Crafting political activism
“Protest is the new brunch,” says the new slogan. I certainly hope not.
Shortly before the inaugural, a friend posted a question on her Facebook page. She lives in Orange County and has a couple of small children. She asked if she should attend the Women’s March in Los Angeles, or go to a smaller one in the O.C.? It would be quite a hassle to bring her children, but she wanted to see her friends. What should she do?
I responded as follows: “Think about it this way. Resisting this Regime is not an exercise for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. It seems to me that doing that work means joining an activist community that you will be able to work with on an ongoing basis, developing ideas for what you want to accomplish, and then working together to accomplish them. You aren’t going to schlep up here regularly to do that. Moreover, maybe your kids will meet other kids from Orange County so it will be easier for you to involve them. So as much as I would like to see you, at least if you are trying to effect change, staying there might be better.”
She might have thought her question was about convenience, but it really concerned effectiveness. Did it matter where she protested?
We all have seen and I have participated in many of the now ubiquitous protests, marches, meetings, etc., that constitute the resistance to President Donald Trump. How do we assess them? If activism is supposed to accomplish something, it must be tethered to a clearly enumerated set of objectives — in other words, it needs a coherent theory of change. Put another way, how does activism get us from point A to point B? Answering this question is particularly necessary now, when marches, protests and actions are occurring throughout the country — and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Demand for a theory of change has dictated my own preferred activist course: voter registration. In Southern California alone, there are five congressional districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Since I want to block President Donald Trump as much as possible, I would like to flip those districts to the Democrats. So I spend a good bit of my time going to these districts (in Santa Clarita and Orange County), trying to register more Democrats. If enough of these districts flip across the country, then the House will become Democratic. It’s a straightforward theory of change. That doesn’t mean that it will work or that it will be easy. A coherent theory of change doesn’t necessarily mean an effective one. But it cannot be effective unless it’s coherent.
Theories of change span the political spectrum, of course. Anti-abortion activists picket clinics because they hope to shame pregnant women into turning away — making it too emotionally difficult to end their pregnancy. Whatever you think of this tactic, it contains a coherent theory of change. Picketing leads to shame leads to emotional pain leads to turning away leads to preventing the abortion.
“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to protest in Birmingham, Ala., precisely because he knew that the sheriff there, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would respond violently and brutally. The ensuing gruesome television images would, he hoped, catalyze complacent Northern opinion into seeing the ugliest face of Jim Crow and raise political pressure on Congress to act. It worked.
So I often get frustrated when activists say that they want to be a “voice” for change. What will that voice do? Simply being a voice can work only if the circumstances are right. A friend who organizes protests in Santa Clarita explained her efforts to me this way: “This town has been Republican for so long that Democrats don’t think they have a chance. Protesting shows them that there are other Democrats here, and that we can win. So they will become more involved and get others involved in politics.” This is a coherent theory of change.
“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends.
You might be more of a change agent than you think. A few years ago, I read a master’s thesis that considered, among other things, what organizations can do to get more people to come to their meetings. That’s a very important question for any organizing. The answer? Not slick ad campaigns, nor charismatic leadership, nor lots of money, but rather providing food and child care. That’s common sense when you think of it. So, don’t want to knock on doors or give speeches or drive all over the place? Fine, can you watch the kids during the meetings or cook something? Then you are doing a lot.
I sometimes hear two primary objections to insisting on a theory of change that deserve answers.
Objection one: I’m not a social theorist!
Social change is hard and complicated. “I’m just a doctor/social worker/customer service rep/development officer/accountant/teacher, etc. How can you expect me to develop a whole theory of change?”
First, don’t sell yourself short; you’re a lot smarter than you think. You don’t need a fancy education or experience to figure out how to get from point A to point B. You probably do it in your life all the time.
Second, you don’t have to have a theory of change, but any organization that asks for your energy, your time, your resources or your support should be able to explain to you what its theory of change is. Ask the organization, “In 18 months, if you are successful, what has happened and how do you see it happening?” If it doesn’t make sense to you, it might not make sense to the organization either. Or it might not know. If it doesn’t, then maybe you should look elsewhere. The goal is to help you focus your energy on activism that can lead to real change.
Objection two: One person can’t change the world.
Many people engage in protest and activism not because they think they will change the world, but because they simply want to stand for what is right and lead an ethical life. Critics might call this “virtue-signaling,” but we also can see it as simple humility. I am doing what I think is right even though I don’t expect that I will change the world. Christians sometimes call this “witnessing”: just declaring your beliefs and values publicly without pretending that others will listen, although we can always hope for that.
This posture is attractive precisely because it combines modesty with realism. If you adopt this approach, however, be clear in your own mind that that is what you are doing. “I suppose I have joined the Resistance, but what I am really doing is connecting to God.” Be honest with yourself — and with others who are considering joining you. We always benefit from courageous and moral voices, but we must not allow developing such voices to become an excuse for inaction.
Protest, then, is not the new brunch. It is a particular tactic that (we hope) fits into a broader program of social change. What is that program? How does it work? We can’t answer that question unless we ask it. But now we have. Go and learn.
Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.