I was at the bar with friends last week and discussion turned to the G20, mostly because I hadn’t seen most of them in a while and I wanted to tell them all my good G20 stories (IE, “the ones I won’t publish online because they were off the record”), and subsequently it turned into a discussion about protests. First of course there was the criticism of the protest movement that mostly echoed last Wednesday’s post, but then it turned to something that I think was more interesting, which is: is protest, as we currently understand it, outdated? The arguments in favour of that hypothesis seem fairly strong.
Let’s start off with a simple definition and say that protest movements exist to do two things: change the minds of the public on an issue, and empower individuals to work together to force elite decisionmaking in favour of the “protest” side of the issue. (Okay, also they exist for social reasons and there will always be those who are just there for an adrenalin rush. Let us assume that the primary reason for protests is social change.)
The problem is that your standard protest model is, nowadays, bad at doing both of these things. Even in those situations where protests don’t dissolve into a cacophony of various messages of dissent only tenuously connected to one another, the standard protest model suffers from a problematic catch-22: in order to significantly impact the news cycle, a protest must be really big, but the larger a protest becomes, the more likely it is to be ineffective due to lessened public support due to the inconvenience of the protest and the perception that it’s a one-off stunt. And even when a protest significantly impacts the news cycle, it’s still a one-off event in a modern culture which has trouble remembering what happened in the news three months ago.
“Aha,” you say, “but what about the Tea Party? What about European labour protests?” And these are interesting discussions. The Tea Party isn’t really a good counterexample. Although they have had a number of protests and have had some impact on public debate in the United States, they also aren’t following the traditional protest model, which is “have a really big protest and then that’s it for a while in terms of public visibility.” Granted, liberal protesters might argue that they don’t get any public visibility outside of protests due to media complacency, and they have a point there. But that right there is why the Tea Party has had more impact on the media: they’re essentially sponsored by a cable news network, which has allowed them to outlive the news cycle and become a constant presence.1 Since most protests will not get that advantage, pointing to the Tea Party as a measure of protest success is erroneous. On top of that, for all the visibility the Tea Party has enjoyed, they haven’t really had that much success at shifting public opinion; there has been no groundswell of support for their pet issues and the movement has remained mostly confined to conservative Republicans despite halfhearted attempts to reach out to libertarians. Really, the Tea Party is more reflective of the current state of the Republican party base than anything else.
As for European labour protests, sure, they work – but they work because when European labour movements go out and protest, that’s not a protest fringe doing it; that’s a hefty chunk of the country. People talk about how the G20 protest was big, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to, say, the antiwar protests conducted five or six years ago – and those in turn are equivalent to a smaller European labour protest, except that the American antiwar protests were mostly one-day or very occasionally two-day affairs, whereas European labour protests can go for weeks if need be (and have). European labour protests aren’t analagous to the modern North American protest movement expressly because they aren’t interested in shifting public opinion2, but rather in representing a large portion of the public. This makes the “swaying public opinion” part of the protest model null; all these protests are designed to do is sway elite decisions.
So, if traditional protest is no longer good for swaying both the public and the elites, what can do it? This is where I come up empty; none of the existing options seem to work. In the US, phone-in campaigns to Congressional offices have had some success at pushing representatives on important votes, but quite apart from the fact that phone campaigns don’t sway public opinion at all? Even if we accept that the phone system is a solid answer – and I don’t think it’s nearly as effective as some claim – simple numbers seem to make it essentially non-duplicable outside of the United States. There are about 700,000 Americans for every representative in Congress. Most other nations have a much lower citizens-to-representative ratio, generally ranging from 100000:1 (the United Kingdom) to 150000:1 (Australia). If you want to flood their phonebanks, phone campaigns need a participation rate essentially six times as high as happens in the United States. This seems unlikely.
Facebook/Twitter/other internet petitions and polls are flawed from a different end. Phone calls and letter-writing are the traditional weapons of choice for people attempting to make their voices heard to their representatives, but both of these methods require a person to really, really care about an issue.3 This is why politicians have traditionally multiple-counted people doing these things: the assumption is that since one person was angry enough about the issue to contact their representative, therefore there are X more people who feel the same way and will be less inclined to vote for the representative (at a minimum). But internet petitions have almost no disincentives attached to them: there’s a degree of anonymity involved4 and there’s next to no effort required, which means that representatives/politicians not only don’t multiple-count the people involved, they sometimes even discount them (in the “this person will never change their vote based on issue X” sense). Even when they don’t discount, the numbers taken at face value are almost never big enough to influence decisionmakers. Fair Copyright For Canada’s 87,543 members means an average of 284 members per riding, which isn’t enough to swing anything other than the absolute swingiest of swing ridings.
So what’s the solution? I’m not sure, to be honest. A combination of social media petitioning to raise public awareness of the issue above and beyond current standards combined with phone-ins coordinated to a degree as yet unexperienced seems like it could work, but it also seems like it would be extremely difficult. Something entirely new, of course, always has potential, but the problem with something entirely new is that I don’t know what that is. Better minds than mine, etc.
- The more you talk about a thing being a thing, the more likely it is that that thing will become a thing. [↩]
- I know anarchist commenters here have said they’re not interested in doing that either, but let’s just assume that the majority of left-wing protesters aren’t idiots. [↩]
- Calling is easy, but has an invasive edge to it that most people instinctively avoid; letter-writing is time-consuming and costs you a stamp. [↩]
- Or, at the very least, the perceived semi-anonymity people assume exists on the internet and almost never does. [↩]