Do social movements lose their effectiveness as they multiply? | Opinion

September 25, 2019 6:30 am

By Fletcher McClellan and Janel Myers

A beautiful fall weekend framed another surge of protest activity in the United States, featuring widespread climate strikes, the UAW’s strike of General Motors, and the We the People March.

Not since the 1960s and 1970s have there been as large a number and range of protests as have taken place in the 2010s.

The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, the Women’s March, March for Our Lives, the Sunrise Movement, and numerous demonstrations for and against President Donald Trump and his policies are only the most prominent.

In just the first eight months of 2019, multiple protests in Pennsylvania were staged in favor of impeachment, gun control, gun rights, carbon reduction, and civil rights for LGBTQ persons and opposed to ICE, sexual assault, and police violence.

Around the world this decade, notable movements included: the Arab Spring; Brexit, Yellow Vest, and right-wing populism; pro-Europe and pro-migration demonstrations; and anti-authoritarian protests in Hong Kong, Russia, and much of central and eastern Europe and Africa.

Globalization, the clustering of grievances over economic injustice, the rise of identity, human rights, and environmental concerns, and use of social media are among the explanations offered for the increase of social movements over the last decade.

Though protests are multiplying, their effectiveness may be diminishing. Advocates of social change complain about “one-and-done” protests and argue that only sustained action can produce results.

What are the effects of political protest? Does it produce change? Can it backfire? Under what conditions can it succeed?

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Questions over the effectiveness of protest are nothing new. Historians still debate whether the anti-war movement shortened American involvement in Vietnam, lengthened it, or made little difference.

Scholars of social movements separate direct and indirect effects of protest. Direct effects refer to changes in public policy made by government officials responding directly to movement activities.

In the last few months, we have seen direct movement impact. Large-scale demonstrations in Puerto Rico brought about the resignation of Ricardo Rossello, the island’s governor, after text messages were released in which he mocked victims of Hurricane Maria.

Now in its fourth month, the movement for political reform in Hong Kong forced the withdrawal of a proposal by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to extradite people suspected of crimes to mainland China’s judicial system, where there are fewer protections for the accused.

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Indirect effects occur when social movements cause change in public opinion that leads in turn to changes in public policy. Myers’s study of the #metoo movement found that the movement’s impact on public opinion paved the way for greater media attention, which in turn facilitated increases in victim reporting, changes to workplace policies, and accelerated legislative activity.

It is difficult to sort out the effects of some movements. For instance, Black Lives Matter raised awareness of police violence, aided by recurring controversial episodes. Viewed as an element in a larger, bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform, BLM has had both direct and indirect successes.

On the other hand, evidence of backlash emerged with the onset of All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter counter-protests, along with the Trump administration’s stance toward police reform.

Furthermore, there are limits to what protest alone can accomplish. Generally, it is easier for a movement to prevent a bad thing from happening than to take a bad thing away.

While the Hong Kong demonstrators achieved their short-term goal of preventing extradition, it remains to be seen – in the face of opposition from Beijing – whether they will accomplish their long-range objective of securing universal suffrage in electing the chief executive.

Authorities have many tools with which to disrupt popular movements, including the use of force, prosecution, disinformation campaigns, doxxing, sabotage, and infiltration. Media coverage may frame the movement and its aims differently than what organizers intended.

In other words, protest is a risky enterprise and the odds of success are long.

However, a social movement can improve its chances to the extent that its message resonates with popular feelings, and the movement itself is large, unified, disciplined, nonviolent, and attractive to diverse groups in society.

Inventive tactics such as human chains and “leaderless” planning can confuse the authorities and draw support.

Activists and followers must be in it for the long haul. Union efforts took decades before passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Ten years passed between the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and enactment of civil rights and voting rights legislation.

Last but not least, from “This Land Is Your Land” to “We Shall Overcome” to “Alright,” every successful movement must have music! Glory to Hong Kong!

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. Janel Myers holds an undergraduate degree in political science, and a master’s of public policy degree from Elizabethtown College.

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