February 17, 2019

How to Build a Protest Movement

“Since Donald Trump became president, the United States has seen over 20,000 street protests. While this number includes some pro-Trump rallies, most of the events voiced opposition to the administration. Between hundreds of Women’s Marches, the airport protests, the Tax March, the March for Science, the March for Truth, the Peoples Climate March, the March for Our Lives, the Keep Families Together rallies, the Cancel Kavanaugh protests, and the Protect Mueller demonstrations, people who organize protests have vastly exceeded their quarterly production quotas. But to what effect?

The clearest sign that a protest movement will provoke change is its size. Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth looked at 459 cases between 1900 and 2015 of violent insurgencies and nonviolent oppositions to authoritarian governments, and found that nonviolent resistance movements were more than twice as likely to succeed in their aims as violent ones. She also found that once such movements had mobilized 3.5 percent of their country’s population (and sometimes less than that) in ongoing forms of protest, they always succeeded. For the United States, that would mean eleven million people. Chenoweth’s Crowd Counting Consortium estimates that between 5.9 million and nine million people took part in protests in 2017, and as I reported in these pages last issue, a little more than two million people have been involved in the sustained efforts that culminated in the Blue Wave of 2018. So we have yet to reach the levels of sustained involvement that historically have toppled governments.

Some smaller mass protests can still lead clearly to policy change: ACT UP’s occupation of the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters in 1988 led to dramatic improvements in the treatment of AIDS. Meanwhile, huge protests can be flagrantly ignored, as when President George W. Bush declared in February 2003 that the millions of people who had just marched against his planned invasion of Iraq would, alas, have no more influence on his national security thinking than “a focus group.” And sometimes a protest can look more significant than it is because it attracts disproportionate coverage in the media: Consider the attention lavished on occasional flare-ups of “political correctness” on college campuses against the relatively scant coverage of demands by students for lower tuitions.”

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