Do Political Protests Actually Change Anything?

Share
Ad failed to load

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."

Ad failed to load

What Actually Makes A Protest Create Change?

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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?

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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.  

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

7 Signs Your Energy Is Closed Off To Love, According To A Psychic

Finding love requires more than just the actions of going on dates or setting up an online dating profile. It also requires opening yourself up to love and giving off the vibe that you're open. You may not even realize it if you're energetically bloc…
By Suzannah Weiss

Bustle's Editors On Ice Dancing + Rihanna

For those of you who had a holiday on President's Day, welcome to the start of the work week! And for everyone who worked yesterday, you're one day closer to the weekend, woo! Today's been a fairly chill day so far — we've got more on the Winter Olym…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

It Took Heather Graham YEARS To Make A Movie About Women Ditching Toxic Men. The Reason? Men.

They say you should write what you know. But in Hollywood, that age-old advice apparently needs an addendum: Write what you know — as long as men are into it. And for actor and newly minted director/screenwriter Heather Graham — a woman who swam thro…
By Kelsea Stahler

Target Just Launched A Gorgeous New Home Brand — And Most Pieces Are Under $30

Design lovers rejoice! Everyone's favorite store for pretty much everything is about to make all your daring decorating dreams come true. Today, Target's corporate blog issued a press release that provides a peek into Target's new homeware line, Opal…
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

17 Brilliant Ways To Support Parkland Survivors Wherever You Are

Following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors are demanding Congress take action. A large group of students who survived the shooting are opposing politicians' "thoughts and prayers," arguing that inst…
By Sarah Beauchamp

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

How This Quadriplegic Beauty Lover Beat Cancer & Became A Professional Makeup Artist

In 2010, one day before she was supposed to start cosmetology school, Steph Aiello was involved in a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down with limited ability to move her hands and one of her closest friends dead. She would spend the…
By Sara Tan

7 Common Marriage Rules That Aren't Good For Relationships

When it comes to marriage, everyone loves to give their two cents, and with all the warnings and advice floating around out there, no wonder people find marriage intimidating. Luckily, you don't always have to play by the rules, and there's some bad …
By Carina Wolff

The Infuriating Way Hollywood Movie Sets Are Designed To Make Life Harder For Women

Whitney Cummings is fed up — with the way Hollywood treats women, and in particular, the way the it treats female directors who have children. While the entertainment industry may be working hard to get more women behind the camera, Cummings wants to…
By Casey Cipriani

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

Here Are All The Terms You Need To Know If You’re Watching Olympic Ski Events Right Now

Every four years the Winter Olympics rolls around to remind me that A) there are so many important Winter Olympic sports, and B) I know virtually nothing any of them. And I know for a fact, I'm not alone, I bet most people don't know what the differe…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

This Is, Hands Down, The *Grossest* Thing Babies Do Inside The Womb

Your baby's life in the womb may be safe and warm, but it's also kind of grody. Seriously, the whole process of growing into a human being includes more than a few icky moments along the way. But this is the grossest thing babies do inside the womb b…
via Romper

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale

17 Moms Reveal The Most Disgusting Part Of Their Pregnancy

Pregnant bodies do weird-ass things. Weird-ass, gross things. I mean, my pregnant body did (twice), and I have long-suspected I'm not alone. So I asked other moms to share the most disgusting part of their pregnancy and I learned that, not only am I …
via Romper