Protests Aren’t Movements

Ideas and Issues Organizing Protests

            Marble Falls      Supposedly, there’s more bad news, at least for those of us dedicated to making change.  It seems Harvard researchers, according to the news headlines, have studied the question deeply and have now found that “protests are failing at record rates.”  The Times reports that the “odds of success [of mass protests] have plummeted worldwide, research finds. Such movements are today more likely to fail than they were at any other point since at least the 1930s, according to a data set managed by Harvard University researchers.”  Oh, woe!

The Harvard project is part of the well-known work of political scientist, Erica Chenoweth.  They found by their metrics that mass protests are at the low-water mark.

Throughout most of the 20th century, mass protests grew both more common and more likely to succeed, in many cases helping to topple autocrats or bring about greater democracy. By the early 2000s, two in three protest movements demanding systemic change ultimately succeeded, according to the Harvard data. In retrospect, it was a high-water mark.  Around that decade’s midpoint, the trend began to reverse. By the end of the 2010s, though protests continued to grow more common, their success rate had halved, to one in three. Data from the early 2020s suggests that it may have already halved again, to one in six. “Nonviolent campaigns are seeing their lowest success rates in more than a century,” Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist who oversees the protest-tracking project, wrote in a recent paper.  The years 2020 and 2021 “have been the worst years on record for people power,” Dr. Chenoweth added.

Sigh.  What can I say.  Is this report funerary or celebratory?  I’m a grain-of-salt guy on this score.  There’s nothing wrong with Chenoweth’s project.  It’s valuable for academics and researchers to study and keep count.  I’ve read Chenoweth’s book, so I don’t completely blame her for the fact that I’ve had activists quote to me that governments will fall when they hit the magic 4% or so of people on the street along with their supporters.  Chenoweth is an academic.  If you read carefully, she has sufficient disclaimers to offset the simple takeaway formula that governments will fall if mass protest and engagement hits 4%.  Change isn’t science.  There’s no rock-solid equation that works.

Nonetheless, I do have a beef when she allows the press and her adherents to mouth these numbers as if they were related to real change.  Protests are different from movements.  In fact, even mass protests are different from mass movements.  Other observers are clear that to make change, spontaneity and social media are not enough.  It takes real organization and capacity to make permanent change.  We can’t be glib or lazy about it either.  Looking at the Arab Spring in Cairo, it was not hard to actually see the years of work that had gone into creating the opportunity, the widespread strikes by unions that made the final triggers resonate, or the organizational discipline of the Muslim Brotherhood that provided much infrastructure.  When we were there within months of the events in the square, it was also clear that change would not be coming because there was still no sustainable organization with coherent leadership and the protests were fractioning as various leaders, real and imagined, tried to make there way into politics with less than a real base.

For research in this area to be really valuable, rather than just interesting and episodic, academics need to either look for the organizers or think like organizers to understand the moving pieces beneath the mass protests.  That work will detail the hard work that leads to change, and the context that defines the possibilities once the action hits the bricks.

Short of that, we will see more headlines trivializing struggle and more superficial quotes about the ebb and flow of “people power.”