how protests matter
Joshua Keating and Matthew Yglesias wonder about the effectiveness of protests. Perhaps spurred by the images of protestors waving signs and burning the effigy of a banker in London streets this week, Keating wonders if today’s protests are simply too unfocused. Rather than being led by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who had very specific agendas and goals, today’s protests, he claims, consist of chaotic clusters of issues that “tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls.”* Yglesias thinks that Keating mischaracterizes Gandhi’s and King’s movements. Mass movements tend to have ill-defined goals and it’s only in retrospect that we provide a master narrative linking their grand visions of society with their eventual success. The main difference between the protests of old and those of the new, Yglesias claims, is tactical. King and Gandhi were able to convince groups lacking any kind of formal power to stop cooperating with the dominant institutions of control and bring them to a halt through a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. He compares this form of resistance to today’s street protests:
Organizing people around disciplined, consistent non-violent resistance in which you neither meekly submit to injustice nor angrily lash out against it, but instead move in a calm and determined way to challenge it is extraordinarily difficult. But it works. Getting people to come out every once in a while hold a “protest” is, by contrast, pretty easy. And in the right frame of mind, it’s even fun. I’ve had fun doing it. But it doesn’t really change anything.
Keating and Yglesias both make good points, but they’re also both wrong in different ways. As someone who has published multiple studies about protests and who knows quite a bit about the history of social movements, I can safely claim to be an expert in this area. Here are my thoughts on why and how protests matter.
Keating makes a good point that protests that lack coherent goals or claims may be less effective. One purpose of protests is to communicate information about an issue that they would otherwise ignore to an audience (i.e., the general public). Usually the content of that information is relatively simple (e.g., people are unhappy about the compensation of AIG executives), but that’s okay because protests are not really the best forum for making nuanced arguments. The main mechanism of communication is the media. If the media can’t figure out what the main issue is because there are too many issues being presented or because the issue is vaguely defined, then there is a greater likelihood that the media will portray the protest inaccurately or will simply ignore the protest altogether. So yes, it’s important that protestors know how to effectively boil down an issue for journalists. That said, I’m not sure that protestors are much worse at this aspect of protesting than they were 40 years ago. If anything, years of protesting has helped many social movement organizations to perfect their ability to pinpoint an issue and frame it in exactly the right way to draw the attention of the media. Even protests like one in London this week, which consisted of multiple groups and that had a fairly incoherent or vague message, can get sufficient media attention and a coherent narrative emerges from that coverage due to the skillful entrepreneurship of one or two leaders in that group.
The next question of course is whether getting media attention is an end in itself or if getting media attention has any real consequences for the movement. Yglesias’s point is that it doesn’t do much more than that. Media attention makes people feel good but it doesn’t have any long term consequences. But that is wrong too. Media coverage of protest matters because it gets people thinking about an issue and keeps it alive in the public consciousness. This feat – making an issue something worthy of public discussion – is itself a pretty important accomplishment and the first step to any kind of lasting social or political change. In our field, we call it agenda setting. By drawing the public’s attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored, protests shape the kinds of issues that get discussed in more formal settings of policymaking. One of my studies (coauthored with Keith Bentele and Sarah Soule) shows that rights-related issues (e.g., human rights, rights for the disabled) were given more space on the Congressional agenda – measured by the number of Congressional hearings in a year – when the number of protests for that issue in the prior year were relatively higher than the number of protests for other issues. Our model demonstrates that protests matter by drawing attention to issues and sustaining a public discussion about that issue, which in turn forces Congress to pay more attention to the issue. But to be successful in shaping the agenda, an issue must receive more protest treatment than other issues do. Protestors are actually competing with other protestors for agenda space.
Another study of mine (coauthored with Sarah Soule) shows that protests generate information that people use to evaluate their targets. We show that protests against corporations lead to a .4 to 1% decline in the stock price of that company during a two-day window around the protest. The result demonstrates that when activists protest, investors listen. The protests are generating some type of information, which likely varies across protests, that makes investors worry about the value of the asset. In some cases, the protest may cause investors to be concerned about the soundness of a particular corporate policy or practice but in other cases they may interpret the protest as a signal that consumers will be unhappy with the company. The point is that the protest generates information and shifts public attention to a problem that prior to the protest was ignored. If it wasn’t being ignored prior to the protest, then the price would never have fluctuated because the information would already be reflected in the stock price. I’ve said more about this paper in a previous post.
To say that protests don’t matter because they don’t immediately lead to drastic social reform or fail to have direct consequences in policymaking is taking a narrow view of what protestors are trying to do. Protests matter because they make issues part of the public agenda and consciousness. Social movement activists who use these tactics understand this better than anyone. I was talking to an activist recently about a protest they held outside a movie theater. The movie theater was owned by a person who had donated some money to the Prop. 8 campaign in California and the protestors hoped to shame the owner. I asked the activist what the goal of the protest was. Did they hope the owner would negotiate with them or make some sort of public apology? The activist laughed a little and said that as far she knew nobody in the campaign had even thought about contacting the owner or had any contingency plan to deal with the theater’s response. Getting a public concession from the theater was not the purpose of the protest. “We were just trying to get people to talk about our rights,” she said. And if that was the goal, I’d say it was a successful protest.
UPDATE: Check out Alan Schussman’s reaction to Yglesias’s comments. I like what Alan has to say about the tendency of public intellectuals to cast contemporary activists as either ineffective amateurs or as old hippies who’ve never been much good anyway. My guess is that most critics of protestors have never met professional activists and so they have no idea of just how organized and savvy they can be.
*Evidence shows that a lot of contemporary protests aren’t even led by lefty groups. In my study of corporate boycotts, the most common boycott motivation was moral or religious. A lot of these boycotts were led by organizations that are very much right of center.
Subscribe to comments with RSS.
Comments are closed.