Last Friday, one of the senior Democrats in the Senate got a taste of what it means to be in the crosshairs of an environmental movement that is increasingly driven by teenagers who believe the world is coming to an end — and adults who shepherd them around. Dianne Feinstein was confronted in her San Francisco office by a group of students who demanded that she vote for the Green New Deal.
The 83-year-old Feinstein has spent, as she told her visitors, the “last quarter-century” in the Senate and was clearly under the impression that her résumé ought to inspire a degree of respect, if not deference, from the students. But when she told them she wouldn’t do their bidding, the group from the Sunrise Movement — which gained notoriety earlier this year with a sit-in at the office of House speaker Nancy Pelosi (where Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a guest appearance) — was having none of it.
The teenagers had zero interest in Feinstein’s arguments about how bills get passed and the art of the possible. Nor were they impressed by her ideas about promoting some of the same goals in proposed legislation that, as she pointed out, had a better chance of being enacted into law than does their laundry list of demands. Instead, they cast the choice before the country as a stark ultimatum: Do what we say, even if it means trashing the economy and abruptly changing American culture, or be counted among the evildoers who are killing the planet.
Most of the Left’s commentary on the viral video focused on Feinstein’s grouchy demeanor and her effrontery in lecturing the kids about the way Congress works. The liberal consensus is that the senator should have been the one showing deference to the bright young things rather than the other way around.
If Feinstein’s reaction seemed so out of place to her media and activist critics, it’s because it flies in the face of the adoring coverage that teenage liberal activists have been getting lately. Examples go beyond the Green New Dealers who sassed the California senator. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has become an international celebrity with her weekly boycotts of school to picket her country’s parliament and with her grim lectures to European parliamentarians.
The same can be said for the role played by some of the survivors of last year’s Parkland shooting, as newly minted celebrity activists attacked opponents without blinking an eye, showing disgust at the notion that critics of their ideas deserved a hearing.
There is a clear public interest in encouraging young people to care about politics and policy. That’s especially true in an era when the study of what used to be called civics and government is given short shrift — if not ignored — in many high-school curricula. But while interest in public issues is a good thing, the kind of activism practiced by the Sunrise Movement, Thunberg, or the Parkland kids is not one in which the democratic process or the notion of give and take has any place.
On the environment, global-warming alarmists may have failed to convince enough American voters that the world is soon coming to an end to get their way on legislation, but the extremists have won over children, from Feinstein’s guests to Thunberg. Though Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s initial fact sheet for the Green New Deal — which mentioned the problems of flatulent cows and air travel — inspired derision even among many liberals, to the youthful supporters of extremist climate-change proposals, those are reasonable ideas.
Ocasio-Cortez deflected the discussion about the cows into a critique of factory farming, while insisting that not everyone had to go vegan. Thunberg disagrees. The 16-year-old was the subject of a revealing profile in the New York Times last week that discussed how her activism is a form of therapy for the devastating depression she suffered as an adolescent.
Thunberg is apparently happier now that advocacy on the climate has given her life meaning, but her primary means of communication is lecturing. Like the Sunrise Movement kids, she has no patience for any discussion about the havoc that might result were her absolutist views put into action.
The problem is that few have done what Feinstein did on the viral video and told these teenagers that their “my way or the highway” approach won’t wash. The belief that young people must be obeyed seems to be the guiding principle for those covering their advocacy. Of course, attacks on young activists, such as some of the nastier comments about the Parkland kids in the weeks after the shooting, are uncalled for, but nobody, even teenagers, should demonize others with impunity because of their political beliefs.
Young activists may be entitled to treat their beliefs as earthshaking revelations, even if the wiser among them will someday look back on their extremist views with a little embarrassment. But too few adults are paying heed to their profound hostility to the democratic process — a process that depends on its participants’ treating opposing views with respect and bothering to answer criticisms. Silencing opponents to achieve one’s objectives does long-term damage to democracy.
The certainty of the angry children that the failure to pass extremist legislation requires elders to follow the dictates of youth has a certain charm. But their contempt for debate and persuasion means that, rather than patting them on the head for having strong views, politicians and journalists should stop treating angry children as the arbiters of modern civics.
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