with the Trump election and your relationship with them. I think that’s something probably a lot of people can relate to, and sort of that emotional and almost visceral response to Trump’s election. Do you feel like you were fully ever able to explain that to your parents; why it was that emotional of a response?
LD: You know, I think they still don’t totally comprehend how hooked up I am. Although we have gone through our evolution, as detailed in the book, and can now talk about politics, they are not nearly as connected to it as I am. And it is, I think, an eerie feeling to interact with not only my parents in that regard, but anyone who hasn’t gone through the political awakening yet. And sees politics as this wild thing that maybe I’m a little insane for participating in so much. There’s definitely a sense of social alienation that endures for me with my parents and anyone who hasn’t had that click moment.
You talked about this idea that we don’t really have a choice but to be political now. How do you have that conversation with people who would say, “well, I’m not really political”?
LD: It’s so hard to convince people because it is overwhelming to keep track of everything. There is still this overarching, oppressive reality of a system that is boxing out our voices. Making the argument that we need to be prioritizing an investment in politics is hard because a coping mechanism for dealing with the dumpster fire is to kind of go numb to it. I think that what I try to say is you have to zero in on the thing that matters to you.
We are not all required to be experts in everything. It’s my job to be keeping track of the state of things, and I fall behind regularly. The average person cannot reasonably be expected to have total knowledge of everything going on in politics at all times. But I think we all have a duty to express our voice in political conversation, and that can mean choosing an issue. Ideally it’s a local item that resonates with you and that you can make yourself an expert in.
I think that’s the thing that is empowering because we’re in this moment where, you know, never in the scope of human history has it been so easy to just look it up. You could basically go and do the school project version of a report on a topic in a matter of an hour sitting at a computer. So we’re telling people to empower themselves with information with the things that matter to them. It’s also reckoning with the fact that there are a lot of people pretending to know everything all the time, but no one does.
I was excited when I was reading the section on the democracy coaches. And I was thinking, man, maybe we all need democracy coaches?
LD: Yes! Totally! I’m going again to Generation Citizen’s Civics Day and I can’t wait. I know I’m going to learn so much from these kids. That’s such a great tie in to where the kids of Generation Citizen are feeling this sense of agency from seeing the effect of their voices even if their projects were unsuccessful. Understanding that there are avenues to apply their political opinions and to make this focused, specific local change, that’s probably the most powerful way to make the click moment happen.
I wanted to dig in a little bit on the notion of political alienation because I was really intrigued by how it’s somehow cyclical; that generations have been alienated before but they somehow were able to find their way back into participating in democracy.
LD: Yes, as the sociologist I interviewed on alienation put it, it’s almost as if it’s a sometimes thing. That idea for me was really revelatory in my research because we now have all of these circumstances that are pushing us to break out of alienation and one of the biggest ones is the conviction of personal opinion about Trump. No one is “meh” on Trump, and anyone who was horrified by his election, even if they didn’t feel a sense of political expertise or permission to participate in the political conversation, they didn’t need any outside authority to tell them that Trump’s election was an atrocity. That’s part of the shift that’s happening now.
I zero in on young people having this awakening in response to Trump, but it comes in all of these waves where you see the Black Lives Matter movement awakening people to the realities of the system, and the fact that any instance of police brutality is not a one-off tragedy, but an institutionalized injustice then again with #MeToo, and Parkland. I think it’s all part of this grander shift out of alienation. If you look at what has happened in between this moment and the last time we had a big awakening in the 1960s, the shape, the consolidation of power, and policy initiatives that tightened the gears of the political industrial complex, in between those moments are part of what has forced it back under.
It’s really fascinating to think about not being able to know that you’re in a state of alienation when you’re in a state of alienation. And the ways in which there was just this fumbling among all of my interview subjects to try and describe how they weren’t doing more before, or why they didn’t do more to stop Trump, or why they weren’t being active politically. I felt the same experience where I kind of feel stupid explaining to you why I didn’t know any better. But that’s why it became important to me to break down the difference between alienation and apathy because I don’t think that anyone should feel shame. There are all these power structures that forced this state upon us.
The connection to the 1960s is interesting. I specifically remember being in a bar in New York City after the first big protest after the election, it must have been the Saturday after, and an older gentleman came over to us, we had our protest signs, and he said, this is just like the 60s. And said, you guys keep fighting. And it’s so interesting that he already saw that connection that early.
LD: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting to think about because when I was doing my research into the shape of the 60s, and those comparisons, you don’t know that a movement has shifted history until you’re looking back upon it. We’re not going to hear that revolution is coming from mainstream media, as I remember being on CNN after the Women’s March and they put that chyron up of “is this a moment or a movement?” And then over five million people came out across the country [725,000 in Washington], but compare that to 1,000 anti-war protesters. I’m quoting now from Witness to the Revolution, “1,000 anti-war protesters christened Richard Nixon’s new presidency on January 20, 1969.” And that was seen as a shift in anti-war sentiment.
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I think, also, the way that youth insurgencies are covered, and young people are covered, is so dismissive. It’s interesting because we’re taught about what the stuff of movements are, and activism, and it seems like something of the past. It’s contributed to this disconnect where we don’t understand that we need to constantly be doing the stuff of democracy, and that absolutely includes protests, and disobedience to the state. Those things, to me, absolutely count as activities of democratic citizenship. As it’s spreading, I think maybe people will have to make the personal click, but there’s just something interesting about the way we expect a movement to look or revolution to look. You know, we’re not going to get some magical sticker planted down to say this is working.
I thought it was interesting looking at how millennials are involved, they’re volunteering at high levels, but it’s not necessarily transferring to political engagement. How can that translate into political engagement?
LD: There was a Harvard study of youth political attitudes that was showing how much more we’re volunteering than voting, which was one of my favorite things that I learned while working on this because the time investment that is required for volunteering is massive compared to voting. I think that this shift, this awakening moment will click this underlying do-gooder instinct into political agency.
It’s empowering to think about the characteristics that shape the youngest generations, and how those things have been implemented. The fact of our volunteering statistics, is also indicative of this kind of altruism and do-gooder instinct that is present for millennials. And I think even with GenZ, it echoed with even more of a greater understanding of egalitarianism and an embrace of diversity. And the volunteering instinct was groomed, institutionalized, and became very prevalent and incentivized in our schools. You see the baby boomers having Points of Light under the Bush Administration, or Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity being in most public high schools and rewarded with better college placement, and national honor society.
And so now a big piece of sustaining the shift is as the youngest demographics undergo this awakening, how can we, then, create the social and political infrastructure to make it so that there is a sense of political agency bestowed on anyone with a fully functioning frontal cortex? As we come into positions of power, feeling this self determination, and understanding the ways that it is denied, there will be, I hope, creative innovation among a new generation of leaders that helps make that concrete connection of political agency so that it’s a demographic characteristic for the kids who are going to come up after us.
Speaking of sustaining, are you worried at all that the spark that was ignited with Trump’s election is fading? That our feeling of, “I have to do something” is...that we’re feeling the weight of all of this?
LD: Well, you know, I think that our political engagement has to be sustained well past a state of emergency. That’s what I’m hoping to translate this awakening into with How to Start a Revolution. And I feel we all need to make a personal commitment to figuring out how to make it sustainable, and how to take care of ourselves and live healthy, happy lives while having this ongoing discipline. It’s the kind of extreme behavior that is required in response to an emergency. The need for that will continue to arise, but I think it’s a matter of prioritizing constant actions to the degree that everyone is able.
Burnout is real, and I think it’s a matter of thinking of it as a practice. If you were to work out too much, you might need to take some time off and go to physical therapy, or whatever. Do the version of that for political engagement if you’re feeling tired. And then come back to it and say, “what’s reasonable?” “What can I fit in?” That is probably a critical thread that you’re identifying in this because shutting down is a big danger. And I think that it’s crucial that we can feel our anger and frustration and decide to channel it because the choice of not feeling it is complicit in allowing the dumpster fire to continue.
As I read your book, it seemed mostly geared toward millennials, but it seems to me you’re also speaking to older generations here. What message would you hope that older generations take from your book?
LD: I think my dream reader is probably young women ages 12 to 24 but I wrote it to be enjoyed by anyone. The political awakening is for everyone. We’re going through that at a nation-wide scale, there’s not an age limit on it. I’ve been really grateful for readers who are above the millennial age limit reaching out. To them I would say, please empower our voices, and help create space for the wisdom of youth. Because in terms of this generational conflict and generational differences on display, it’s odd because there’s all these stereotypes about millennials having been raised to get a trophy for everything and feeling as if we’re so special. Then we raise our voices to express discontent and we’re told we don’t know enough yet and that we’re dreaming too big and we’re too idealistic. I think that there’s a particular wisdom of youth that should be part of the conversation. The wisdom of our elders also should be considered, but the unfettered hope that comes with being young and entering into the conversation, I don’t think should be dismissed as being inexperienced but instead, celebrated for the energy that it can bring into our total social imagination of what is possible.
In shorter form, doing away with the idea of a level of required experience, and another piece of it is, even somebody who is not old enough to vote should be raising their voice. I think we should lower the voting age, it’s totally absurd that you have to wait until you’re 18 to be considered a full political subject. You’re experiencing the effect of policy as a high school student, to be sure, and so I think that taking everyone’s experiences of the policies that affect our lives seriously is a big piece of building equitable public power, and probably advice to people of all ages.
You talk about that and I think about the kids who are leading the charge on the climate change fight or the gun control fight, and none of them are old enough to vote.
LD: No, and the climate crisis and gun reform are two massive matters on which it’s possible to have 100 percent conviction on your political opinion because you don’t need permission from any political or media gatekeepers to know that you should not be under threat of getting gunned down in your school, and we should have a planet that’s going to last for more than 12 years.
All right, this is maybe the hardest question yet. You point out specifically in the book that your heart belongs to Bilbo Baggins, but there are a lot of Harry Potter references in this book. So, I just want to know what happened.
LD: Ha, well the Harry Potter Alliance specifically did inspire me, but maybe I will go on and make a Lord of the Rings fandom to activism.
They [HPA] are so rad. I was really excited by their work, and I think that the idea that fandom, that fans are activists without the activism, it speaks to a couple of things. One is the way we can use the things that we’re experts in and that bring us joy to bring us power. And two is what’s actually on offer in the space of political engagement. I think that youth is a time where you’re looking for community, and you’re looking for identity. That’s why young people tend to be psycho fans. It’s that energy of being youthful, and getting hooked up to something, and deciding who you are and wanting to be a part of something. I do think that there’s a lot of purpose and community that can come from political engagement, and we haven’t been invited to see that as a possibility, but it allows you to say “this is who I am, this is what I stand for, this is what I’m fighting for.” It’s even better when you make it social.
So I think I got excited by the Harry Potter Alliance’s model, but also just the underlying theory of that. You see really scary versions of youthful energy getting hooked up into far-right brainwashing on YouTube, and MRA nonsense, or ISIS. And it seems as if there’s a huge gap in terms of the way young people could be invited to apply all of that wild energy to making the world a better place.
Is there anything that you hope people either take away from your book or your experience of being a woman in the political realm, which has been an experience itself?
LD: The work of having freedom has to be constant. And it means challenging authority, and I think questioning yourself. There are all these bizarre secret rules that shape the political conversation, and a lot of times I think their most pernicious effect is that we self-censor. We disqualify ourselves. We don’t even question why you could ever turn on C-SPAN and see only old white men making the laws in this country. What is the extent to which we’re just following this script that’s been fed to us? And I am bumping into things like that constantly. I think that realizing that this is a dynamic, the work of dismantling the white supremacist patriarchy and replacing it with equitable public power is a constant struggle including ongoing political participation, and also an ongoing interrogation of self, and of the way things are, and there’s just so much stealthy bullshit that especially, especially boxes young women out.
I see when I talk at colleges and high schools that young women are just totally mind blown by seeing me. Not even so impressed by what I have to say, I think just forming the pathways around the possibility that someone who looks like them and is trying to dress cute and wears mascara has serious political opinions. Just the fact of my existence has been...I’ve seen it be shocking. And I think that realizing how much is missing and how much work has to go into insisting on giving yourself permission and then doing that work, and the work of loving yourself and trusting yourself, and insisting on your right to the conversation is also part of the fight. We forget to build ourselves up, and certainly no one else is going to do it.
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