Why Some Protests Succeed While Others Fail

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Protesters gather outside Trump Tower in New York City on November 13, 2016.Photo: John Lamparski/WireImage

As soon as the shock over Donald Trump’s election had worn off, liberals and leftists took to the streets. They took to the streets in New York, marching from Union Square to Trump Tower. They took to the streets in Chicago, surrounding a Trump building there as well. They took to the streets in L.A., in Houston, in Philadelphia, In Miami, protesters blocked highways. In Portland, things descended into a riot.

Reaction to the protest broke down along predictable party lines. To many liberals, they were a sign that the majority of voters, who didn’t vote for Trump, were not going to take his potentially dangerous and irresponsible presidency lying down. To many conservatives, they were a sign of “coddled” or “whiny” liberals, particularly young ones, who just needed to suck it up and move on. On the gonzo right-wing internet, viral rumors took hold that a significant chunk of the protesters were paid agitators (paid by George Soros, of course).

This is just the beginning. At the moment, at least one major protest is planned for the inauguration. With two months to go before the event, more than 100,000 Facebook users have said they will be attending a planned Women’s March on Washington on January 21. So it appears that the election of Trump, however much damage it might do to liberal values, has also mobilized a sense of shared anger and purpose that, if tapped effectively, could turn into a lasting movement capable of fighting back.

Which raises some obvious questions: What is the best, most efficient way to channel this energy? What makes protests work, and what makes them backfire and solidify opinion against the protesters? The answers to these questions, drawn from the research of scholars who have dedicated their careers to in-depth interviews with activists, protesters, and organizers, can both offer guidance to those spearheading the movement against Trump, and offer some interesting glimpses into the surprising political psychology of resistance.

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Since those D.C. protests are coming up, and are likely to be massive, they are a natural focal point for the complicated questions surrounding protest and organization. So I asked several scholars of activism, protest, and movement-building what advice they would give to the organizers, and how their own work fits into their predictions about what could go well or poorly in January.

One of the most consistent answers I got was that protesters should realize that protests aren’t enough. There’s a real risk of catharsis being the start and end of the resistance to Trump: Protesting feels good and righteous, but if nothing comes after then it may not accomplish that much. It’s key, therefore, to understand the limits of protests and to put them in a broader activism context. “There are some people that think that protests solve everything; you just have a protest, it’s going to make everything change,” said Fabio Rojas, a professor at Indiana University and the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline. “That’s not true — it is a tool that does a very specific thing, and you have to understand that when you start out.”

Protests are effective — sometimes very effective, in the case of big ones — at drawing attention to a given cause, and all else being equal they have an impact. “There’s a lot of research showing that there is an effect of protest on policy,” he said. “If you protest rather than do nothing, that does seem to attract attention, and that does seem to make institutions lean in your direction.” But beyond that, it’s important, Rojas said, to have a clear sense of what a given protest is for. “What are you really trying to accomplish with a protest? Are you trying to influence a specific policy? Are you trying to build solidarity within the movement? Are you trying to persuade people who are watching the movement, or even trying to persuade people on the other side of the movement?”

Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who is also an expert in protest movements, said that it’s important for anti-Trump protesters to embrace a broad “repertoire of contention,” to use the academic term — that is, to embrace different types of strategies. “It can’t just be walking the streets on two days,” she said of the D.C. protests. “It has to involve targeting people in the Congress who are potentially sympathetic, but also likely causing disruptions. It’s been a long time since we had the progressive movement engage in things like boycotts and sit-ins that have been effective. But I think those kinds of tactics need to be embraced along with peaceful marches. And I do think there’s going to be a place for civil disobedience, and I think that given the reality of the Congress we’re about to see coming in, that’s the only way to get attention.” That is, activists would likely choose a different set of tools from their arsenal if the Republicans didn’t have such a stranglehold on government at the moment.

So it seems clear that if the inauguration protests are going to have a lasting impact, it will be vital for them to activate people — to get them to continue chipping in their time and energy once they return home from wherever they came. Because Trump has aroused outrage that cuts across so many different areas — everything from reproductive rights to the environment to foreign policy to police reform — a gathering of that size will reflect a real opportunity to mobilize people.

But only if certain conditions are met. The general advice I heard from researchers, over and over again, all fit in the same general category: Make the barrier to entry as low as possible; make the protests as inclusive as possible. Sometimes, this will involve moves that feel counterintuitive. For example, Rojas said that while the reason everyone will be gathering in D.C. is obviously Trump’s election, protest organizers should downplay the focus on Trump himself and make things more issue-oriented. “What I would recommend is instead of having an anti-Trump inaugural protest, try to break the protests up into issue-oriented marches,” he said. “And I think they’re already doing that,” he added, in the case of the Women’s March.

Now, to be clear, there might be some short-term benefits to focusing on Trump. “The strength of the approach is that it mobilizes a lot of people, because a lot of people hate Trump, just as a lot of people hated Bush,” explained Michael Heaney, a University of Michigan political sociologist. Since Trump is a widely disliked figure — one who may get inaugurated with a historically low approval rating — his name can get people to D.C. “You want everyone who can get into the streets,” said Fisher. But in the longer term, there could be downsides to harping too much on Trump, when many of the policy preferences he has stated or hinted at with his appointments — repealing the Affordable Care Act, restricting access to abortion, and others — are also held by plenty of other conservative politicians. So if the protest movements arising now are all anti-Trump, all the time, Heaney said, there’s a heightened risk “they never achieve the policy changes they were aiming to achieve,” because once Trump leaves office it saps the movement’s energy. (The Times offered a vivid example of the limitations of focusing one’s ire on a big, audacious personality just a few days ago: “Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition,” wrote Luigi Zingales on Friday. “It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.”)

In fact, a version of just that happened to the antiwar movement that arose to protest George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventure (and to a lesser extent the war in Afghanistan). Because that movement was so partisan and so associated with fighting Republicans, Heaney and Rojas write in Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11, “[g]rassroots [antiwar] mobilizations diminished considerably after substantial Democratic gains in the 2006 congressional midterm elections.” That was right around the time President Bush initiated his “surge,” and as a result of the Democrats’ midterm success the attenuated antiwar movement was in a weak position to fight Bush’s ratcheting up of the war.

The other big reason organizers should refrain from focusing too much on Trump — or partisanship more generally — has to do with social networks. Here the work of Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University, is important. Ziad studies why people join and become increasingly active in social movements — he’s spent countless hours interviewing and researching the motives anti-abortion activists, tea partiers, and members of terrorist groups. One of the key things he’s found, over and over and over, is that people often get involved in movements without having particularly strong ideological commitments to them.

Take the anti-abortion activists who were the subject of Munson’s book The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works. “I went back and I tried to determine what were their beliefs about abortion the first time they were involved in some kind of pro-life activity,” whether a protest in front of a clinic, the March for Life, or whatever else, he explained. “At that moment, only half of them would have considered themselves pro-life.” Moreover, a quarter “would have openly said they were pro-choice.” So why do they get involved? Someone asks them to. In one instance, for example, a woman’s eventually intense, long-term involvement in anti-abortion causes began simply because her doctor, whom she respected a great deal, asked her to come to an event. Prior to that, it just wasn’t something she had thought of.

Now, imagine if this woman, or the other half of the activists Munson had interviewed who didn’t identify as anti-abortion, had been told at the outset that they were only welcome if they had certain preexisting beliefs about abortion. It very likely would have prevented them from becoming effective members of the movement. That’s a lesson Munson thinks today’s organizers should keep in mind: The more your movement broadcasts ideological demands, the more you drain the pool of potential members. There also appears to be a tendency, among lefty protesters, to bundle together all sorts of disparate causes — Black Lives Matter is paired with climate justice is paired with freeing Palestine, and so on. From the point of view of a potential newcomer, it can be daunting. “There’s this strong tendency in these protest groups to want to be ideologically pure,” said Heaney. “They’re much more concerned that they say their own piece and that they believe that they are right — that’s more important to them than actually achieving policy changes.”

Munson took that critique even further. “This has historically been one of the differences between the left and the right,” he said, “and it’s one of the things the left can learn from the right. What my research has found is that the right has far fewer ideological purity tests for activism than the left does. So they’re taking all comers and they’re converting people in action. Just come, and just do it. By contrast, there’s a whole language you need to know from some of the left groups — your ability to be involved often depends on already having a healthy résumé of doing other lefty things. I think that that basically makes it a kind of echo chamber, and it doesn’t allow you to bring in new blood.” The right, he said, has historically been more inclusive. “The anti-abortion folks are the ones that I know the best, but the right, they set up internships and they have summer programs and they organize these campaigns, and anyone who shows up they just take. And you’ll either be turned off and leave or you’ll become one of them.”

The fact that it’s usually social ties and networks, not hard-nosed ideology, which creates and cements newcomers’ activism offers hints not just about how protests should be framed to maximize the size of the crowd that will show up, but also what the next steps should be. After all, if most of the protesters who converge on Washington in January subsequently return home and never participate in fighting Trump’s agenda, they won’t have accomplished much. What’s key, said Munson, is to create the potential for newcomers to get enmeshed in activist-y social networks, but to not make the initial ask of them too intimidating. “I think it really does require that you figure out how to keep people involved in lots of everyday ways,” he said. “And in ways that involve more than simply sending in a check every six months or every year, or forwarding things on a Facebook feed — to get people actually practically involved, but not involved in huge ways, ways that are costly in terms of time and effort and things like that.”

For example, let’s say an 18-year-old woman, newly politicized as a result of Trump’s horrific statements about women and alleged treatment of them, attends the Women’s March with an eye on its reproductive-rights component. The best bet for ramping up her involvement in the movement, he explained, would be for organizers to offer her some ways to stay involved afterward. Maybe there’s a way for her to volunteer for just an hour a week as an abortion-clinic escort when she gets home. This is a pretty straightforward first step toward further involvement in the movement, and involves neither a huge amount of time and effort, nor any sort of ideological commitment — it’s a sign along the lines of, We need help, and you can help. After that, there may be ways to ramp up her involvement further. “If you can get her to show up the Tuesday after the protest to be a clinic escort for one afternoon, that’s what you want to do,” said Munson. “And then you say, Well, let’s try this twice next week. That’s the kind of thing that works.” As activists, or members of any social movement, get more and more involved, there appears to be a feedback loop: If almost all of your friends are involved in reproductive justice, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking about and “doing” reproductive justice. (There are weird and interesting parallels between activists and members of fringe religious cults.) As Fisher put it, “Not only do you care about the issue, but you like the people you’re with. And maybe they have doughnuts at the end.”

So what about the potential for backlash? This gets complicated, particularly given the fact that we live in an age in which social media has made it easier than ever before for rumors to run rampant. There probably isn’t much protesters or organizers can do about this sort of paranoia-fueled backlash involving George Soros or whatever else; if someone thinks you’re part of a giant conspiracy, your odds of talking them out of that aren’t good.

But there are plenty of moderates in America who aren’t InfoWars junkies, and their reaction to protests and other forms of activism matters, too. Here the researchers’ advice was simple: Be committed to nonviolence. “There’s a lot of evidence showing that violent protests do trigger backlash,” said Rojas. “For example, my research on campus protests shows that student activists are less likely to get what they want if they use violent protest.” Rojas also pointed to the work of Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton, who has written papers arguing, as Rojas put it, that “riots in the 1960s helped trigger the law-and-order backlash of that era” — an argument other political scientists and sociologists have made as well.

Another good reason for organizers to enact strong nonviolent norms, Fisher explained, goes back to that idea of building as large a tent as possible. While she said she did think that various forms of rowdy disruption can be an effective means of protesting — though it depends, as always, on the context and the goals of a given protest — significant violence is a surefire way to reduce people’s engagement in various protest activities. “I do think peaceful engagement is certainly more effective at bringing more people,” Fisher said. “If there’s going to be a lot of violence, people are not going to come out.” You should want older people, families with kids, and just about everyone else to feel comfortable in your movement, not to feel like they are risking injury by simply coming out.

Taken together, then, all this research points to three general rules for the organizers of the D.C. protests, as well as the other protests that are likely to crop up in the days ahead:

1. Trump can be useful as a galvanizing force, but keep things focused on whatever your particular issue is. That issue will be around long after Trump is gone, and will, in many cases, require forms of activism and advocacy that have little to do with the man himself. The goal should be to give people ways to make progress on the specific issue threatened by Trump, not to protest the man himself endlessly.

2. Make everyone who is interested in your cause, or who exhibits curiosity about it, feel welcome. Other than wanting to help, there should be almost zero prerequisites. If someone doesn’t speak the lingo, or doesn’t know what intersectionality is, or anything else — it doesn’t matter — they can still contribute. And the more you can make activism part of their social life, the more of a meaningful role you can give them, the more likely they will be to stick around and to spread the word. Education on specific ideological issues can always come later.

3. Stay nonviolent. At a time when passions are high there is a real potential for backlash. There are times when disruptive protests can be strategically deployed, but nonviolence is key.

For those who are unhappy that Trump was elected, the easy part — the donations, the Facebook and Twitter posts, the initial broadcasting of outrage and solidarity — is over. Actual resistance, actual organizing, is harder. “I think that the evidence across the political spectrum is that you need to get people involved beyond just their computers and beyond just sending in money to have any impact,” said Fisher. And that takes difficult, careful, on-the-ground-work. Luckily, activists aren’t starting from square one. Anyone who does their homework will know which tactics are likely to work, and which are more likely to flame out.