Erica Chenoweth argues that non-violent protests are more effective than violent ones in her protesting Donald Trump article. With this in mind, is a certain type of non-violent protest better than another, and can some non-violent protests actually motivate democratic erosion? This is a question that is perhaps more important today than ever before due to the large number of non-violent protests regarding the most recent presidential election. There are several factors that could contribute to a certain non-violent protest being more effective. One example is whether the protest is in response to legislation rather than individual action. In these cases, non-violent protests, specifically through the lens of American politics, are more effective when they fight legislation and less effective when they fight and individual’s action.
In January I attended the Women’s March in order to educate myself on some of the issues that were important to the people there. Though many of the women there were upset with the Trump administration and the values they appear to hold, there was a lot of diversity regarding the protested issues. Some women appeared to be fighting for social equality, some were fighting for a change in the harassment investigation process, and some were there to express their discontent with the idea of sexual misconduct.
Though these issues are connected, some might be harder to successfully protest than others. At the Women’s March I spoke to a woman named Laura, and she told me she was there because she wanted to send the message that sexual harassment is wrong and should not be tolerated, especially by political elites. Another woman and her husband said that they were there because they were fighting against the gender wage gap and the investigation process into certain harassment allegations. Both of these parties were fighting for something important to them, but one would have an easier time being successful and simultaneously resist democratic erosion.
The success of fighting legislation can be seen throughout the history of the U.S. The most well-known example is the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s hopes were to change the minds of Americans about the Black community as well as change the discriminatory legislation that infringed on minority rights. His efforts were more impactful in changing legislation than with changing individual prejudice. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 much of the discriminatory legislation was abolished but individual hatred remained. The Civil Rights movement therefore strengthened the democracy in the U.S. by elevating the voice and impact of minorities. As more citizens had an equal say and equal representation, the democracy became more pure.
The Civil Rights movement fixed many institutional inequalities, but it did not largely impact the individual hatred that most Americans expressed towards minorities. The issue with non-violent protests that try to combat individual actions or opinions is that it is a fight against subjectivity. Government officials care about public image, especially if they were elected to office. But partisan support often makes public outcry about certain actions, like sexual harassment or misconduct, not as threatening, as these officials have the defense of their party.
When Laura told me she was at the Women’s March to express her discontent with sexual misconduct, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was going to accomplish her goal. She believed that if more people who disapproved of sexual harassment were to show up and express their disapproval, real change would follow. This assumption is misguided, as simply expressing discontent for individual actions, even when public image is a factor, will not change how those individuals conduct themselves.
The married couple that I spoke to had more of the right idea. They were calling for a closing of the wage gap, something that is mandated by legislation. This type of injustice is better to focus on if real change is the goal. This method also increases the purity of our democracy because the government acting means an enactment of the democratic process. Law makers are forced to vote if the wage gap issue is going to be fixed, and if enough people protest it, officials are more inclined to act because they don’t want to be seen as ineffective in their position. They are elected to make legislative change, and making an attempt to do so is enough to convince the public that they are doing their jobs.
Officials are not elected to make personal changes, and since they often have the support of their base, these personal imperfections are less likely to be corrected. In the context of sexual misconduct, an official that misbehaves who is backed by their partisan peers will often suffer less repercussions because his/her base will try to maintain their image and preserve the official’s position. Officials accused of sexual misconduct will be met with criticism from ideological opposition and forgiveness from the ideologically similar. This will create a stalemate and eventually the issue will be pushed to the side.
Because non-violent protests that don’t deal with legislation are primarily unsuccessful as a result of the aforementioned stalemate, it causes those who try to fight it to become more of a populist movement that can actually harm democracy. To be clear, what Laura was fighting for is not wrong. She was very clearly passionate about the cause, but unfortunately what she was protesting seldom gets the appropriate attention because it is not legislative.
While non-violent protests might be more effective than violent ones, not all are successful, and those that are not usually avoid legislation and attack subjectivity instead.