Friday, April 12, 2013

A Problem With Protests

Over at The Monkey Cage Joshua Tucker put up a great post on how to make political science research more accessible. While the video is certainly fun to watch, and quite a change from your typical scholarly article, I found that the substance of the video also makes a great point. The video depicts a scenario where a country's people mobilize to overthrow an unpopular despot and after a lot of hard work and sacrifice they succeed in ousting him. Unfortunately rather than ushering in a golden age, the new leader commits many of the same errors as his predecessor. A situation not unlike what we've seen in Egypt over the past few years with Mubarak's replacement also trying to do things like limit freedom of expression and consolidate political power. This "one step forward, two steps back" scenario has the potential over time to lead to people becoming less interested in political involvement as they see the ultimate results of their actions being replacing one crook with another. Far from creating a new form of democracy, we just get political stagnation instead.

I'd argue that we've seen this a lot in the past 20 years of progressive protests. One example I came across on the internet a while ago was about evolving views on The Million Man March. During the 90's and 00's we had period outbursts of political activity in the black community that often seemed to come out of nowhere and seemed to have the potential to cause a lot of change in our societies political and economic dynamics around race, indeed some of their contemporary chroniclers called them "a new civil rights movement." Back in 2001 Ta-henisi Coates wrote a long profile of Louis Farrakhan that highlighted his own experience with the Million Man March when he was a college student at Howard Univeristy in 1995:

During the months before the Million Man March, the anticipation at my university could have sent a small satellite into orbit. Nation of Islam speakers came to campus spreading the good word, and Howard's student association declared its support. The night before the march, Howard students convened a rally that was roundly attended by men and women. The next day I connected with a few friends and three of my brothers and walked down to the Mall to witness the greatest post-civil rights gathering of black America to date. 
Because black folks put a lot of stock in unity, the picture of hundreds of thousands of black men peacefully assembled was moving. We perceive ourselves as a perpetually fractured ethnic group and envy Asians, Jews, and white America. But on Oct. 16, 1995, no group looked more single-minded than black men. Public figures who in the past had had a rocky relationship with Farrakhan addressed the crowd--most notably Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz. Lawyers, ex-convicts, fathers, parolees, and students all swarmed the Mall. We took particular pleasure in defying all the stereotypes by not coming to the Mall and wrecking shop. For black men, it was like being a turkey all your life and getting a chance to fly for a day.
It was also Farrakhan's opportunity to fly. For years he had been shunned by the establishment, black and white. He'd been rejected as a hate-filled anti-Semite and been slammed even by the nationalists for his suspected role in the death of Malcolm X. But Farrakhan would leave the march as the undisputed President of Afro-America. Even Jesse Jackson had been forced to play second fiddle to him, and the rest of the black moderates who had tried to steer clear of Farrakhan's Million Man train were instead tied to the tracks.
Now this event was very important to a lot of people, but it's hard to see what actual political change it caused, something that Coates saw as a key role of both Farrakhan and the march. By 2001 Coates had to concede that. "Now, though, the threat of unleashing Farrakhan and his Moonie-esque minions isn't likely to leave many on Capitol Hill shaking in their boots." 

I'd argue this is just another example of the limited power of protests. So of course the protests in Tahir Square mattered and of course even smaller protests in America matter in the sense that they mattered enough to a lot of people that those individuals did the hard work of organizing and attending them. However, these protests are no substitute for the daily grind of politics.


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