Our young people are showing power of American democracy

Our young people are showing power of American democracy
© Getty Images

At the Munich Security Conference this month, leaders from around the world came together to discuss the troubled state of the world. The mood was one of stark pessimism, particularly when the topic turned to the United States. The discord of our politics, the anemic response to Russian interference in our election, and the denigration of our institutions by President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE has left many of our allies wondering what happened to the country they have long admired.

Yet, even as global leaders and experts fretted about whether the United States has lost its way, a much different scene was beginning to unfold in Florida, a terrible tragedy that has now turned into a powerful story about the vibrancy of our democracy. That’s because, in the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students have begun pressing adults to do something about gun violence in schools.

These young people do not want to die. They want a future and mean to use their power to create change. They know it won’t be easy, but they have courage born of mayhem and a growing persistence to insist. Even critics who try to defame them, and a state legislature that denied them before they even arrived in the state capital, have only intensified their commitment.

We have seen the power of young people in our past. As someone who came of political age in the 1960s, it was young people who fought to end the Vietnam War. It was young people who marched for civil rights and women’s rights. None of the change that came was easy. It took years. Lives were lost. Violence was all too common in assassinations, bombs and campus clashes with authority. But change came.

Like those of us who marched to end the Vietnam War, and like the millions of young women who marched for their rights the past two years, the Florida teenagers are sending a message to the world that America is what it has always been, an example of the power of people to make their democracy real.

The power of this example matters mightily in the wake of a presidency that has the world wondering if American democracy still survives. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas are sending a message otherwise, one that I hope is heard in capitals across the world and by the 1.3 billion young people in the world, the largest youth population ever.

Young people have a voice, a vote in America and will use those tools of democracy. In a world where technology is rapidly changing the labor market, challenging future notions of the dignity that comes through work, the power of young people to fight for a long and productive life is essential. Leaders who ignore young people do so at their peril. Of course, young people must act, in the context of their own culture, to be the change they want for their country. That’s what is so powerful about the example of the Florida teens. They remind us that citizens can make a difference, imperfectly and over time.

We have seen this in the mayors and governors defying the administration’s exit from the Paris Climate Agreement. They know that the majority of voters and most decidedly young people, care about the environment and demand change. We have seen it in the rapid acceptance of marriage for LGBTQ persons, an issue that is simply not an issue for young people. We have seen both the power and the pain of the young people known as dreamers, who have a voice but not a vote and remain stymied in pursuit of justice.

It took courage, use of our power and persistence to end the Vietnam War, to take a step forward in civil rights and women’s rights. We showed the world that in a democracy, voices can be heard, politics can change, a better future can be secured. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are once again reminding the adults who we are and what we can be. The best way to thank them is to join them to make a difference and to believe again in the power of our example.

Wendy Sherman is a senior counselor at the Albright Stonebridge Group and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She served as an undersecretary and counselor at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama and Clinton administrations.