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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Big Demos, Political Strategy Need Narrower Focus

Are big protest demonstrations still effective? London Timesonline writer Phil Collins has a video clip giving the once-over-lightly treatment to the broader question of the influence of public demonstrations in a historical and contemporary context.
Collins takes a quick look at a half dozen successful and failed demos in the UK, The U.S. and India (with brief video of demos in other countries) and he makes a salient point about the G20 protests communicating “the vague sense that it’s against this whole set of global institutions, but no clear sense of what it is for.”
Collins argues that a protest does better when it “connects to a wider sense in the people that an injustice has been done” and that a successful protest “needs authorities on the verge of capitulation.” I’m not sure he’s right about the latter point. Sometimes a protest can serve a good purpose by publicizing an injustice, even when authorities are firmly opposed. You have to start somewhere. The 1999 “Battle of Seattle” demos, for example, didn’t achieve any concrete reforms, but they did help expand public awareness about the injustices of WTO trade policies.
Joshua Keating’s “Do Protests Ever Work” post at Foreign Policy‘s ‘Passport’ blog riffs on Collins’s clip, adding:

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 the environment to capital punishment.

Keating is here talking more about large demonstrations than protest in general. For the most thorough discussion of forms of nonviolent protest available, check out Gene Sharp’s 3-volume “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” and other of his works on the topic (Sharp has been called “the Clauswitz of Nonviolence”).
As a veteran of many street demos going back to the sixties, including one that got me three days in the hoosegow, I have long had the feeling that too many 21st century demonstrations have a ‘kitchen sink’ quality, with a long, eye-glazing list of diverse grievances and no shortage of windy speakers to back them up. I also suspect that, instead of winning hearts and minds, spectators may be turned off by all of the negative yammering, which is what they see in the news clips, since the media rarely broadcast the positive vision part of the speeches.
So I say amen to Collins’s point about narrowing the focus, a principle which could be extended to political strategy in general, the failure of California’s ‘Big Green’ referendum in 1990 being an instructive case in point. The broader the legislative reform, the bigger the target for the oppos. I wonder if the same principle might apply to issues like health care reform strategy, as is suggested by the fate of ‘Hillarycare.’ Why not, for example, start with a bill that forbids all insurance companies from denying complete catastrophic coverage to their policy-holders and expanding Medicaid to provide it to those not covered by private insurers. Later for drugs, preventive care, Dental and myriad related concerns. Yes I know, it’s complicated and health issues are all interconnected. But “big package” reform is always problematic, and too often doomed by its very complexity. It’s difficult to build public support for reforms so broad and complex that the public doesn’t have time to read up about everything needed to form strong supportive opinions. Breaking reform packages down into separate one-at-a-time initiatives, on the other hand, builds the potential mass of active supporters.

One comment on “Big Demos, Political Strategy Need Narrower Focus

  1. Jon on

    I also suspect that, instead of winning hearts and minds, spectators may be turned off by all of the negative yammering, which is what they see in the news clips, since the media rarely broadcast the positive vision part of the speeches.
    Excellent point, and something that Stephen Duncombe also touches on in “Dream: Progressive politics in an age of fantasy”.
    The Join the Impact protests, immediately after the Prop 8 and other votes, certainly seem to have had a galvanizing effect on the marriage equality movement in the US. Along with the great online organizating, one of the keys was their positive and inclusive nature: the focus was on change, not on hating the opposition.


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