There’s something exciting, sometimes terrifying, about people taking to the streets to get what they want. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, they gathered to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. In Athens, demonstrators set up a gallows in front of Parliament, threatening the socialist government, which was imposing austerity measures in the face of 15 percent unemployment. Most recently, in London and across England, young people have assembled at night, looting stores and burning cars to demand — well, that’s not clear yet.
Whether you’re inspired or appalled depends on your politics. Demonstrators who play to our hopes are heroes; those who challenge our beliefs are at best misguided and at worst terrorists. Regardless, those in the streets carrying petrol or placards project their anger and aspirations to an audience as broad as possible. When they’re successful, we talk about their concerns as well as their tactics.
What about here in the United States? Polls consistently show that fewer than half of Americans approve of the job that President Obama is doing, and those ratings are far higher than Congress or either political party receives. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 9 percent. There is plenty of anger in America today: anger about joblessness across the nation, about cutbacks in services in the states, about increased tuition at our universities, about economic and political inequality that seems to be increasing, and at a government that seems unable to do anything about any of this. Where are the people taking to the streets?
The closest thing to a strong social movement in the United States in recent years has been the tea party, and it demands that government do less. Lately, we hear about the tea party largely from members of Congress and candidates for office, who have drowned out and replaced the activists at the grass roots.
This is largely because although movements carry anger, anger doesn’t make a movement — organizers do. Anger helps, of course; it’s a resource that organizers can stoke, channel and exploit.
Although saints and psychopaths will take great risks in the service of their beliefs, most people are a little more calculating. People protest when they believe that something is wrong, that it could be otherwise, and that their efforts are both necessary and potentially effective.
They rarely make these calculations by themselves. Rather, they respond to those around them. Ostensibly spontaneous eruptions of political protest reflect the hard work and investment of organizers who cultivate grass-roots activism. Organizers point to a government’s provocations, focusing on the issues that they believe will spur action. They nurse both moral righteousness and a sense that it’s actually possible to get something done — both essential for sustained action. And, perhaps most important, they point to others who are already active, telling the newly recruited that they are not alone and that, together, they can matter.
There’s a long and proud history of Americans standing up for what they want, dating back, at least, to the original tea party in Boston in 1773. That tea party grew into a revolution and ultimately produced a government that would not be so easy to topple. The American political system is structured to channel anger and discontent into political institutions. James Madison, the genius behind the Constitution, envisioned a system of government that would embrace dissent and offer malcontents the hope, however distant, that they can get what they want by working through it. Protesters who start in the streets envision themselves, or at least their causes, entering the halls of power.
We recently saw how this system works in a city that bears that founding father’s name — Madison, Wis. When newly elected Gov. Scott Walker (R) began his term last fall with a budget bill that stripped public-sector unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights — and their workers of a lot of money — citizens responded. Teachers, firefighters, police officers and those who depend upon them streamed into the Capitol, staging marches, demonstrations and sleep-ins. Aided by Democratic state senators who left the state to deny the majority a quorum, they stalled the governor’s agenda and commanded national attention. Liberal activists saw Wisconsin as both the greatest threat to their interests and the best opportunity they had to build a national movement to counter the tea party.
When the Wisconsin activists lost, they turned their efforts to institutional politics, moving the battle front to a half-dozen recall elections. Rather than marching, they raised and spent money on campaigns challenging Republican incumbents, producing leaflets and television commercials, and calling on their supporters to bring their protest to the polls. Their opponents responded in kind. More than $30 million from conservative advocacy groups and organized labor flowed into Wisconsin, a kind of stimulus program for political consultants.
The Democrats won two of the six seats they contested this past week, meaning that some of the people who voted for Walker did not support his broad agenda — though not enough to flip the balance of power. Almost immediately, both sides turned to the next elections on the horizon, claiming victories, moral and otherwise, and trying to keep people engaged in their political aims. The protest in the streets has flowed into more conventional, if not more civil, politics.
What gets people out into the streets to demonstrate? It’s not general unhappiness about policy, be it on immigration or the national debt. Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren’t choreographed, but activists had spent years building the infrastructure and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.
Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.
Today, most of the organized protest in the United States has been from the right side of the political spectrum, grouped loosely under the mantle of the tea party. Conservative activists, funded by large corporate interests, have been building a movement for more than a decade. Americans for Prosperity, founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has invested in conservative ideas and activism. FreedomWorks, led by former House majority leader Dick Armey, has worked to seed conservatism at the ground level. Groups such as these have produced reports, trained and employed organizers, funded electoral campaigns, and worked the media. When public anger at the Bush-Obama Wall Street bailout bubbled up, followed by public anxiety about Obama’s health-care reforms, professional activists were ready to support and channel it. It’s not that there wasn’t conservative anger and concern at the grass roots, but it took resources to funnel it into a national movement.
There were large national demonstrations and numerous local actions in 2009 through the fall of 2010, but — encouraged by Madison’s design — efforts increasingly focused on the elections. After large Republican gains in the 2010 midterms, the grass roots became harder and harder to find, as organizers and fundraisers turned to the Republican presidential primaries.
The Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives was extremely engaged in the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations, though at the grass roots, that issue wasn’t as much of a concern. Local groups are dividing among issues, with some, such as immigration, not so urgent to the tea party’s business sponsors, who value cheap labor. They are also dividing among candidates, with some, perhaps such as Michele Bachmann, not so attractive to corporate interests that care about winning the general election.
And for the tea partyers and others across the political spectrum, there’s anger about unemployment. The situation feels much worse than the official jobless rate. Most of us know middle-aged men and women who have lost their jobs and fear they will never work again. As a professor, I routinely encounter earnest and intelligent college graduates who are increasingly desperate to find work that will allow them to begin paying off their student loans or even move out of their childhood homes. But without anything resembling a social movement, they work on formatting résumés and updating networks so they won’t stay among the millions of unemployed. Something more ambitious than that, however, takes organization.
Sometimes, as during the Great Depression, organized labor has spoken for the unemployed as well as those with jobs. In contemporary America, however, most unions have been focused on protecting their members, including funding the Democratic recall efforts in Wisconsin. As the 2012 elections approach, expect to see unions working to protect Obama, putting their differences and disappointments with him on the back burner.
And any Republican candidate with a chance to beat Obama is bound to be a disappointment to tea party ideologues. Expect to see the larger groups working to get voters to the polls, rather than people to the streets.
Frustration and disappointment are butting up against political pragmatism. Just like James Madison planned.
David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine and the author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. His blog is politicsoutdoors.com.
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