Lessons (and Questions) from the Women’s March

Measuring the effectiveness of protest movements

My view of the 2017 NYC Women’s March

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen four significant protest movements emerge. In that time period, the first was the Tax Day Protests that birthed the Tea Party movement; the second was Occupy Wall Street in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the third was Black Lives Matter in the wake of fatal shootings of unarmed black men and women by police; and the fourth was the Women’s March. As with all protest movements, there is an ongoing debate about their efficacy; the jury is still out on the “effectiveness” of the anti-war protests during the late 1960s, for example.

But what is “effectiveness” in the context of social movements, specifically protest movements? And how do we measure it?

This is the fundamental issue at stake in a recent paper published by Jonathan Pinckney , a post-doctoral research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and submitted to the 2019 Mobilization conference, entitled, “Did the Women’s March Work? Re-Evaluating the Political Efficacy of Protest.”

The paper takes the Women’s March of January 21st, 2017 as a kind of ‘natural experiment’ — a protest held all on the same day, all over the country (and the world). It notes its nominal “success” from the point of view of participation on the day, an average of 7,000 participants per protest event, an average turnout “six times higher than the April 15, 2009 Tax Day protests, which jumpstarted the Tea Party movement.” Its “size and dispersion” make it a “strong ‘best-case scenario’ test”; and because there were so many places, of so many sizes and demographics, marching on the same day, you can actually compare localities that marched with those that didn’t.

But, what are you comparing? Turnout on its own is not a useful measure of anything other than turnout. A leading critique of both Occupy and BLM is that it lacks a clear leadership and specific set of policy initiatives; the Tea Party is often critiqued as co-opted either by corporate interests or the evolving GOP rather than transforming them; and some have shrugged off the Women’s March as having little direct effect on national electoral outcomes.

This paper draws on previous social science study of the effectiveness of protests, especially non-violent protest, and identifies three factors that would indicate the effectiveness of a protest: movement building, policy-making and electoral outcomes.

While the questions of policy-making and electoral outcomes are definitely of interest, we won’t cover them here for two reasons: one is that the study is not complete and so the author did not publish the results of those metrics. The other is that we are more interested in the movement building element — it ties most directly to our interest in the triggering events, communities of interest, social infrastructure, and other elements that foster active participation in civil society.

Nevertheless, it’s worth taking the time to highlight the three hypotheses the author puts forward — because not only does he offer them, he also offers his ideas for how to evaluate those hypotheses. They are:

  1. Counties with large 2017 marches will have more ‘resistance’ activities than those without. Creation of and membership/participation in local Indivisible groups is a good indicator here because they are new political structures (Indivisible launched just one month before the Women’s March), and because their membership is comparatively easier to measure.
  2. Counties with large 2017 marches will have larger 2018 Democratic vote share than those without. This requires controlling for race, income, employment, poverty rate, and unemployment rate, as well as Democratic vote share from the previous mid-term election (2014), which might be other factors driving Democratic vote share.
  3. Representatives from districts with large 2017 marches will vote more left-wing than those without. Here, DW-NOMINATE scores comparing the 114th Congress to the 115th Congress should show leftward shifts in voting records for representatives whose districts experienced large marches in 2017.

At the time this paper was published, the author had completed only the electoral analysis and found that, nearly two years after the women’s march, counties with large marches did indeed experience greater Democratic vote share than those without, all other things being equal. While we await the results of his analysis on movement-building and policymaking, we’d like to note a few interesting observations built on previous research that emerged from the paper, relevant to our interest in the social infrastructure of civic engagement.

The author writes, citing previous work by others on the Tea Party movement, that “the power of protest comes primarily not from its ability to signal discontent to elites, but rather with the effects of protest on the protesters themselves.” It socializes participants to the attitudes of the movement, it sparks local organizing, and it sets the stage for even greater participation.

Citing work by Chenoweth and Stephan, the author notes “the importance of participation, and how large, diverse participation in protest campaigns can lead to both greater tactical innovation and more points of connection with those in power.”

In particular, he notes, “Protest participants have a powerful experience and potentially a new social network on which to draw while they engage in future political action. This level of organization and socialization can then lead to greater pressure on elected officials.”

But he also cites work done by McKane and McCammon in 2018 that found “that marches were most likely to occur in Democratic cities in predominately Republican states, and in places with a large existing social movement organization infrastructure, however the effects of these variables are fairly small.”

While we’re anxious to read the results of the completed study, we want to share with you some of our reflections on the hypotheses put forward here, and what it means for other forms of political or civic participation.

  • We need to understand more about what a “social movement organization infrastructure” is and how one is formed. What are the networks of influence and collaboration that make up that infrastructure? Who leads them? How do people join them? What is expected of them? How developed should they be to get people who are not usually politically active involved?
  • Did you need to actually attend the protest to get involved, or was simply living in an area where a big enough march occurred enough? That is, how direct does your first contact with an issue, cause, campaign or organization have to be in order to bring you into the organization as a member?
  • What happened to people who attended the march, but then did not engage in any further action? What causes the funnel to leak?
  • What happened to people who didn’t attend the march, but then joined an Indivisible group, or ran for office, or so on?
  • How do participants understand their participation — do they see themselves as members of a movement, or simply as having shown up? What stories do they tell themselves about the role they played (or didn’t play)?
  • What do we make, in general, of the expectation that one type of civic or political action should lead to a “leveling up” of participation — that marching leads to organizing leads to running, for example? What is the role of lighter-weight involvement or interest?

With a natural experiment like the Women’s March, it’s hard not to fantasize about having the presence of mind to study it in real time (as I’m sure many political scientists and anthropologists did). If I could travel back in time, I’d ask people on their way home from a march in 2017, “What is next for you? What role will you play in this cause?” and then track their involvement over time, understanding their journey toward, through, as part of, and away from the movement.

I’ll close with a personal story. I took my mother and husband to the NYC Women’s March in 2017. Since then, I’ve given money to a variety of groups and candidates. I left a couple of voice mails for Paul Ryan about healthcare. I did a bit of text-banking ahead of the November 2018 elections. I updated my registration and have voted in every possible election since November 2016 (previously I’d voted during national mid-terms and general elections, now I vote in all local elections and primaries).

But I never did join an Indivisible chapter or a Sister District group; I’ve not yet volunteered for a campaign or candidate. As a result, I don’t entirely think of myself as part of the movement — somehow, I don’t feel like I have the resume to ‘belong’ to it. I’m not entirely sure why — perhaps its my own sense of being on the outside, somehow, that fuels my interest in how other people come to be part of communities working to better civil society.

As a general matter, we think the “ladder” metaphor of civic participation is flawed — it is often used to privilege voting as the pivotal behavior of civic life, when we know there are many vital ways that people express themselves as citizens and constituents; it also suggests that there is some idealized state that surpasses voting. We think the ladder metaphor suggests civic participation can only move upward or get stuck; we think the reality is more meandering, more networked, more iterative, and that ranking some forms of participation more highly undermines investment in other forms of participation that are essential to civil society.

In understanding that journey from others’ points of view, perhaps I can understand my own. More importantly, we’d like to use this understanding to help light the way for others who’d like to be part of something in civic life, or who’d like to bring people in to a civil society organization — but don’t know how or for what purpose, or are in some small way afraid to make the leap.



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