Explain to me why activism is effective
April 25, 2014 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Invariably, there are problems in government that you would like to see fixed. For example, human rights issues regarding Guantanamo, or environmental issues regarding fracking. There are always people working to solve these problems by protesting, organizing people, etc. How effective are these and other methods of activism, and at what point does standing in the street with a sign turn from one person's opinion into something larger?

Take this example: I am in opposition to fracking and I sign up to be a part of the 'anti-fracking-organization' and travel to Washington DC to protest outside of the Whitehouse.
How effective is this method? Is there any way to measure effectiveness of these types of operations? What is the goal of activisim like this: is it to change the actions of those holding the reigns, or to change the opinions of people on the outside who haven't formed an opinion yet?
posted by lalunamel to Law & Government (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
All by itself, not very. In combination with other tactics and actions, yes, change happens. See the Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, ACT UP. Just for starters.
posted by rtha at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

What question are you trying to answer?

To answer your fracking questions:

1) How effective it was depends on what the goal was, and how much it contributed to achieving that goal.

2) Yes, there are many ways, depending on goals and methods. Voting records, public opinion polls, media hits, fundraising…

3) It depends on the protest.
posted by klangklangston at 3:26 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Protests without media coverage aren't particularly effective. The best thing anyone can do is to find a way to clearly explain his/her POV so that the public can easily understand why The Thing is wrong, and then get that explanation to the press, in a way that makes it easy for the press to explain that position to the consumers of the media. Standing around in front of the White House makes the participants feel useful, but I'm not convinced that the onlookers are really swayed.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:49 PM on April 25, 2014

I think you're taking too narrow a view of how activism works, as if it can only have one goal to the exclusion of all else. A big event like the one you're describing can have an impact in lots of different ways:

-It can directly affect the opinions of those with the power to make direct change on the issue. (Rep. Jones didn't know much about fracking, but now he knows more and thinks it's bad).

-It can affect the political calculations of those with power. (Rep. Jones now knows that X number of activists from his district care about fracking, and will vote accordingly, and tell all their friends to vote accordingly, and potentially give money, time and energy to his opponent if he does the wrong thing on this issue.)

-It can shift the space of political discourse by forcing politicians and the media to respond to new ideas, proposals and issues. (Rep. Jones is forced to publicly respond to arguments for a ban on fracking, which makes his previous position of unrestricted fracking look extreme and untenable.)

-It can raise an issue's salience both inside the corridors of power out on the street. (Joe Q. Public hadn't heard of fracking before, but now that he has he's going to start paying attention to arguments for and against it, and seeing which politicians take which stances.)

-It can convince undecided constituents to come around to a specific point of view. (Joe Q. Public didn't care about fracking until he saw the news coverage generated by the March Against Fracking).

-It can motivate activists and give them the connections and tools they need to build organizational strength. (Susy Activist didn't think she could make a difference, but now that she's fired up and has met all these great activists, she's going to go home and join up with some of the people she met at the march to found Springfielders Against Fracking to convince her local elected officials to oppose fracking.)

And those are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head. And these goals are usually more complementary than competing. For example, one of the measures of success for any big event is how much media coverage, which helps with almost all of the goals that I mentioned. It's also important not to look at any one event purely in isolation. Different events can succeed in different ways, or build on each other. For example, one common strategy in these types of campaigns is to hold a big rally which generates lots of attention and shows strength, and then follow up with small meetings between legislators and activists from their district. Most of the actual work of convincing happens away from the limelight in those smaller meetings, but the show of strength is essential in getting those meetings and making sure that they are taken seriously.

Even events and campaigns that seem to fail in the big obvious metrics of bills passed and policies changed can have huge impacts in less obvious ways. The Occupy protests ended somewhat ignominiously without passing so much as a city ordinance, but they generated a huge shift in the national dialogue. Before Occupy the conversation in the media and political circles centered around the question of how badly we should screw the poor in the name of deficit reduction. Since Occupy, income inequality has been a central issue in the national conversation. And local groups that grew out of the Occupy protests are active all over the country in ways that aren't grabbing huge headlines, but will be important in political battles over these issues for years to come.
posted by firechicago at 3:54 PM on April 25, 2014 [13 favorites]

Not to piggyback on the OP, but I think that they are trying to look specifically for data/metrics-driven measurement of the myriad ways in which protests can offer politics.
posted by suedehead at 4:32 PM on April 25, 2014

After listening to an adviser's well-reasoned proposal, FDR is supposed to have said “Well, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and find me a constituency to make me do it.”
Activism is largely about creating said constituency.
posted by zamboni at 4:50 PM on April 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

So, OK, there are lots of different ways to do "activism", and all of them have various levels of effectiveness depending on the issue in question. Think of it as a bag of tools.

So on the one hand, you've got a situation like the US invasion of Iraq during the Bush Administration. That was embarked upon by the executive branch and rubber stamped by congress. There was no within-the-system way to make it not happen. So in that case, your best bet is to make the people bringing us into that war look like out of touch buffoons, and make it clear that this is an unpopular war that the people in general don't want. In that case, mass protesting in the streets is effective because it's all about public opinion and especially perceived public opinion in the eyes of the media and politicians.

On the other hand, you've got something like fracking, where there are lots of things the average person can do to make it harder for companies to do it. Because there are state regulations about what kinds of industrial actions companies can take, what air and water quality standards have to be, what areas are off limits, etc. You can drive down to the state house and sit down with your local rep and register your disapproval as a member of the community. In that case, there's no real point in standing on a street corner with a sign. Go get the legislation passed, make sure the government is enforcing regulations, bring important studies to legislators' attention, write an op-ed in the local paper, etc.

As an organizer, it's important to weigh out the various tools in your arsenal and figure out the right way to protest a particular issue.
posted by Sara C. at 4:57 PM on April 25, 2014

I think it's impossible to scientifically measure how individual people's minds are changed. Especially powerful people's minds. The world is not like Nancy Drew books where the bad guy at the end shakes his fist and says, "If it wasn't for your goldarn hand-lettered protest sign, Nancy, I'd be fracking my way to the bank." Change happens gradually and people are unreliable reporters of their own motives. Read the excellent Parting the Waters trilogy by Taylor Branch if you're interested in a good history of the civil rights movement and how complex movements are in general.

But sure, it's possible to scientifically measure whether various advocacy tactics achieve external results like getting out the vote, motivating N people to show up at their local legislator's office, getting people to donate $XY in funds. Look at the 2008 Obama campaign's amazing grassroots organizing. I don't have any on hand but most advocacy organizations measure, for example, what types of emails are likely to generate donations, what types of asks to their constituents generate phone calls, etc.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 5:20 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question and it's something I've been thinking about a lot. In my opinion, if you want to learn about effective "activist" campaigns, you should look at the civil rights movement and the labor movement up to about the 1930s, when most of its gains were made. Those are two movements that made tremendous strides. It seems to me that the environmental movement hasn't had a lot of big successes since the 70s, despite the science and general public support. Of course the labor movement started in earnest in the last half of the 19th century and didn't win a lot at first, so maybe big changes have to take many decades.

In any case, if you look at the civil rights movement, you'll see that it was many faceted and it wasn't at all composed of a few big mass demonstrations with sign waving and speeches. There were many hard fought battles within that movement, such as earning voting rights for black folks, desegregating schools, and so on. Within the push for voting rights alone, you had multiple tactics such as:

-lining up at the courthouse to register to vote, day after day after day, only to be turned away each time, and bringing more people back the next day to do it again
-citizen schools, which taught people how to read so they could pass the (incredibly difficult) literacy tests that were required at the time in order to vote
-letter writing, PR and media work to spread the word to the rest of the country
-lobbying elected officials at all levels to change the laws
-protest marches
-civil disobedience
-mass rallies in big cities
-busing in white folks from the north

and so on. You have to put so much pressure on the decision makers that they have no choice but to change.

So just waving signs at a protest, even getting arrested in front of the White House, by itself, isn't going to do much. Effective campaigns have to be compelling enough that folks have a reason to take action, and they have to have many different tactics. So mass protests do have a role to play. But it's like the tip of the iceberg in an effective movement.

I would love to see someone chime in here about metrics and data, because I have been wondering about that myself.
posted by natteringnabob at 6:06 PM on April 25, 2014

It is incredibly difficult to measure how effective a certain tactic is going to be in the future. As an illustration, consider how difficult it is to assess the effectiveness of a tactic in the past, where we have the additional benefit of hindsight. For instance, would the Civil Rights Movement still have achieved all of its goals if Rosa Parks never existed? Or, would it have achieved its goals more quickly if there were some other course of action taken? Hard to say.

That's not to say that making tactical decisions about political action shouldn't be done -- it must be done if you're serious about political change.

Adolph Reed has taken the position that a lot of demonstrations today are very ineffective -- they only serve to advance the career of whatever NGO functionary organized it. No single tactic can ever serve as a stand-in for sustained, long-term political organizing.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:22 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

It depends on the activism. Something like tweeting a lot about the issue is probably not going to change many minds. Something like signing up voters and helping them get to the polls? That can actually produce a big change in government. Part of the reason Obama got elected was his ground game, which is he had a really, really good organization for mobilizing voters and getting them out there.

And it's not even that hard, it's just not flashy. Like hashtag campaigning is showing you care in a really loud public way but I don't see it getting a ton of results. A lot of "raising awareness" feels that way to me. For real results, get 10 friends and go to your local political party of choice's meetings. In a lot of places, you can be a real power bloc locally just by showing up with a few people. And then you have to run for things. But again, the problem here is everyone wants to run for President and make a grand glorious symbolic stand, not run for School Board which may only be a part-time thing and has no glory attached to it. But local elections are your farm team, your base of experienced politicians that can then move up to bigger office.

That's actually how the Republican machine works. They run for school boards and all those niggling local offices (where I live the Democrats don't even TRY to contest them), so they have an unbelievably deep bench to draw from. The school boards of, say, Texas are hugely influential in textbook selection (which is why there's all those "crazy Texas schoolbook" stories) not just in Texas but around the country because Texas is a huge textbook market. But a lot of places the Democratic Party or the Greens or the Socialists are busy working on their run to get .05% of the Presidential vote. Many time Democrats just want to, like, march into Obama's office and demand he institute full communism immediately rather than serve on the local school board.

Real, effective activism isn't sexy or flashy 99% of the time. It's not so much the one-time thing, the "I will march in this march and then there will be no more wars overseas", it's the constant, grinding day to day of making things happen.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think a lot of it's about timing - acute events converging on a slow burn before them. The Occupy protests re-articulated the critique of capitalism that's been around for ages, but hadn't been immediately important to Westerners until we felt it, at the level of the individual (the unpayable student loan, the lost house, the increasingly common shame of unemployment stretching out for months and years, not weeks). Those protests (eventually) offered a language for the desperation many people were already feeling but unwilling or unable to name. And, you remember, other than the "99%" slogan and the identification of Wall Street as a target (and a commitment to particular methods), there wasn't a crystalline focus - there were placard-waving grannie unionists in there with their concerns, right along with the students and performance artists. The media and wider public wanted protestors to name their price, and they couldn't and wouldn't, and despite that, as firechicago said, they fundamentally shifted the discourse, so that the idea of class has a presence even within the echo chambers of Fox News etc.

(I think, not a little because things were and continue to be personally and visibly awful for so many, all at once. I think people have to have suffered a while, and to know that they've done it in common ("awareness raising"), before a spark can catch. Before that moment, which I don't think can really be predicted, I think it's a lot to ask of any expression of political action or sentiment that it directly force social change. Indirectly, yes - drops in a bucket, until it overflows. [I am actively holding back other bad metaphors]. I think it's harder with environmental issues, because the pain is in the future, and disasters and their outcomes are spun in ways that affirm capitalism, e.g. blaming victims.)

That said, the right do take an organized approach to disseminating and practically moving forward their ideology, which is easy for them partly because it's so homogenous, and partly because they coopted and mimicked existing centralized/hierarchical structures (religious, educational ["institutes"], etc.), while on the centre and left, there's such a variety of interests and ideas that it's harder to work that way (and maybe not desirable).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:25 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

This question is like asking "how effective is 'doing stuff' at getting a house built?" 'Doing stuff' could mean about fifty different things, and "building a house" is a complex, multi-step process, such that "doing stuff" may or may not be useful at any given moment, depending on what "stuff" you're doing.

Take your fracking example. That's like saying "suppose I brought home 1 egg and 1/4c sugar and 2 tablespoons of milk... would pancakes get made?" Maybe, maybe not, depending on what else happens, depending on if 2 T of milk is enough...

What you're missing is that political change requires a blueprint, a recipe, a plan. And that there are many forms of activism. Ideally, a protest like you describe is part of a smart plan. But it might be just ... milk in the fridge going bad.

There are some very strategic organizations out there that are very good at making these plans. At the same time, they are up against some incredibly powerful forces supporting business as usual, so it's not going to be instantaneous, and sometimes you have to learn what works by seeing what didn't work last time. But amazing things can happen (see: gay marriage). My advice would be, don't let the lack of certainty stop you from standing up for what you believe in.
posted by slidell at 12:40 AM on April 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I think it's impossible to scientifically measure how individual people's minds are changed. Especially powerful people's minds."

You can, it's just limited in how generalizable it is. But how individual, powerful people are persuaded is very much a scientifically-measurable phenomenon. As you'd kinda expect in any discipline where there's a shit-ton of money at stake.
posted by klangklangston at 1:54 AM on April 26, 2014

I am a teacher in North Carolina and have been involved in the Moral Monday movement. Many of my fellow elementary are generally very uninterested in politics. Some of them grew up in very conservative households and vote Republican by default. Some are highly politically active and go to school board meetings and exercise their civic duty in some ways.

One thing I have noticed is that, my politically active friends' behavior seems to influence the apoliticals. For example, one of my teacher friends, let's call her S., told our group at the bar she wasn't going vote in the presidential election because it was "just too hard to pick." She and another friend at our school grew up in a small town in Ohio and said for both of them if any of their parents found out they had voted democrat it would bring shame to their family. At the beginning of this school year, several of the staff were very politically involved including some of the teachers that these women are friends with and look up to. Some of the veteran teachers wear red every Wednesday in support of the union. Our school librarian attends Moral Monday protests and speaks at civic groups, along with some other women who are pretty influential on a social level in our school.

Earlier this year, after some of the political hubbub had gotten started S. shyly sidled up to the school librarian and told her about a walkout proposal she had read about online. She said that she was thinking about sharing a petition on Facebook in support of teacher raises but was worried about what her mother would think. She started getting quite active politically, taking the lead of others at our workplace.

Essentially, activism influences the behavior of the people in your social spheres. A lot of soldiers signed up to fight the Civil War (or World War II) because their friends and neighbors were doing so and they wanted to get on the bandwagon. Social psychology research has shown that our social networks influence what we eat, what music me like, etc. etc. Our social networks also influence our politics and our politics influence our votes. Me going to a single Moral Monday protest isn't going to swing the tide of anything. But the fact is, the activism in my social network has safely won AT LEAST two votes in the next state congressional election (i.e. two votes for hardline conservatives transformed to two votes for progressives) and there were probably many other ripple effects.

The influence of activism is probably about on par with the influence of campaign commercials, or newsheadlines, or a flier. A single one is not going to fix a political outcome, but yeah, it's a pretty weighty factor.
posted by mermily at 5:13 AM on April 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Television news needs something audio-visual to show its viewers. A reporter just saying "A lot of people are against this thing" isn't any good to them. They need a lot of people -- the more, the better -- marching in the streets, confronting politicians, holding up signs, chanting slogans, staying out all night in cold weather, all because they're so devoted to the cause. Then the many thousands (millions? if you're lucky) of news viewers who see you will think and feel that a lot of people really are against this thing. It's theater but that's what television news is all about. If people wanted actual unadulterated news, they'd read the paper.

So, yes, you are being effective if you are out there and you make sure you are on the news. Just be sure to get people to take down the dumbest or most offensive signs so you aren't all made to look bad and crazy by the one loon in the group who thinks the mayor is Hitler because he is for raising property taxes, and make sure the most articulate and photogenic leaders are put in front of the cameras to offer simple, consistent soundbites for the news. And try to look good. You don't have to wear a suit, but don't look like someone who will just be dismissed as a crazy hippy protesting for the love of protesting.

As to whether it's worth traveling for this stuff, it is if they're having trouble rounding up enough local protesters or if they need people from around the country to testify that it's a national concern.
posted by pracowity at 8:39 AM on April 26, 2014

Your definition of 'effective' is off. From what you are doing, standing outside the whitehouse witha sign, your goal IS NOT to end fracking. Your goal is to make your fight visible to others.

In that sense, it's pretty effective.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:15 PM on April 26, 2014

How effective are these and other methods of activism, and at what point does standing in the street with a sign turn from one person's opinion into something larger?

You shouldn't group protesting and organizing together, really, because organizing is much more fundamental than protesting. Organizing is what underpins effective social action. Protesting is just one kind of action that can work or not depending on the situation and the goal. There's a whole scholarly literature on social movements you might want to look into, if you're really interested in knowing what makes them work and why/how they're ineffective. Sometimes the visibility of protests is merely a bellwether of popular sentiment, in which case they're epiphenomenal indicators rather than causes per se.

Take this example: I am in opposition to fracking and I sign up to be a part of the 'anti-fracking-organization' and travel to Washington DC to protest outside of the Whitehouse.
How effective is this method?

It's probably not going to get Obama to sign an executive order, but it might bring more attention to the topic and the people involved might build bonds with one another that could lead to more effective actions. But in all likelihood it won't do anything.

Activism (in the sense of making noise in a big group or spreading the word) is satisfying but rarely effective. Organizing is effective: educating and mobilizing gets things done. Making public statements about ideas and agendas is unlikely to bring about changes on its own.

Is there any way to measure effectiveness of these types of operations?

You would have to define the thing you want to measure before you can figure that out. What outcome would plausibly change after a protest which you could measure?

What is the goal of activisim like this: is it to change the actions of those holding the reigns, or to change the opinions of people on the outside who haven't formed an opinion yet?

That's unclear. People engage in activism because it's usually relatively easy and it feels good to take an uncompromising moral stance. But activism itself, without bigger plans, lots of time and resources and legwork, community and coalition-building, engagement and capacity-building with people external to the immediate group, the hard and often unrewarding reality of bringing about real social change, does little.
posted by clockzero at 3:42 PM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know I'm in the minority here, but I live in Portland and see tons of protests. I'm usually annoyed by them and think they are a waste of time.

For example, during Bush's tenure, there was a group who protested the war in Iraq every Friday in downtown Portland. For years. I worked downtown and always knew they were starting when I heard the drums start beating. They had tenacity, I'll give them that, but what's the point? "We want our point to be heard! Not my president, not my war!"

To which I wanted to respond: "We heard you last week. And the week before. And the week before. You are blocking traffic in the business district of a busy city. Do you really think that's an effective way to change minds?"

Some people might be persuaded by that kind of thing, but I doubt many are. And it might even backfire.
posted by tacodave at 4:36 PM on April 28, 2014

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