Are Political Demonstrations Obsolete?

The political left loves a demonstration.  They think fondly back to the marches for this or that during the sixties, and feel that this is one of the best ways to effect political change.

We’ve seen two major demonstrations by the political left in the past couple of years.

The Wisconsin Protests

The first were the demonstrations by pro-union people in Madison, Wisconsin when the legislature was passing measures to restrict the power of public-sector unions in that state.  By most accounts, the demonstrations were dramatic and very well-attended.  But when they tried to manifest that momentum in the form of political power, they fell flat.   Most of the recall measures they got on the ballot, especially including the recent attempt to recall the governor, were defeated.  For all the fanfare, the unionists surprised no one by showing that they felt strongly about having their position of special privilege threatened, but they totally failed to convince the voters of Wisconsin that they actually deserved as much as they were being paid.

Upon launching the recall efforts, the pro-unionists loudly declared the contests to be a national referendum on the union issue, with national significance.  This brought in a huge amount of out-of-state Republican money which clobbered the Democrats.

Occupy Wall Street see my blog here

The second of these was Occupy Wall Street.  I’ve covered OWS before on my blog, most of the press about OWS communicated what I observed — that most of the demonstrators were unemployed kids who wouldn’t know credit default swaps from their own behinds.  At least in New York, they hadn’t secured permits and hence were not allowed to use loudspeakers, making communication difficult, to say the least.  There wasn’t much of a clear consensus delivered by the movement.

One problem with Occupy Wall Street was that occasionally they would march.  I’m not sure what this was meant to accomplish, but they would do it without permits, so the police would make them stick to the sidewalks, which was difficult, and sometimes there would be arrests.  The arrests convinced nobody of anything.  People who already agreed with OWS would be outraged at the arrests, while people who disagreed with the protest were hardly surprised that a barely organized mob of hippies and rowdy kids would result in occasional arrests.

A lot of effort at OWS was spent trying to manage things and just survive — getting everybody fed, making sure there was adequate access to bathrooms, finding cover when it rained.  And the protest really ran out of steam as the weather got colder.

Another problem with demonstrations is that they are a social activity.  They are seen by many people, especially those who disagree with the ends being pursued, as a big hippie party.  I remember one aging hippie sitting with a sign demanding “free medical marijuana”.  There were drum circles, and kids were sitting around meditating.  It made me wonder if the Republican party had sent undercover agents in to convince the kids that the best route to achieving political change was sitting around in a park contemplating your navel.

Many of the people I talked with at OWS were from out of state, meaning they couldn’t organize around getting like-minded local politicians elected.  We have yet to see any political consequences of the OWS movement.

The Tea Party — A Contrasting Approach see my blog here

The Tea Party, on the other hand, took a different approach.  Rather than focusing on big demonstrations, they met in peoples’ living rooms, in local groups so that the voters in a meeting would be voting on the same ballot and in the same primaries, so they could examine and identify sympathetic local politicians on their tickets.  Thus far, the Tea Party has been tremendously successful — in 2010, they achieved a huge Republican majority in the federal house, and probably would have done the same in the senate except that only 1/3 of the senators were up for re-election.  Similar Republican gains occurred at the state level.

The Tea Party was similar to OWS when it started in that there wasn’t a clear consensus on exactly what the Tea Party stood for.

What’s Wrong With Demonstrations

Only a certain kind of person is going to participate in a big, long-term demonstration.  For someone to travel hundreds of miles and camp out somewhere for a long time, they must have vehement opinions on the subject, and they must have time on their hands.  So the number of people who show up at a demonstration isn’t that much of a reflection of how the whole population feels.

A demonstration involves a lot of logistics — obtaining permits, or far worse, making do without them; all the people have to be transported there within a certain time window; most demonstrations are vulnerable to weather; and worst of all, the people who don’t agree aren’t present!  How will a demonstration change someone’s mind if they don’t come?

The Approach for the 21st Century

I think the left will stick with demonstrations — they are just too fond of them.  But they aren’t going to achieve election victories through that means.  If you want to affect votes, blogging, participating in discussions on facebook and twitter, and organizing intellectual discussion groups is really more effective.  OWS would have been a much more effective movement had they pursued the Tea-Party approach and met in living rooms rather than outside in a park.