It’s hard to gauge just how impactful public protests are in influencing public opinion, let alone public policy, but it hasn’t stopped people from marching.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Researcher Robert Dahl once said, “a key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens.” Politicians clearly follow polling, and react accordingly, but it’s unclear where the tipping point is for each individual, and what exactly causes them to change direction, or alter their ideology, if at all.
According to a 2017 study by the American Sociological Review, it was argued that at least three aspects of elected representatives’ opinions were relevant and could affect their responsiveness to public outcry. One, the salience the representative attributed to an issue; two, the position they held on the issue; and three, their intention to undertake action regarding the issue. In other words, for a politician to act on any given issue, first she needed to care about the issue and find the problem important or salient. Second, she needed to more or less substantively agree with the direction of public opinion expressed in the signal. Third, she must also have intended to act on these beliefs.
These findings seem to assume that the representative in question possessed long-held beliefs with a firm ideological foundation, rather than what we see in today’s poll-driven world of politics. Are politicians flip-flopping more now that we have near constant polling and instantaneous social media outrage?
We seem to have leapt into another theoretical plane where elected representatives act according to political motivations that are part polling, part power play and part media science. They make decisions based on how it will effect upcoming elections, or more importantly whether it will give ammunition to their political opponents, wether they be from the opposite political party, or an unguarded flank of their own party.
Despite the political landscape, or maybe because of it, the level of civil discourse has never been higher than at any modern point since the late Sixties, when the country was engulfed in a combination of issues including the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement.
The country looked to be ready to be torn apart, and many warned of the consequences of continuing down that path. Ironically, those times seem tame by comparison in many regards, despite the fact that so many similarities exist.
We continue to be mired in unpopular wars and a trove of documents concerning how the American people have been lied to about the war has just been released. The President is facing impeachment, regardless of whether or not the Senate Republicans have the moral fortitude to convict him. White nationalists march openly and have killed protestors, while white Conservatives defend their behavior. Women are fighting for their right to control their own bodies. Black Americans fight for their right to vote. Poverty is America is getting worse. America is falling behind in education and unions are under attack from corporate greed. The stock market is booming, yet abject poverty still exists.
And once again, we are fighting Russian aggression.
Donald Trump has succeeded in taking America back to the 1960s, presumably to a time when he thought America was great. The problem is, just as it was then, is that it isn’t great for everyone.
Legendary activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas K. Gandhi have long cemented a legacy of marching and activism throughout the world, in an effort to bring about peaceful change through non-violent action. Peaceful protests have been responsible for both great change in the past few decades, such as the Arab Spring, regime change in various parts of the world, as well as vicious crack-downs by authorities in the cases of Turkey, Syria and Hong Kong.
Since 2016, one in five Americans have attended a political protest or rally, according to a poll conducted by the Washington Post. The Women’s March, the Muslim Ban, Charlottesville, Climate Change, Voter’s Rights, Immigration and the Occupy Movement.
They all had significant impact in the media and were well covered, but how much did they effect public opinion and consequently, public policy?
In a nutshell, it all comes down to partisan politics, who holds the power, and where you get your information from.
If you’re on the right, most of these protests are liberal snowflakes, whining about nothing, looking for safe spaces, and expecting handouts, or worse, that they’re paid protestors—actors, there simply to create a scene. If you’re on the left, the opposition are cult-like hoards who rally around a fascist leader, ready to carry out his every whim, no matter how racist or violent.
The point is, the reason for protests has ceased to become a vehicle by which you might influence the opposition to the value of your cause, because everyone gets their information through a filter of their own choosing. The value of a protest is purely in exciting like-minded people to become engaged and join the movement. That’s it.
I’m not suggesting that protests aren’t effective in garnering media attention, but it’s rare that the media attention bleeds over into the other camp. Instead, it’s either spun in a negative way, or is fed to those who already agree with you.
We should keep marching. We should keep protesting. But we also need creative strategies that might be more effective in reaching the other tribe. We need to be skillful insurgents, innovative, clever, insightful and ruthless—willing to take down one opponent at a time, ultimately by convincing them, that we’re actually fighting for the same thing, and that we’re all being screwed by the same system.
It’s a start.