Protesting in the past few months has become a ferverous topic in both the traditional media, as well as over the internet. If you’ve spent any time on social media, especially after November 8th, you may have noticed two distinctive sides of an argument arise. The election of Donald J. Trump to the Office of the President is undoubtedly a polarizing event, and as a result there is a section of the American populace that has become vocal. This section of the populous is dissenting against Trump’s position and actions taken on various issues from immigration to health care. During press conferences—most notably that following President Obama’s farewell address on January 10th—President Trump has only half-elaborated on his plans for the future of this nation’s healthcare, who is covered and the size and scope. Furthermore, President Trump’s position on climate change and support for LBGTQ+ has sparked both individuals to speak out and protest. As of inauguration day, both the terms “LGBT” and “climate change” are absent from whitehouse.gov.
Many of President Trump’s actions and statements—although he would argue these statements are alleged—have prompted different political activists to march in protest both on inauguration day and the following day. The Working Family Party of America, in conjunction with other activist groups, lead the #J20Resist protest (January 20th Resist), which looked to protest President Trump’s “agenda of racism, sexism, migrant-bashing, cutbacks and war.” In addition, on the day following Inauguration, over one million people marched on Washington in the 2017 Women’s March, and 5 million people marched around the world in solidarity for the Women’s March’s cause. The Women’s March looks to create an inclusive civil society that secures not just the rights of women, but the disabled, minority groups, and immigrants, as well as a reproductive health for women.
It is evident that both these groups have large-scale, policy based goals. So how does taking to the streets in organized, nonviolent protest translate into real policy initiatives? On one side, there is an argument that protesting is actually ineffective. In 2014 alone, we saw protests around the world in dissent of governmental action in cities such as Bangkok, Caracas, Madrid and Moscow. Some of these protests were not entirely successful at achieving their goals. We have also seen this with the prevalence of the term “global economic inequality” as a mainstream buzzword, used both to describe inequality around the world, and inequality within individual countries. While it has gained traction in even the traditional media, little has been done policy-wise to fix this issue. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street Movement which largely brought this issue to the public has become weakened and out of the media spotlight. As we’ve heard countless times, no one went to prison over the financial crash, and that the 1% richest people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 99%.
Public pressure appears to be an ineffective means of changing President Trump’s mind, especially with 140 characters at his disposal.
From this evidence, one could deduce that protests do not work. Here, we have groups of individuals spending their time and effort to attempt to further a political message by collecting in large groups under one mission statement. Opponents of election and Inauguration protesters have claimed that no matter what protesters do, President Trump will be inaugurated, and remain President of the United States for the next four years. In a way, these people are correct. On January 20th we saw the peaceful transition of power between one president to the next, a tradition rooted in both our conventions, and in democratic theory. So, if protest appears to be an ineffective means of achieving an outcome like preventing/removing a president from office, then what’s the point? Couldn’t the efforts of those in dissent be reallocated to their jobs so they could in turn become more successful, and use that success to orchestrate bigger change? Furthermore, if President Trump is unreceptive to criticism by the public, as he has in the past, then what good is protesting if he will not listen to the public? Public pressure appears to be an ineffective means of changing President Trump’s mind, especially with 140 characters at his disposal.
Regardless of the direct outcomes of protesting, political speech in the form of mass movement has a special place in civil society. Protest serves as the mass mobilization, and collective efforts of a group of individuals who share a similar political voice. Protesting operates and produces change in two ways. One, it illuminates both issues and their respective magnitudes. A large grouping of over a million people in Washington and even more around the country shows all levels of government and officials that this is an important, pressing and large scale need that should be attended for. Even if this is not an opinion shared by the majority of Americans, to disregard the other side’s speech is to allow for the tyranny of the majority. Just because one political party wins office, does not mean that the losing side should remain silent. In fact, while there is an institutionalized system of checks and balances between the federal branches of government and between the federal and state governments, there is also a system of soft checks between the political party in power, and the one not. Here, the dissenting voices of the opposition hold the government and party in power to account. This is not a theoretical claim. In the United Kingdom, the opposition party questions the Prime Minister once a week, questions the various governmental ministers, and does their best to hold the government accountable for their actions. Accountability is necessary to have a healthy democracy in the long-run. Protesting works this same way by illuminating an issue, placing a degree of magnitude to it, which in turn places pressure on the government and officials to set the agenda accordingly. Here, officials are held to account.
However, what happens when officials don’t listen to the voice of the people. Here’s where the second implication of protests comes in. We have to ask ourselves how do we get from protest to policy during an unreceptive administration? There are two means of achieving this goal. First, political protest cannot end after everyone has gone home. Physical demonstrations are only one component in the process of protesting. The vocalization of political dissent should continue, along with the unity that the rally and protest created. It is imperative that if an agenda is desired to be pursued, activist groups and individuals place continuous pressure on the government into the election cycle. This plays into the second way in which protests can be effective. In theory, if a political voice is unified within a group—via a protest or protest movement—there can then be a unified voter base. This power can then be harnessed during midterm elections for both the House and Senate, in which the unified electorate can vote in candidates which have either grown out of the movement, or reflect the new ideas. Right now, the Women’s March organization has a new campaign called “10 Actions for the first 100 days.” This campaign looks to mobilize the same people who marched on January 21st to take other actions—such as writing into their representatives—to protest President Trump’s proposed policies.
Opponents of political protest who claim that it is perhaps a legitimate form of whining, are not entirely wrong about its effectiveness. However, political protest, when used in conjunction with other democratic channels can create change. As of right now there is a growing movement to get millennials elected in all layers of government. Bernie Sanders’ post-election political campaign “Our Revolution” pulls from the ideas of his primary race campaign. Supporters of Our Revolution are perhaps the best example of a unified group that has continued to remain together, even after they “lost” the Democratic Primary. The Women’s March and Our Revolution are two primary examples of how large scale physical and nonphysical forms of protest have the potential to grow and become a force on the political stage. This continued unification, and mobilization of sections of the populace may prove to turn protest into policy.