Do Political Protests Actually Change Anything?

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The Women's March on Washington occurs this Saturday, January 21, and is expected to be one of the largest political protests in recent U.S. history. Despite a somewhat rocky start (including a name change due to the fact that the protest's initial name, the Million Women March, echoed the names of two African-American protests against racism, 1995's Million Man March and 1997's Million Woman March), the march is shaping up to be one of the most important events of the American political year. But amidst the organizational frenzy, the growing protest momentum and the hopes that it will have a truly spectacular turnout, there have been bigger questions — questions familiar to anybody who's ever participated in a protest march: will it actually change anything at all? And what factors can actually make a protest march achieve any of its aims?

It's not a new worry. Concerns about the efficacy of protest marches have been around for an extremely long time, and not without reason — for every one protest that brought about clear change (Gandhi's Salt March across India in 1930, for instance), there are counter-examples of ones that fizzled out, or simply came up against literal or figurative brick walls.

But how do we define "effective" when it comes to marching? And what do social media, democracy, political organizations and a good dose of history have to do with whether or not they might work? Let's learn more about how marches create change — and why, in many cases, we have to wait for decades afterwards to find out if a protest was truly "effective."

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What Actually Makes A Protest Create Change?


For the best summary of what actually works and doesn't in street marches — at least in terms of creating clear political change — let's turn to the research of Dr. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, one of the world's experts on protest participation. In her writing, van Stekelenburg points out that a lot of factors go into whether a protest might achieve its aims. One is whether or not it causes massive problems: large-scale protests might get more attention, but some evidence seems to point to the idea that when protests get violent, policy-makers become dissuaded from engaging with the protest's goals.

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Another factor is a favorable political environment, which she says has four aspects, the first two of which are the most important: "a democratic regime, a programmatic party system, a polity open to the challenger’s’ claims, and political allies’ support." This idea of political environment is especially important when analyzing successful marches, because protests don't happen in a vacuum. The 2016 women's strike and mass marches against proposed laws against abortion in Poland , for instance, have been hailed as a success because the laws they were protesting weren't passed; but the protests took place in an environment of wider instability and dissatisfaction with the government in power.

In fact, new research on disruptive protest, conducted by Professor Abhinav Gupta in 2015, found that disruptive protests on their own aren't as effective at creating change on a broad scale as they were when combined with "evidence-based education." In other words, getting into the streets isn't necessarily the be-all-end-all; protestors need to do other work to convince the public and relevant organizations that their points are valid.

Focusing on numbers and getting feet on the street can have its downsides, too. During the Vietnam War, for instance, the March On Washington wanted huge numbers of protesters to march and prioritized getting big turnout; but, as historian Lucy Barber points out in Marching On Washington, they did this at the cost of coalition-building, and risked having the entire protest hijacked by the most radical marchers in the press.

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So creating change via protests is a tricky thing, dependent on a lot of factors both within the protest movement and in the world itself. An interesting study in 2006 made a point we have to remember, though: all protestors' ideas of "effectiveness" aren't necessarily the same. The researchers interviewed 231 people at a rally regarding what goals they thought they might achieve there, and found a few different perspectives in play. The traditional view regarding a protest's success is whether or not it influences "key decision-makers" (the President, the police, the judiciary, and other people in power); but many of the people interviewed weren't so focused on that. They wanted to build a community of protestors, influence third parties or the public, and "express values." Whether or not they thought the protest was a success depended on what they thought "success" actually meant.

Has Social Media Changed Protests?

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After the 1996 protests at the DNC, sociologists John D. McCarthy and Clark McPhail wrote in Social Movement Society that they thought protest in America had now changed and become part of America's "institutions," seen as a "normal part of the political process, its messages seen as a legitimate supplement to voting, petitioning and lobbying efforts." But social media may have changed all that. In the view of some experts, the advent of social media has resulted in protest marches that are founded on outrage and anxiety, rather than as part of a larger, more effective activism movement.

Economist Moises Naim is one of those experts. In The Atlantic in 2014, he argued that many of today's protest movements spread like wildfire through Twitter, Facebook and other media, resulting in grand gestures of protest —without much political weight behind them to create change. "Behind massive street demonstrations," he said, "there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government." In 2010, the BBC did a then-and-now comparison of standard protesting mechanisms from the past and those tied to the present, and the differences were intriguing — and often based around social media. Twitter, hashtags, flashmobs and the news media's ability to create moment-by-moment coverage have fundamentally shifted the way in which we get out onto the streets.

Not all experts agree with Naim's line of thinking, though. Mark Kersten, a researcher into global conflict and justice, noted in a speech to the Oxford Union in 2012 that "the people who bravely marched on Tahrir Square in Cairo and Green Square in Tripoli did so not because they heard about it on Twitter but because of real grievances; because of years of outrage and humiliation; because, to them, enough was enough." He advocates for looking at social media as a tool that makes marches easier — not as something that makes them less effective or powerful.

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Why It Often Takes Time To Know Whether A March "Worked"

Our perspective on protests and how they created change in the past is often deeply affected by historical context. The Roper Center For Public Opinion Research at Cornell has a fascinating bunch of studies that show that our opinions of protests are sometimes substantially negative at the time, and then shift to more positive viewpoints decades afterwards. The Vietnam War protests are an excellent example; up to 71 percent of Americans disapproved of them at the time, but by the '80s and '90s, it dropped down to around 50 percent. Mass protest leaders have also been viewed through changing historical lenses. Martin Luther King Jr, for instance, is one of the most admired men in American history today — but Gallup opinion polls about King conducted in the 1960s found that disapproval of him among Americans intensified as the Civil Rights Movement grew, rising from 37 percent in 1963 to 63 percent in 1966.

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This information is important to remember as we think about protests today — marches that we view as "useless" or disruptive now could be seen in years to come as world-shifting, and ones that seem to be changing the course of history could in fact be a damp squib. Our views on protests as effective (or ineffective) are also shaped by contemporary media narratives; in 2007, journalism professor Douglas MacLeod argued that the way in which the media covers protests tends to make us believe they don't create change, "disparaging protestors and hindering their role as vital actors on the political stage."

When it comes to the Women's March, it may be primarily a symbolic action: with an empowered Republican Congress and House of Representatives, real political shifts on issues like Planned Parenthood defunding aren't necessarily to be expected as a result of the march. But as an expression of common feeling — that women and other marginalized people in America have been attacked with vicious, harmful rhetoric — it will likely be very effective indeed.  

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