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The Value of Protest in American Politics

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Women with bright pink hats and signs begin to gather early and are set to make their voices heard on the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. Organizers of the Women’s March on Washington expect more than 200,000 people to attend the gathering. Other protests are expected in other U.S. cities. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

I have to respond to a comment in the previous post in a full post of its own. This comment is so wrong that it makes me want to tear out the rest of my hair. I have spent countless hours on this site writing up the most in-depth discussion of the American labor movement’s history on the entire internet, not to mention all the other work I have done on social movements, highlighting both individuals and different moments of activism through American history. Right now, I feel like I have accomplished nothing. That’s because of this comment from jamespowell on the inefficacy of protest:

I recall the massive, worldwide protests against Bush’s Iraq invasion that did absolutely nothing to slow it down. Similarly, the huge Women’s March in January 2017 did nothing to slow down Trump and the Republicans.

This is just jaw-dropping, especially the second half of it. That’s not because it is wrong in the most technical fashion, it’s because it shows such little understanding of the relationship between protest and politics, what protests can and can’t accomplish, and what protests are for.

Taking the Iraq War first, no, the protests did not stop the Iraq War. Who expected them to? How can we expect them to? Who thought George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were going to be like “oh, well, I guess we should stop now.” Of course that’s not going to happen. What they did do was create a newly motivated base of opposition to the worst impulses of American foreign policy and punished politicians who supported this awful war. Specifically, it moved the Democratic Party significantly to the left on the issue and cost Hillary Clinton the nomination in 2008. Barack Obama is almost certainly not the nominee if there’s not such outrage over Clinton’s vote to authorize the war. And let’s also remember that once he became president, Obama was significantly to the left of the entire Democratic foreign policy establishment, the peacenik in his own administration.

But it’s the second half of the statement that leaves me amazed. Again, who was saying that we put a million people in the streets and Donald Trump is going to rule like Franklin Roosevelt? No one made these claims. Of course the Women’s March did not lead to the immediate downfall of the Republican Party. But to say that the Women’s March did not make a difference is just an astounding claim. First, between the Women’s March and the airport occupations when Trump issued the Muslim ban, it became immediately clear to everyone that the Democratic Party base wanted full-throated resistance to Donald Trump. Politicians who strayed from this got a serious earful, such as when Sheldon Whitehouse voted to confirm Mike Pompeo and the march after the inauguration in Providence walked over to an event he was having nearby and confronted him directly, a story that went through Democratic DC circles like a flash.

Second, look at all the women who are running for office in 2018? The Women’s March directly got thousands of women more involved in electoral politics, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who are going to work for those candidates. We are going to see not only a wave of Democrats being elected in 2018, but a wave of female Democrats. That activism comes directly out of the Women’s March.

Third, the Women’s March and these other marches, including the March for Our Lives, remind us all that we have millions of people in our camp ready to resist fascism, racism, sexism, misogyny, and every other horror of this administration. Each march raises the level of resistance to this, empowering people who are out there but also people at home.

Fourth, how one cannot connect the Women’s March to the #MeToo movement is beyond me. The misogyny that went into defeating Hillary Clinton, the horrible personal behavior of Donald Trump, the terribly sexist politics of the Republican Party–all of this went into why the Women’s March happened and why so many people showed up. The power of that march did not end when the protestors went home. It still hasn’t ended. It has led to the most direct confrontation of powerful men’s sexual predation in American history.

We don’t know precisely what all of these protests will lead to. But we know they lead to much. To say that the Women’s March was worthless because it didn’t end the Trump administration is equivalent to arguing that all the workers’ protests of the past were a waste of time because they didn’t end capitalism. Protests can only do so much. Sometimes, in certain political contexts, they can lead to a direct legal victory such as the March on Washington movement leading to FDR desegregating the defense industry or the second March on Washington movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the political context of those moments are not universal. Many times, there is no political context in which a protest movement can win a legal victory. But protest movements can do so much more. We are seeing what they can do right now, with a Democratic Party moved far to the left in the last ten years, with an absolute demand of any plausible presidential candidate in 2020 that they have resisted Trump, with all sorts of progressive policy goals now becoming mainstream in the Democratic Party. Gun control has been an impossibility in American politics in the last twenty years. Now, because of these protests, existing in the context of other large protests that have motivated people to act, maybe we are entering a different era.

At the very least, I would hope that LGM commenters learn from all the material we provide here on the connections between protest and politics, how social and political change operates in this country, and the deep political histories we provide. I don’t want to have to write more posts like this. It’s the equivalent of getting to the end of my Civil War course and a student argues that southern secession was about states’ rights. It just makes me want to weep.

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