Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?

Summary: Except for issues about which the 1% have no interest (e.g., who sleeps with who, how the peons marry), reform efforts in America have proven themselves mostly ineffective for several generations. Here we look at one aspect of that failure, our reliance on demonstrations — and why this results from deeper errors: our failure to organize around leaders and programs. Perhaps when we’re desperate we’ll become serious about reform (unless it’s too late by then). At the end are links to learn how we can do better.

Occupy Wall Street
Saving the nation from banks, one unicorn at a time


(1) Do protests ever work?“, Joshua Keating , blog of Foreign Policy, 2 April 2009 — Excerpt:

{Phil} Collins names Gandhi’s march to the sea and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington as the ultimate effective demonstrations in this sense. They mobilized huge groups in support of a definable and achievable goal rather than opposing an amorphous concept like “capitalism.”

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade to the environment to capital punishment.

(2) Why Demonstrations and Petitions Do Not Work“, Phil B, undated — This doesn’t show that demonstrations do not work, but rather that the bar for their success is quite high. Excerpt:

There are two main reasons why demonstrations and petitions do not work.

  1. the leaders who make decisions and influence changes are well shielded from protesters. These leaders most likely never even know that there are riots and protests nearby and even more so for peaceful demonstrations and petitions.
  2. business leaders with money and power belong to a much higher class than the average demonstrator. As a result, these leaders do not care much about the issues and causes of most middle and lower class people.
  3. a lot of rich people can not even relate to most of these issues either. Therefore, demonstrations and petitions mean very little to rich people when compared to the average person.

Zeynep Tufekci

(3) After the Protests“, Zeynep Tufekci (Asst Prof, U NC), op-ed in the New York Times, 19 March 2014

Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.

Captain America visits the Tea Party
Cosplay as political activism

(4) Why Street Protests Don’t Work“, Moisés Naím (bio), The Atlantic, 7 April 2014 — “How can so many demonstrations accomplish so little?” Excerpt:

Street protests are in. From Bangkok to Caracas, and Madrid to Moscow, these days not a week goes by without news that a massive crowd has amassed in the streets of another of the world’s big cities. The reasons for the protests vary (bad and too-costly public transport or education, the plan to raze a park, police abuse, etc.). Often, the grievance quickly expands to include a repudiation of the government, or its head, or more general denunciations of corruption and economic inequality.

Aerial photos of the anti-government marches routinely show an intimidating sea of people furiously demanding change. And yet, it is surprising how little these crowds achieve. The fervent political energy on the ground is hugely disproportionate to the practical results of these demonstrations.

…The hodgepodge groups that participated had no formal affiliation with one another, no clear hierarchy, and no obvious leaders. But social networks helped to virally replicate the movement so that the basic patterns of camping, protesting, fundraising, communicating with the media, and interacting with the authorities were similar from place to place.

… In fact, government responses usually amount to little more than rhetorical appeasement, and certainly no major political reforms.  … How can so many extremely motivated people achieve so little?

One answer might be found in the results of an experiment conducted by Anders Colding-Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen. In 2009, he created a Facebook group to protest the demolition of the historic Stork Fountain in a major square of the Danish capital. Ten thousand people joined in the first week; after two weeks, the group was 27,000 members-strong. That was the extent of the experiment. There was never a plan to demolish the fountain — Colding-Jørgensen simply wanted to show how easy it was to create a relatively large group using social media.

… The problem is what happens after the march. Sometimes it ends in violent confrontation with the police, and more often than not it simply fizzles out. Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.

… Achieving that motion requires organizations capable of old-fashioned and permanent political work that can leverage street demonstrations into political change and policy reforms.

… What we’ve witnessed in recent years is the popularization of street marches without a plan for what happens next and how to keep protesters engaged and integrated in the political process. It’s just the latest manifestation of the dangerous illusion that it is possible to have democracy without political parties—and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society.

(5)  For More Information

(a)  Reforming America: steps to political change – all posts about the theory and practice of organizing and executing reform movements

(b)  Posts about organizing to reform America:

  1. The First Step to reforming America — Organizing
  2. The second step to reforming America — Building a big organization
  3. How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America
  4. How do protests like the Tea Party and OWS differ from effective political action?
  5. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century

(c)  Posts about the Tea Party Movement

(d)  Posts about the Occupy Wall Street Movement



12 thoughts on “Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?”

  1. Sun Tzu on the Art of War, Chapter 12 #15-22:

    “Unhappy is the fate of the commander who strives to win his battles and succeeds in his attacks without exploiting their success and purpose; for the result is a waste of time and general stagnation. Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the
    good general cultivates his resources.

    Do not move unless you see an advantage;
    do not use your troops unless there is something to be gained;
    do not fight unless the contested position is critical.

    No ruler should put troops into the field because he is enraged;
    no general should fight a battle simply out of anger.

    Advance only if it is to your advantage to advance;
    if not, stay where you are.

    In time, anger may change to gladness;
    vexation may change to. contentment.
    But a kingdom that has once been destroyed
    can never come again into being;
    nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.
    Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful,
    and the good general full of caution.

    This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.”

  2. Protests—also called demonstrations—only work when they provoke their opponents into over-reaction, thereby demonstrating both the extremity and the insecurity of the status quo, and establishing a moral high ground in the minds of masses of previously disinterested citizens.

    All a state need do to diffuse protest is to err on the side of self-restraint. Eventually every protest movement that does not meet galvanizing resistance either fades away, becomes a caricature of itself, or grows extremist and violent (thus justifying its belated repression).

    For the most part, since Kent State, the reaction of U.S. authorities to protests has been insufficient to render them viable.

  3. For protests to work people have to be capable of outrage, and I don’t know, can people these days, in the USA be outraged by anything? This country, everyone is just so sedated, if people care about anything it’s about Marijuana legalization. Place like Egypt, the Islamics are off the alcohol and off the drugs, so even though they may have some strange ideas, at least they’re still capable of passion.

    1. Cathryn,

      Think of all the folks who are outraged at that Kenyan Muslim atheist who socialized our health care! We have plenty of outrage. Most of it, unfortunately, is by idiots. It’s unrelated to anything real, and hence useless at best. As Fabius often quotes, “Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”

      Is that because of intoxicants? I can’t prove anything, but it doesn’t ring true. Drug users, in my experience, are less inclined to get caught up in political outrage than straights; and I see no reason to believe that they would be any exception to Yeats’ Law (The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.) if they became sober.

      Why marijuana legalization? Because—for the first time since the 1970s—it appears tractable. Most political matters are bottomless pits that suck you dry without even a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Absent some psychological dysfunction, we instinctively avoid things like that.

    2. Drug users are self-absorbed and less likely to get involved. That was kind of my point. Who needs religion as the opiate of the masses if you just have opiates to be the opium of the masses.

      I agree, there is outrage out here, but they want other stuff. That Bundy Ranch issue did get some kind of traction. I haven’t been following so closely, but maybe they have a point. The federal government can be smug, self-righteous and overbearing sometimes. This triggered plenty of response, and maybe it is making a difference. The Russian protesters in the Ukraine, they want something, that’s happening. They have a government to back them up, I think that helps.

      The heartbreaker is Greece. This country got raped by the Troika as Nigel calls it, people are still angry and still protesting and not much comes of it. Really, I think this shows how far you can push a relatively westernized population and get away with it, and it’s pretty far. Here in the USA we’re not close to this level, really.


    3. “Drug users are self-absorbed and less likely to get involved.”

      Obviously an overgeneralization. For example, are you, in addition to illegal drugs users, referring to all those people on antidepressants and other prescription drugs? What about consumers of mass media, even religion? People mean different things by the overarching term ‘drugs’.

      What annoys me most about your statement, though, even discounting the counterfact that some users and sympathetic allies of the users of marijuana managed to change the status quo in some parts of the nation, is that it seems to discount the abuses perpetrated by law enforcement upon drug ‘offenders’ and the liberties taken by law enforcement bodies in the guise of keeping us free of such a scourge of humanity. As if all drugs users were doing nothing productive – aside from providing funding to law enforcement, courts and corrections – anwyay, so that these dynamics of power are not worth noticing, thinking about and rebelling against.

  4. The important thing is to be good at learning.

    Compare the amount of time and verbiage spent in the antiwar movement on retarded art bell conspiracy theories to the amount of serious debate and analysis of the political strategy of the movement.

    Compare the number of books written by the intellectual left against bush to the number written about the failure of the left to stop the slaughter of Iraq.

    Compare the overflowing sewers of bullshit written about how smart and brave and radical Occupy was to the amount of after analysis of the utterly predictable route and collapse.

    We have a stock of failed protest tactics and no strategy at all. Our reaction to defeat is either denial or silence. To the extent that any debate does go on it is about the left (and usually highly sectarian) rather than the conflict itself.

    During the conflict the “movement” becomes a sacred cow. After the movement fails it goes into the memory hole. By the time it became possible to have a sane discussion of how stupid occupy was, no one was listening. This is a death cycle. It will repeat itself with the next outbreak.

    How do we end up with a left so demonstrably uninterested in wining the fights it exists to start?

    Political projects that are obviously going to fail and the subcultures of leftist failure that produce them are mainly going to be attractive to people with a deep seated psychological need for defeat. Everyone else gets tired the bullshit and goes home. This process was on open display during occupy. It was on open display during the antiwar movement.

    I don’t know why so many people on the left seem to crave defeat and marginality. I do know that the only kind of people who have ever made revolutions had a burning desire for victory.

    I also know that no slave, however radicalized, wants to join a failed revolt. For the people who live under the gun and behind the razor wire, being a half-assed joke is a death sentence.

    When we do have debates they tend to have a very nasty polarity. On one hand we always have a small number of people who seem to join political projects for the sole reason of picking the most viscous possible fight with the person standing next to them on the barricade. On the other we have a much larger number who appear to have a palpable fear of real debates, and who are so thin skinned that they react to any challenge to their ideas as a personal assault.

    Radical political projects cannot be safe spaces for sadists and bullies, but they cannot be safe spaces for bullshit and crybabies either. The old Communist left had a culture of total ruthlessness and merciless struggle that was inhuman. The occupy left has gone way to far in a sort of smarmy “everyone is beautiful” safe space where the whole point seems to be to patch up the bleeding self esteem wounds of the disaffected children of the pampered upper classes.

    The whole left project is increasingly framed in therapeutic metaphors, and indeed we even had a “therapy” tent at my local occupy camp.

    1. X,

      Nicely said. I wish I had answers to your questions.

      I do have lots of examples demonstrating the points you make. Such as “Theoretically Progressive Media Company Typically Anti-Union“, Erik Loomis (Asst Prof History, U RI), Lawyers, Guns, and Money, 17 April 2014. Plus dozens of posts about the Left’s misuse of science in the climate change crusade, which might prove terminal for the Left in its current form.

  5. Well I sent you the paper (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9836.html) which did some clever statistics to show that public opinion in the US is meaningless. Only ‘elite’ opinion counts. For a technical analysis have a look at the (one of my favourites) site http://mathbabe.org/2014/04/17/the-us-political-system-serves-special-interests-and-the-rich/

    So, as the coordinated attack on the Occupy movement showed that the elites have total confidence that the national security state will protect them (I think you poo pooed me over that claim a while ago FM, but all the later leaks and data showed I was right).

    The fact that they pay nothing towards it, but the people the NS State is designed to oppress pay for their own oppression is a contradaction that has sunk every previous one of those societies. But the US will be different, in a horrible way.

    Ok, here is the logic. Elites have rapacious greed. They are rich and want to be richer. No matter what they have, they want more. An outcome of that is, no matter how low wages are they have to go lower (they are great believers in the zero sum game, if you have I don’t and all that)

    Now people, faced with poverty and starvation will, rather obviously, oppose it. The elites will use everything, including lots of propaganda to keep dong it. No one has been more susceptible to propaganda as in the western countries (particularly the Anglo ones: US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand).

    Now in the west we went down this line and people, because of a better past history, actually believed that propaganda (I remember all those billions we would get by re-organsiation and economic improvements, could I persuade any Australian that it was all rubbish …nope..until they lost their jobs of course).

    But it ramps up. This is the self destructive part of the modern elites. No matter what the damages, no matter what the criminality (of the elites) nothing changes. It just gets worse. The entire, and I mean entire economic policy of the western Govts is to protect the elites and make sure they are protected and get More.

    So the elites then depend (and in the US many ‘elites’ are major beneficiaries in this) to the ‘national security state’ to let them keep doing it.

    Hence things like the nonsense of the NSA (we will just forget the endless embarrassments of the FBI and CIA for a bit, let alone the TSA).

    But, those same elites depend on these to protect them from the proles that they are looting. If those fail then it is the Army (and Marines) that have to do the business.

    But the same elites are, because of the endless greed) are shutting those same NS people down. Get the wage and benefits cuts for ordinary serving people yet? There will be more, lots more. Wouldn’t count on your Marine pensions FM people….Goldman Sachs (etc) want it and in the end you will get nothing.

    In the end it does come down to violence. And in the end the US military will have to make a decisions as to whether it decides to treat US people like they did and do (and horribly did) Iraqis (and all the rest) and drone, bomb, etc to death.

    Though of course by doing that it creates other opponents.

    I fully expect, given it’s history that for awhile, for a long while, the US military will ruthlessly smash people in the US. And yes the Marines will do so well in (say) Detroit as they did their Wehrmacht thing in Fallujah.

    But where it will fail in the end is that it becomes subverted from within. Because there is another force involved. Smarter people than the US Powerpoint military (ie criminals) see that future well and are positioning themselves. Hence the Gangs getting their people into it to get trained…

    Eventually the US will be fragmented, military being used (ie endless drone attacks on ‘insurgents’) working closely with the well armed well trained local trained ‘gangs to oppress any hint of humanity…. (simple extrapolation of US military everywhere past and present, they always work with the gangs). The lack of money that the elites pay them will be made up by the military working and sharing with the gangs. And the military (as the CIA already does) will grab and rule and protect the drug money

    So, if you are an ordinary American.. get out. Your military wont protect you …they have been long trained to oppress you. Don’t expect them to be on your side, as the elites rip them off, their history shows they will simply work with gangs to rip you off and terrorise you more.

    Unlike the Ukranian military who have refused to fire on their own people, the US military WILL shoot you.

    I’d love you to poke holes in this, most likely, scenario FM … but if you have actually studied US history (especially US military history) … you wont be able to.,

    Up to you FM crew to, working against the trend to change it. You wont of course and the Marine core will add to its ‘battle honours’ the attack on Chicago (or wherever) … wiped out of history was the reason for the battle was over the control of the local drug trade that the Marine generals wanted..

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