Looking for the best way
to change the world
Or, how do you turn
a march into a movement?
By Eric Reed
On Jan. 21, an estimated 11,000 people gathered in downtown Ann Arbor to join the local Women’s March.
Protesting national issues is a time-honored tradition in this southeast Michigan community. Whether it’s a handful of citizens picketing in front of the governor’s apartment or the sustained outrage of the ’60s, Ann Arborites young and old can be counted on to make their voices heard.
Except when they don’t.
Despite the town’s activist roots, many residents these days — especially students — debate the value of marches held in places like Lansing, much less Washington, D.C. It’s a question that plagues politicians and theorists alike: What is the value of a protest? Or, what transforms a march into a movement, and when does it fizzle into little more than a political flash mob?
It’s a story best told through two of the most high-profile protest movements in modern times: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Both started with attention-grabbing publicity stunts (the New York City campout and 18th century costumes), but only one went on to have any political impact.
And there is a lesson. Successful movements plan for when the marchers go home. For all the excitement of a protest, change is boring.
Occupy Wall Street and the mechanics of failure
For a few months in 2011, it looked like Occupy Wall Street would change the world.
When the camps sprang up in Zuccotti Park, America got the sense that something big was happening. A grassroots movement had mobilized in a way arguably not seen since the Vietnam War and civil rights era, one spontaneous and expressing a very real anger shared by large parts of the country.
Thanks to saturation news coverage, once-academic concepts about inequality and “the one percent” became part of common dialogue. The protest took on a life of its own, with little central organization or major funding, and sympathizers began setting up similar camps in cities around the country and the world. For the far left, it seemed like their time had come.
Yet while the social impact of the Occupy movement lasts to this day, from a political and legislative standpoint many consider it an unmitigated failure. As University of Michigan professor Michael Heaney observed in his book “Party in the Street,” Occupy Wall Street elected no candidates, helped pass no laws and saw none of its goals enacted into policy.
By December 2011 the camps were gone, their greatest accomplishment being to set the stage for future movements, like the Fight for Fifteen, which wouldn’t come along until years later. While much can be said about where Occupy Wall Street went wrong, at its core the movement could never transcend its own tactics. No one planned for the day-to-day work of politics beyond the protest.
“A lot of the core people were anarchists,” said Heaney. “They said, ‘We don’t want to be involved in elections, we think elections are just corrupt.’
“They had initial mobilization, and there was a lot of interest generated, but they never capitalized. Occupy Wall Street, it got its start but then they didn’t want to form sustainable organizations. (It) was very organized around certain tactics, physical occupation of certain spaces, and they couldn’t agree on much more than that.”
Despite politics in line with the left, Occupy Wall Street disavowed the kind of group identity and engagement critical to building a sustained movement. It aggressively rejected anyone who tried to make common cause, booing even Green Party leader Jill Stein off the stage at one point and sending an expletive-laced response after MoveOn.org posted a message of solidarity.
Democracy isn’t designed for people who go it alone. Making changes to a large, complicated system like the United States takes resources and organization, two things that political parties offer … and that activists living in a tent can’t.
Without institutional support, Occupy didn’t have the structure to keep people involved over the long haul and so never cultivated its own voting base. Three months after the first protesters lay down in Zuccotti Park, the movement began to die.
“It’s all about taking the energy and turning it into organization, that’s what’s key,” said Emily Ekins, director of polling with the CATO Institute. “It’s really easy to get mad, to stand on a street corner with a sign. It’s an entirely different thing to do the drudgery and the tireless work.”
Tea Party nation: How 17 percent of America governs the rest
In September 2015, Washington, D.C., was consumed by the prospect of another government shutdown, one led by the Congressional Tea Party Caucus. For several years these legislators managed to precipitate numerous debt and shutdown crises, even though at the time they had the support of only 17 percent of Americans.
How did a group that represented such a small cross section of American life come to wield such power?
It started on the ground.
“A protest movement by itself has a very hard time,” said the Brookings Institute’s Vanessa Williamson. “There are institutions in place that channel political power, most prominently the political parties, and if you can take advantage of those channels you can win elections.”
When Republican leadership saw the Tea Party as an opportunity, she said, they immediately began political alignment. Unlike the Occupy movement, the Tea Party embraced the partisan and electoral system.
“When you look at members of the original Tea Party movement, it didn’t look like a national movement at all. But what you see in the coming months is that conservative talk radio and Fox News promoted the idea.
“That media infrastructure is critically important, and it exists on the right in a way that doesn’t exist on the left.”
It’s important to understand, from this perspective, how truly unlikely the movement’s early success seemed.
Just off the heels of what has been judged by many one of the worst presidencies in history, with scandals numerous and deep, the Republican Party in 2009 was reeling. When Tea Party rallies began, coverage featured senior citizens in tri-corner hats waving signs such as “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” A deeply decentralized movement with no clear leadership structure, much of the early discussion about the Tea Party focused on questions over its racial motivations.
Yet between 2008 and 2016, the energy and politics of this movement helped Republicans not only to recover, but to collect more than 1,000 seats at the state, local and national level.
Much of that had to do with the movement’s willingness to identify with the Republican Party. According to Heaney’s research, Tea Party protesters were more than twice as likely to embrace partisan affiliation as members of Occupy. But that doesn’t totally explain it. Another critical piece was the very decentralized, grassroots organization that made the Tea Party difficult to pin down in the first place.
Major protests are hard to launch, but sometimes can come together almost organically from a shared spirit of outrage. Keeping that spirit alive, though, and turning it into electoral victories, that has much less to do with marching on April 15 and much more to do with scheduling a meeting at, say, 2 p.m. on an idle Tuesday.
To survive, a movement has to become more than a march. It has to become a hobby.
“It has to be sustained activity,” said Annie Patnaude, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing political advocacy group. “A steady drumbeat if you will. And we’ve really seen that in the state chapter and at the national level. Things don’t get done in one session. Things don’t get done in one Congress.”
As the Tea Party proliferated, it didn’t just focus on the show-stopping marches of the beginning (although those certainly continued). It set up small, local chapters that built a sense of community among members, developing the kind of social connections that could sustain the nascent movement in between major events.
From there, all they had to do was vote.
The revolution will be catered
Recently, political commenter David Frum wrote in The Atlantic that “protests are fun; meetings are effective.”
Protests can energize people and overawe governments. But it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy — and can change the world. … Collect names and addresses. Form Facebook groups. Keep in touch. Don’t argue: recruit. Meet in real space as well as online. Serve cake.
There’s a long way between a march and the polls, especially since most protests tend to happen in the wake of an electoral defeat. Channeling that energy into actual results takes two things: a coalition bigger than the protest and smart tactics. Ultimately, there’s not much revolutionary about either formula. They require doing the kind of long legwork that has characterized politics since Athens first pulled together its citizen councils.
In fact, someone who really wanted to could probably make a checklist.
Step One: Articulate a goal.
A protest, on its own, is an expression of passion. It can assemble a coalition of citizens who share little more than a need to shout, and since the goal is to make a lot of noise they don’t need to actually agree on much more.
Making change is harder. It takes long-term commitment and is best achieved under a specific, coherent banner. Instead of the mess of left, far left and far, far left ideologies that Occupy failed to unite, the best movements focus on one goal. This allows members to understand the shared project and can keep people from flying apart over unrelated disagreements.
“If you want equality based on gender then you probably need to organize based on that issue,” said Heaney, “and you need to find a way to organize with people who might disagree with you on other things.
“Because I bet you that there are some conservative women who don’t like to be sexually harassed, and I bet you that there are some conservative women who would like to be paid what they’re owed, even if they don’t agree with abortion. So can you bring those groups of women into your movement? Can you even try?”
Step Two: Build local communities. Have regular meetings. Serve cake.
Movements that fizzle rarely plan long term, a failing particularly common on the left. The catharsis offered by protesting simply isn’t enough when it comes time to make a change. In fact, as researchers from Stanford and the University of Toronto found, many of the tactics that get the most publicity on the streets actually reduce public support among voters at large.
To actually have an effect, a group needs to become a part of its members’ daily lives. Organizers need to hold local meetings, collect email addresses and build a social connection over coffee and semi-stale doughnuts.
This is a critical step because that transition allows a movement to be defined by its message, not its tactics.
“It’s really easy for people to just spin their wheels and go out and make a loud noise,” said Patnaude. “But if you don’t have long-sighted goals you just end up with a mess and people start to fizzle out. They don’t feel organized and connected. I think you can start a movement with a loud noise and I’m angry and upset, but it will fizzle out if you don’t organize around a shared goal.”
A protest represents potential. When millions of people showed up for Washington’s Women’s March, it showed energy that the right leader could tap into. Few people have the energy for sustained outrage, though. When a protester puts down her sign, there’s still work and family and finances and more, all competing for her time, all good reasons to drop out.
Movements that endure find a way to fit into daily life. They have to become normalized for both their members and the community at large, a fun thing to do on a Tuesday night. Otherwise, they end up a flash in the pan.
Try, for example, serving cake.
Step Three: Ask for more. Give responsibilities.
Properly organized movements, said Williamson, can have a “transformative effect” on those who participate. These are the groups that push down tasks to the volunteers, asking them to take on personal responsibilities. It creates a sense of ownership that connects people to the larger mission and encourages them to not only stay involved but to encourage friends and family to join in as well.
It is, she said, empowering.
“What I’d look for in organizations, in terms of the ones that are going to have a political impact, it’s the ones that ask more of their volunteers.”
The more people give to a group the more they get out of it. Whether it’s assembling a mailing list, bringing those stale doughnuts or staffing phone banks, jobs matter. “Hashtag activists” will move on to the next clickable thing, but volunteers? They keep coming back.
“The truth is, the more you ask of people and the more they invest in your organization, the more they care,” Patnaude said. “It seems counterintuitive but as a great politico said, if you want to make a friend, ask them to do you a favor. When you ask people to engage they feel more connected to your organization.”
Step Four: Write, call and visit. The little things work.
The best groups organize the old-fashioned way, and the same can be said about their tactics. A successful leader takes this local, distributed organization and starts campaigning with letters, calls and (a little less old-fashioned) social media.
“It’s got to be grassroots, and it’s got to be across the country.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, congresswoman for Michigan’s 12th Congressional District, an area that includes Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, says her office gets letters and phone calls from engaged voters … and they matter.
“I haven’t seen the emotion that we’re seeing for a long time, but quite frankly the seriousness of the issues we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. “The success right now is as organizations and people are becoming organized, that they coordinate with each other and not view each other as a threat. Identify what the common goals are and work to not hurt each other.
“I do think that a lot of people don’t understand that writing a letter, making a phone call and staying engaged on social media, that makes a difference.”
Successful organizations share this level of individual engagement, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that Occupy Wall Street failed where the Tea Party movement did not. Occupy focused on major, generational change through equivalently scaled protests.
The Tea Party showed up at town hall meetings, wrote letters and made phone calls. In a political environment increasingly dominated by turnout, these extended campaigns can demonstrate exactly what politicians respond to: a highly motivated, highly likely, voting bloc.
Step Five: Vote and run down ballot.
While keeping it local, don’t forget that most elected offices are at the town, city and state level.
“You have to do something consistent and persistent,” the CATO Institute’s Ekins said. “You have to get people elected to the school board and then the state legislature and then Congress and on up. That’s exactly what you saw with the religious right in the 1990s and what you saw with the Tea Party … and what you didn’t see with Occupy.”
“It’s where the work gets done,” Dingell said of local and state offices. “If you don’t like what’s happening, you need to get involved with what’s going on.
“Too many people for a variety of reasons haven’t wanted to get involved. We need good people at all levels of government, so if you don’t like what’s happening you need to become engaged.”
Campaigning for down-ballot elections not only has huge policy impacts, but also gives nascent organizations much-needed wins. Those small victories can build enthusiasm and sustain energy while the group builds toward its big wins. Or it can go the route of the Green Party and run for president every four years until the whole project implodes.
Make politics boring.
Ann Arbor doesn’t like what’s happening, and many citizens have remained engaged.
It hasn’t stopped with January’s Women’s March. Protesters have gathered in front of Planned Parenthood and organized “Not My President’s Day.” Still in the early days of the Trump administration, which seems virtually certain to continue fueling left-wing opposition, many liberals and Democrats are still at the stages of planning protests instead of organizations.
And while culture jams and campus marches are fine, success requires a plan beyond the picket line. As the country settles into a presidency that these protesters abhor, organizers will need to plan for the mundane moving parts of making a change. They will need mailing lists, regular meetings, letter-writing campaigns and a plan for something other than the presidency.
Politics will need to become a hobby, something social and welcoming and utterly mundane. If bringing together a protest is hard this will be even harder. But for Democrats who seek a path back to national relevance it won’t be any less important.
“I don’t think politics is going to be boring these next two years,” Dingell said. “There is so much happening every single day that your head is spinning from one day to the next, but what is important is that people not give up.
“Staying together, staying focused and not giving up does make a difference.”