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Do Symbolic Acts Of Solidarity By Politicians Even Mean Anything?

In recent history, it’s become quite clear that federal senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle, as well as the administration, are quick to speak and/or perform grandiose symbolic acts about an issue, rather than act upon it. Most recently, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, leaving a majority of Americans feeling scared, violated, left in the dark and more.

In response, the Senate voted on a bill to codify abortion rights into law in May, after the initial opinion draft was leaked by Politico. But the bill was rejected, which didn’t seem to come as a surprise to lawmakers — and according to the Washington Post, the vote itself was a blatant symbolic gesture intended to mobilize voters in November, rather than to take actual action.

This vote is not the only recent example of symbolic acts by the government without any progress to back them up. Let’s look at a few other prominent examples.

Black lives matter & police reform

In the summer of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, which began protests for racial equity and against police brutality in the United States. Congressional Democrats knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall in Kente cloth stoles to honor Floyd. Though these stoles were gifted to them by the Congressional Black Caucus and worn in an act of solidarity, many activists did not buy this act. 

Author of The Black Friend and Patriarchy Blues Frederick Joseph tweeted, “Democrats in the House and Senate decided to wear African patterned cloth and take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. This is a mess.” In an interview with TODAY, he elaborated, “I don’t think anything will change if Nancy Pelosi didn’t understand the tone-deafness of ‘Oh yeah let me definitely put on this cloth.’” Effectively, any semblance of solace to the Black community in the U.S. turned into a performative, distracting virtue signal session. To this day, Congress has failed to pass any form of legislation related to police reform.

GUN VIOLENCE prevention

Democrats are not the only ones to utilize empty symbolic acts: The GOP has become notorious for their reactions to the many mass shootings that occur each year. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is readily activated all over Twitter when this happens, from politicians such as Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell

Lawmakers, some supported by the NRA, have been known to pray for the victims, get in their photo ops at the site of the tragedy, make speeches and offer prayers saying “enough is enough” — all while the cycle of violence continues without much government reform. However, on July 29 of this year, a bipartisan bill passed after nearly three decades of stalling on gun reform. While this assault rifle ban is a sign of progress, many civilians feel that this legislation still is not enough — it does not negate the fact that politicians spent 26 years making these types of promises in lieu of actual compromise and legislation, while lives hung in the balance.

For context, the Gun Violence Archive details in their most recent statistics reveal that 372 mass shootings occurred in 2022 alone, resulting in 976 teenagers and children dead out of the total 11,629 fatalities. It feels like too little too late. 

ROE V. WADE & abortion rights

It’s easy to look at these issues and become angry. After all, many young people turned out to vote for these individuals and maybe even campaigned on campus for them. That’s why the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is such a punch in the gut for young activists who believed in the promises of the current administration under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Biden, in fact, Biden did run on the platform of codifying Roe v. Wade, but much of the follow-through remains to be seen.

The Dobbs vs. Jackson overturn was leaked well ahead of the day it came to fruition. That’s why so many people were offended that Democratic political leaders acted surprised when the decision was handed down. They had time to act, a warning. Instead, most of them seemed to rely on telling those affected by this decision to get out and vote.

Young people are noticing the effects of that inaction. Lily, 23, is a clinic escort and political science graduate with a strong focus in reproductive freedom. “Federal politicians on the left have been signaling their support for abortion access without substantial legislative action for decades. Throughout that time of inaction, the right has been hard at work chipping away at abortion access on the state and federal levels,” she tells Her Campus. Plus, it’s important to mention, the United States has actively restricted abortions globally. 

Unfortunately, this lack of action yields grim results that we are seeing unfold right before our eyes.

“As a result, low income, LGBT+, and BIPOC have had limited access to adequate reproductive health care. There have been plenty of opportunities for the left to codify abortion access into federal law, which would have prevented state-level restrictions on abortion,” Lily says. “Instead, all politicians on the left have done is virtue signal; they say the right things to make the right people happy so that they can win their next election.” 

With elections at stake, it seems like the talking points stay in place while the problems discussed also lie dormant. 

Her Campus had the chance to talk with Alexandra Hunt, a 29-year-old public health researcher who ran for the U.S. House to represent Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District. Like many other young women, Hunt was infuriated when she saw symbolic actions lead nowhere, except she decided to take that energy and run for office.

She tells Her Campus, “Prior to 2020, I didn’t think much of politicians in general. I thought they were greedy and self-serving. When COVID-19 first hit, I realized there was also a lack of leadership amongst our leaders and competency in handling crises. Politicians were displayed all over the media expressing the same sentiment of ‘we’re all in this together,’ but they weren’t on the ground with us.”

In fact, Hunt readily saw this in Philadelphia during the Black Lives Matter Movement.  

“During the Black Lives Matter Movement, politicians took the media with I love yous and I hear yous, and nothing changed. Philly’s own mayor repeatedly expressed love for all Philadelphians while simultaneously threatening to sweep an unhoused encampment that formed on JFK Parkway. Their words were empty without action to back them up and that lit a fire within me that we deserve representation who truly cares and who shows up in a crisis.” 

Hunt is also known for being the young candidate who is open about her previous work as a stripper, and actively fights against the stigmatization of sex work. While running for a seat, she figured out how we wound up here in post-Roe America. “[Women’s health] simply isn’t a priority. We live in a man’s world where he is prioritized and his needs are thought about first. Women’s needs are neglected or the afterthought so action on behalf of women comes late if at all,” she notes. Overall, actions speak louder than words. And the way politicians have handled the issue of Roe v. Wade echoes exactly what Hunt says.

Lily also shares, “What in the hell do their words mean when they aren’t written into law the second that they are given the chance? Talking hasn’t worked for the past 50 years as abortion access has been stripped away from our country’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, and it isn’t going to work now that Roe has been overturned.”

how can we get things to change?

It’s trite to agree with Democratic leaders, but voting is important. It’s not the only action to take, however. Action from young people is essential in changing the game. 

“I think young people are the change we wish to see and need to see. I’m so proud to see young people getting involved through whatever means they can,” Hunt says. “The thing the establishment would really like to see is young voters sitting out elections, angrily. As long as young people don’t vote, politicians don’t have to cater to them. But if the youth vote mobilized like the senior vote? Politicians wouldn’t be able to ignore it.”

Sure, it may not feel fair that the adults voted in office, but it is much better than being apolitical, as this causes stagnation. Regardless, it’s acceptable to be angry, to be sad, to feel too exhausted to keep fighting. Every emotion is valid. Hunt has a few tricks for continuing to move forward even if it feels impossible.

“It is okay to take breaks. It is okay to find happiness and celebration on hard days. We need the good news, she says. “My advice is: Charge your own battery first, turn their insults into hot air for your fire, and I believe that every single person is capable of doing what they set out to do. So keep going.”

In love with jokes, comprehensive sex ed and Stephen Colbert-- (Stephen, call me!) Kent State University Class of 2020, Current Freelance Journo Follow @MaSerra8 on Twitter and email mariaserra@hercampus.com for PR pitches!