Young Americans, including those who have been forbidden from doing so by school administrators, have several good reasons to walk out of class on Wednesday and to march on Washington 10 days hence. While getting grownups to do something about gun violence is the prime motivation for these actions, there are other issues — indeed, life-or-death issues — facing our next generation of citizens.
I am one of the millions of parents who worry about the country we will be leaving for our children and grandchildren. But the daily gun violence in Baltimore and other cities, and the potential for more mass shootings in just about any public venue, are only two of the reasons for a sense of foreboding across the land.
The young people who will walk out of school for 17 minutes on Wednesday, in an act of remembrance (for their peers who were gunned down in Florida) and protest, are coming of age during the time of Donald J. Trump, a presidency marked by myopia and bigotry, self-interest and deceit, and a flagrant disregard for the common good and a sustainable future. The Trump presidency arrived after eight years of Washington dysfunction fueled by super-partisanship, anti-government fervor and white-hot resentment of the nation’s first black president.
The gun violence — and the unwillingness of Congress and most state legislatures to do anything about it — is emblematic of a larger concern: that adults, particularly men in positions of power, appear to be incapable of solving the nation’s big problems.
Our kids are taught that they live in an exceptional country, grounded in democracy and guided by a constitution, a nation that serves as a model to the world in freedom and justice, in entrepreneurship and industry, in science and technology, in opportunity and the creation of wealth. And yet every American adult knows that somewhere along the way we quit while we were ahead. And the current president appears content to let us fall farther behind.
The students who have asserted themselves on gun violence are screaming at adults to lead them forward, which is what every generation up until now understood as its responsibility.
And yet, what have we handed them?
Climate change: It is the No. 1 issue on the planet, and the greatest threat to future life on Earth. But we do not lead the world on environmental matters; we have walked away from that role. Rendered irresponsible by the politics of resentment, Trump pulled out of an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the rest of the world pushes ahead on this life-or-death front, American deniers and corporate interests enable Trump’s dismissal of global warming and his promotion of fossil fuels over clean energy. Meanwhile, the Arctic just had its warmest winter on record, and scientists again recorded miles of open ocean where sea ice historically appeared.
Education: If young people are looking for visionary leadership, or a measure of how highly we value learning, they will see neither in Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a woman who just admitted on national television that she has not “intentionally visited” an underperforming public school to see what it needed. Meanwhile, DeVos, Trump and congressional Republicans push policies to slash financial aid and make paying for college even harder than it already is.
Health: The Affordable Care Act started to make progress against the number of uninsured Americans, but we are still fighting over the concept of health care for all. With Republicans unable to repeal the law, Trump has been doing everything possible to sabotage it. This is another stunning failure of American grownups. Why is access to health care still controversial in such a wealthy country in the 21st century? Life expectancy in the U.S. fell for a second straight year in 2017, the first time that’s happened since the early 1960s.
Taxes and debt: For years Republicans claimed the high ground on deficit spending. But the tax cuts they sent to Trump for a signature in December disproportionately benefit corporations and the rich while giving relatively small percentages of the windfall to middle-class workers. Most importantly, the cuts add an estimated $1 trillion to the federal deficit over a decade. So much for the frequently expressed concern that we’re burdening the next generation of taxpayers with massive debt.
Immigration: Trump’s decision to end protections for young adults who were brought into the country without authorization, usually by their parents, has led to a stalemate and legal uncertainty for the Dreamers. These young people grew up here, went to our schools, and they have much to contribute. Instead of being on paths to citizenship, they remain in limbo.
It is inspiring to see young Americans rise up from a tragedy to demand that grownups make schools safer. But #WalkoutWednesday is about a lot more than guns. It’s about the future of the country, the one they’ll inherit from us.