I found myself standing – marching – down Market Street in St. Louis on a cold January day for the third year in a row. Although the crowds seemed smaller than years past, it was still filled with the same spirit, the same pink hats, and the same endless women coming together in solidarity. Not only were the crowds smaller this year, but as a graduating senior, the way I experienced the St. Louis Women’s March was also different. I first noticed my change in perspective as I heard the chant, “this is what democracy looks like!” rise from the crowd. Every time this phrase is chanted, the crowd’s volume rises, the phrase vibrates your bones, and you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. While the feeling I had when I first heard the chant years ago, to the same feeling I had during this year’s Women’s March did not change, my education and political knowledge has grown and developed. This year when hearing that phrase chanted into the St. Louis air, I asked myself, “is thiswhat democracy looks like?
Navigating how to define democracy in relation to political protest: is this what democracy looks like?
The Women’s March movements started out as a protest, or kind of counterinauguration, after Donald Trump took presidency in the United States on January 21st, 2017. However, Donald Trump won his presidency in a fair, free, and open election. Many political scientists and scholars, much like Schumpeter, would argue minimality, these types of elections are all that is required for true democracy. Simply answering my question that the protests I have been participating in are not what democracy looks like. Even Huntington in his work The Third Wave ensures this, “governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable, but they do not make them undemocratic.” Therefore, if Trump is the result of our free, fair, and open election his inauguration has to be what “democracy looks like.”
Where then, do these scholars place the concept of protest in their minimalistic definitions? Is it not a key piece of democracy? While political protest is not explicitly stated in these definitions, Dahl helps to settle its importance in his work, “Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition.” He places an emphasis on public contestation and participation and their necessity in “democratization” or democracy. More specifically, Dahl’s requirements for democracy include “freedom to form and join organizations” and “freedom of expression,” two categories in which the Women’s March easily fall into. Therefore, Dahl’s definition more so answers my question in the affirmative, that yes, those protests are what democracy looks like.
From 2017 to 2019, where do the Women’s Marches fit into US democracy?
To understand how exactly these protests went from being, “what organizers hope could be a sustained campaign of protest in a polarized America, unifying demonstrators around issues like reproductive rights, immigration and civil rights,” to “one of the biggest protests in American history, remarkable not just for its size, but for its inclusive nature,” to more traditional democratic workings, a look at the organization’s mission is required. For example, the STL Women’s March posted in late 2018, “Last year we marched. This year we voted. Now, it’s time to ACT. Our 2019 mission is to inspire every attendee to take action and to provide them with the resources to immediately affect change in their lives, and to impact the greater good of their communities.” Most important here is the beginning, “last year we marched. This year we voted. Now, it’s time to ACT.” Respectively upholding the values of democracy by enacting change through political participation, including protest and voting, has led the organization to where it is – making it a vital part of our democracy.
The product of polarization: increasing both success and participation for the movement
However, another key piece of this movement’s success has to be a product of the polarized nature of our nation. While there are divisions in the movement at the beginning and now, much like the divisions during the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, it continues to develop into something new each year, as indicated by their mission. As outlined by LeBas, the importance of polarization to this movement is due to the fact that, “polarization can boost popular mobilization and sustain the commitment of activists over time, making political protest more effective and pushing elites toward institutional reform.” After the second annual march, the mission was to vote, committing their movement to further democratic norms and its legitimacy during the midterm elections. When 60 million women voted in 2018, compared to almost half that in the last midterm election, it’s easy to assume that this is likely a result of the polarization and mobilization of this movement.
Furthermore, the importance of polarization in this movement affected another key aspect of our democracy. With such strong female solidarity, these annual marches, as Stockman states, “inspired thousands of women who had never been involved in politics before to pour their energy into helping Democrats win elections this fall.” This increase in political participation and contestation in light of polarization created, “incentives for politicians to build mass organizations and political parties, which are necessary for democratic accountability in the long run” as LeBas argues. As the results of the 2018 midterm election, the mission to vote worked, with more women serving in the House and Senate than ever before.
While polarization, competition, and participation all helped to shape the democratic values in the Women’s March, standing in the cold on a wintry January day every year with thousands of women helps me to realize that democracy is not just procedural elections. Democracy, must have intrinsic value and should guarantee outputs to its citizens, or as Zakaria argues, this is not about the “procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals.” During the first year of the protest women chanted, “we’re not going away” and until our government operates as a goal achieving institution, neither will these marches. Therefore, the next protest I encounter, whether it is over old issue protests or new issue protests, when I hear “this is what democracy looks like!” I will confidently be able to say that yes, this is what democracy looks like.
This is an awesome post. As someone who has participated in the Women’s March in another city, I think that you captured the spirit of the march perfectly. The dichotomy between an orderly election and a loud, slightly chaotic march cannot be overstated. When you’re at an event like that, it is so easy to get caught up in it and become part of that group mentality. I think that the aspect of political polarization you touch on in your piece is really important to the Women’s March, because I don’t know it would be as big of a success if that didn’t play into it.
I also liked that you discussed the methods that the organizers of the March have put in place. Originally this event started as a type of protest, then it evolved to promote voting, and now it has started to push actual involvement in the legislative process, whether that is by running, campaigning, or just being educated. I think that this is the correct way to encourage people to become more involved in democracy. Because the organizers are investing in these women who are participating, they will see positive change come from it.
Thank you! Reading this post I was immediately transported to one of these women marches. You captured perfectly the questing intersection between democracy and an act that could be viewed as a protest against democracy, or at least its outcomes. I think that your point about the importance of raising voices and following it with actions is essential. In a country where the individual vote is far from having any impact protests, and the larger movements behind them, are an opportunity for democracy to carry on in a way that is not only in theory but in practice.