Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, including thousands in Maine, participated in this weekend’s Women’s March. It was a massive show of force from those outraged by the persistent cultural and institutional misogyny in our country, exemplified by our current president and his repulsive attitude toward women.
Demonstrations of this magnitude are noteworthy, and often serve as catalysts for social change. But it’s important for progressives to understand these demonstrations are not an end in themselves.
Progressive Democrats have shown an admirable ability to organize marches and protests, especially since Donald Trump was elected. They have not, however, had success winning control of Congress or state houses, and thus have been confined to public displays of outrage, rather than actual participation in shaping public policy.
The tendencies that make progressives good protest organizers are the same tendencies that keep them from winning elections. When people are so fed up that they’re driven to the streets, they project an attitude that the process no longer matters, and their specific interests are to be elevated beyond those of everyone else.
This is, no doubt, the point of protest.
But, because they are so good at motivating their supporters to protest, progressives make the mistake of thinking the demonstrations are indicative of widespread public support. They are not.
Average people are not comfortable with angry mobs. Whether it’s the Tea Party or the #Resist movement, there is a certain level of petulance involved in protest that is counterproductive to winning over the hearts and minds of American voters.
In short, angry mob activism fails to bring about real policy change because it turns off voters.
Progressives can high-five each other for holding sit-ins at the Capitol, but meanwhile Trump is president, Paul Ryan runs the US House, Mitch McConnell runs the US Senate, and in Maine, Paul LePage is the governor. Despite progressives growing organizational prowess, they have demonstrated their way to almost complete obsolescence in the actual political arena.
Despite the many, many character flaws of Trump and LePage, they maintain a solid base of support, in large part because the alternative is so unappealing. It’s one thing to reject Trump as a cad and a liar, but it’s another thing altogether to cozy up to grown adults who think it’s productive to wear “pussy hats” or get themselves arrested in public spaces because they disagree with tax policy.
If both sides seem ridiculous, voters will gravitate toward the side they most relate to. Progressives should take note that their outward actions have caused many voters to feel more visceral familiarity with a guy who flies on a gilded jet and fraternizes with porn actresses than they do with protesters in pink hats.
What progressives should be doing is waging a reasonable argument for their perspective that will allow voters in the center to be comfortable siding with them. This does not occur through protest or civil disobedience. It occurs through picking candidates who are palatable to the majority of voters.
Every two years, voters can replace the entire House of Representatives if they choose. Voters have the direct democratic ability to determine the course of policy in our country. We are a self-governed nation, and if you find yourself alienated from those we’ve elected, it is your responsibility to wage a better argument.
Progressives can’t seem to understand that they represent a distinct minority of voters. In a democratic system, this means you will not get the opportunity to dictate the course of events. The answer to this predicament is not to yell louder, foment anger, or try to bully the majority into acquiescing to your views. The answer is to figure out why people disagree with you and introduce your perspective in a way that convinces your fellow Americans that you are right.
This is not to say protests and demonstrations aren’t an integral part of our American system. They are. In the case of the Women’s March this weekend, it’s constructive to see a public rejection of a clear cultural problem. But the march is not a win on its own. It is a team meeting of an ideologically similar group of people as they prepare for earnest engagement in our democratic process.
That earnest engagement, if it is to be successful, will respect the fact that most voters are not ready to adopt progressive policies without a reasonable appeal to the centrist majority.
Our system of government was deliberately constructed to defend our nation against the tyranny of angry mobs. Our culture has naturally followed the same course. Progressives are in the wilderness right now, despite their ability to turn out large crowds. If they continue to regard demonstrations and protests as an end in themselves, they will remain in the wilderness as a powerless but well-organized sideshow in American politics.