Why protesting is not always an optimal strategy for achieving political results.
Since Donald Trump took office on January 20, demonstrations have become the norm. Protesting has its own benefits: It reminds voters that there are other means of expressing their demands beyond the ballot box. Eager politicians will read the demands of the electorate by observing their pattern of protesting. Responsive politicians would, thus, act on these growing demands to avoid future electoral losses.
However, protesting does not come free of charge. Over-protesting could have negative effects on a movement’s success in pressuring for a certain policy outcome. This is due to what could be fancily labeled as the diminishing returns of protests. As the number of protests increases, each additional demonstration does not add much to achieving the desired outcome.
More protests normalize this form of political activism. Simply put, demonstrations will cease to demonstrate much after a certain point. Politicians who were unsure about their constituencies’ demands should have learned by now and maybe have responded. Those who are not responsive are less likely to be affected by one more protest. Once protests become the norm, they lose their value as a threat or a signaling device to politicians in office. Their power lies in their unpredictability and rarity, which give them a particular weight as a tool for political mobilization.
Even worse, by design protests create some kind of disorder to the existing social and political norms. Although this might be tolerated in the short run, the persistence of protests could lead to waning support from politically neutral citizens. Those who have no strong political stance on the issue might initially support it.
However, they might turn against it as they feel that it undermines what they perceive as basic social order. For example, they might get irritated by heavy traffic or occupying public squares. This would lead to a negative effect of protests on public support for the cause, reducing its desired influence.
The most dangerous of all is that protests could backfire. Politicians might insist on showing their strength and commitment to a certain agenda regardless of the protests. They would see protests as an opportunity to signal their “heroic” representation of their constituency regardless of the costs and opposition. For example, President Trump has continued to pursue his most heterodox ideas regardless of nationwide opposition.
He even went further to punish those who refused to comply with his orders, like firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates. By ignoring both popular and establishment opposition to his executive orders, Trump managed to send a strong signal to his supporters that he is a man of action. He is willing to step over all of the opposition to fulfill his electoral promises. Whether this will electorally pay back or not is a different question. However, protests gave him an additional obstacle to overcome and claim an even bigger victory.
Having said that, this commentary should not be understood as a call to giving up. On the contrary, it argues that protesting alone is not an optimal strategy. Political actors, on both the citizen and government levels, should consider other legal channels to curtail this unlimited use of power. Protesters need to keep the demonstrations “fun and exciting” to sustain public support.
Finally, the actual change would not come until the protests include Republicans and Trump voters. When channels for communication are opened up to replace extreme polarization, moderation would become electorally rewarding to politicians on both sides of the spectrum.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers