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What David Brooks gets wrong about "big ideas" and the Women's March

Protesters walk up Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March on Washington.
Protesters walk up Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March on Washington.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

David Brooks is right about one thing: The definition of America is up for grabs. However, in his New York Times piece "After the Women's March," he gets a lot wrong about the relationship between identity politics, political parties, and the constitutional crisis we most likely face. He suggests, not without reason, that American constitutionalism, capitalism, and globalism are at stake. Child care and family leave are infrastructure to make capitalism possible, just as roads and education are. Why are they depicted as less crucial for the system's survival?

The Constitution, too, is deeply connected with what Brooks and others dismiss as "identity politics." Arguably, abolition was the original identity politics. Actually, scratch that. Slavery was. As Ibram Kendi explains in his National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning, racist ideas were developed by white people to justify the practice. American history, contemporary demographics, and any philosophy that pretends to care about human equality all reject the proposition that issues important to white men are neutral, while issues important to women and minorities are "identity politics."

Women's rights are also a constitutional issue. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection, but this only means anything if it can be broadly interpreted and boldly enforced. Justice Antonin Scalia, whose replacement Donald Trump will select, wrote that the amendment was not intended to apply to women.

And women have been at the center of constitutional change — from the formal changes of the 19th Amendment to the "penumbra" of privacy created from the Bill of Rights that informed Griswold v. Connecticut and then Roe v. Wade. As we think about these changes, it is critical to note that women of color have typically struggled much more to attain these constitutional rights to voting and bodily privacy. If the rights to participate in politics and the rights to control our own bodies and minds are not cornerstone constitutional issues, we do not know what that means.

The dominant strain of critique against the march has been that it did not engage enough with marginalized voices. Brooks, by taking the opposite view, will certainly attract attention and some praise. Most of it will come from people who, like Brooks, wish to resist the administration but not like that. Any perspective that suggests that the needs of marginalized people are boutique issues while maintaining power structures are "big ideas" is unlikely to be an effective source of pushback.

Brooks also bizarrely criticizes the march for being divorced from a major political party:

Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements — the civil rights movement. But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.

Yes, major changes often come via parties, but only because an activist group or movement has successfully pressured a party into action. Organized labor famously pushed Franklin Roosevelt into much New Deal legislation. What would the Reagan Revolution have been without the anti-tax activists and evangelical Christians that took over the Republican Party in the late 1970s? Yes, health care reform came at the hands of the Democrats, but that wouldn't have happened if health reform advocates hadn't managed to seize control of Democratic nominations years earlier. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a major party-induced change coming without a grassroots movement behind it.

This isn't to say that the march automatically becomes a social movement; that will take considerable work. But this is how it starts. The next step would be to get hundreds or even thousands of women who were at those marches to run for office in 2018, and march organizers appear to be working on that. It also involves signaling to (presumably) Democratic officeholders that they have a large and active constituency that won't tolerate the nomination of someone who hasn't made preventing violence against women and protecting abortion access a priority. This march is precisely what the beginning of party change looks like.

Brooks dismisses the march as "a seductive substitute for action in an antipolitical era." By many estimates, roughly 1 percent of the US population marched on Saturday. One percent of Anchorage, Alaska, marched, on a snowy day with a high of 14 degrees. Does Brooks have any idea what it takes to get 1 percent of a nation to actually take to the streets to make a political statement in January? Brooks seems to think that real political action only comes from a political party. But he misses the point that this is exactly how that happens.

Theodore Roosevelt, a president as invested in masculinity as in big ideas, once said, "The Constitution was made for the people, and not the people for the Constitution." Resisting tyranny requires that Americans, acting individually and together, get to decide what those words mean.

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