Your Protests Probably Mean Nothing
Donald Trump managed to provoke an impressive number of protests in his first two weeks as president. From the Women’s March on Washington (WMoW) to the protests at airports across the country, it seems that no day is without demonstrations that denounce some aspect of the new administration. As an American, I am thrilled to see my peers take to the streets to remind the new president that we will not accept his demagoguery. I am also concerned. Progressive politics have a problem.
All too often, we see progressive, well-meaning movements around the world fail, despite record breaking participation and increasingly vocal social media presence. This applies to political campaigns, but is especially apparent with protest movements. Of recent progressive protest movements such as the Arab Spring, the Russian Bolotnaya protests, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, only Black Lives Matter and the Tunisian Arab Spring can truly be considered successful. The other movements all progressed through a wax and wane cycle that slated their progressive aims for the history textbooks and nothing more. Why does this keep happening?
There are three elements that are vital to the success of any progressive movement. The WMoW has already exhibited one of them: organized leadership. This element will grant the WMoW potential to outlast the average protest movement. Even so, there are two more elements that are necessary for these progressive movements to survive.
The first, institutional support, is what sets Black Lives Matter (BLM) apart from Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, or the Bolotnaya protests. As this article from The Atlantic states of BLM, “the [BLM] protests became a movement that reached off the streets and into the presidential race, in part because there was a White House and Justice Department willing to take their concerns seriously.” In other words, while protests are an important first step in enacting change, they are ultimately ignorable to those in power unless they are forced to consider the issue by their peers. Without an in with the federal government, these recent protest movements and the progressive interests they represent will undoubtedly fail.
The anti-Trump movement has little support in the federal government aside from the minority Democratic caucus in Congress. Appealing to that caucus is a daunting challenge in the face of the Republican Party’s virtual control of all three branches. Even so, the true challenge is not in how the government exists now, but rather the ideological trajectory it is on. Political institutions worldwide are being pulled to the right. In the U.S., this is partially due to redistricting and tighter voting laws that protect Republican seats during election cycles—largely by making it increasingly difficult for low-income and minority citizens to vote.
Even so, the conservatives’ morally bankrupt yet politically effective efforts do not bear all the responsibility for these institutions’ swing to the right. A huge portion of left-leaning voters are disenchanted not just with establishment liberal politics, but with U.S. democracy itself. As a result, Democratic turnout nationwide remains consistently low, first giving the House, then the Senate, then the presidency and soon to be the Supreme Court all to the Republican Party.
We refuse to vote, yet we protest when political outcomes defy our preferences. On one hand, I get it. If you are at odds with how politics are fundamentally conducted in this country, you will prefer not to vote and instead take to the streets to demand change. On the other hand, what the hell, people? We are throwing some very precious and important babies out with the bathwater in an act of self-defeating masochism so bleak, it would be almost comical if it were not real.
High voter turnout rates indeed comprise the core of the third element of a successful, progressive movement: maintained interest. It is still too early to tell how much steam the anti-Trump movement has. These protests, record donations to ACLU, and efforts to reach out to congresspeople are good signs, but it is possible and even probable that come the mid-term elections in 2018, many progressives will have simply lost interest. Because greater institutional support is dependent on a greater Democratic presence in the federal government, maintained interest—and therefore higher voter turnout in 2018—is perhaps the most critical element of the anti-Trump movement.
It will be a long journey until 2018, however, and the first fight will actually be within the Democratic Party. Everyday progressives will have to continue to appeal to the Democratic minority in Congress to fight for sound policy. As we have already seen, even highly progressive senators such as Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are spinelessly approving of Trump’s cabinet picks out of fear that Trump will nominate someone worse. I understand that fear, but now is not the time for the high road of compromise. For too long have Democrats taken that road. As we now see, that is a failed and cowardly tactic.
The road to success in 2018 and beyond will have to be paved with oppositional tactics that have been proven to be successful. The Republican Party possessed only a minority in both chambers of Congress and an unfriendly president in 2008. They are now in the exact opposite situation just eight years later. This was largely accomplished through a steadfastly oppositional approach to any and all efforts of the Democratic Party. The left can employ a similar strategy to both block regressive policy and win more seats in 2018 and beyond. This is only possible, however, if the Democratic Party can act as a cohesive block.
It will take a monumental and persistent effort on behalf of voters to convince their Democratic congresspeople to adopt such an oppositional approach to lawmaking. Earnest anti-Trump activists must settle in for the long haul to 2018 and beyond; protests, donations and letters in 2017 simply are not enough. The only action that can guarantee change is voting; I really cannot stress that enough. This last and most crucial step will only get harder, however, as the Republican Party looks to manipulate voting laws even further. According to this FiveThirtyEight article, Republicans in Virginia are looking to enact a system that would make it much more difficult for Democrats to claim the state in the next presidential election. A similar system is being considered in New Hampshire and Minnesota, as well.
The ultimate hard truth is that progressive movements—protest movements included—cannot be separated from the political process if the goal is to overcome the machine that is the GOP and defeat Trumpism. It is time for the Democrats to strike a balance between the pavement-pounding of the ultra-progressives and the calculated politicking of the center left. Prospects for a united Democratic appear good for now, but time will be the true test; normalization of Trumpism is the greatest threat. Unless progressives can transform the grassroots anti-Trump movement into a coherent and institutionally supported political platform, we may as well not bother.
The views expressed in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo: "Women's March Washington, DC" by Rosa Pineda (CC BY-SA 4.0) for Wikimedia. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.