Analysis

If You Really Care, Take to the Streets – Because It Works

Harvard researchers just released some revelatory findings about the power of protest. But does that also apply to a country without a history of mass protest like Israel?

Demonstrators protesting against U.S. President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, February 4, 2017.
Demonstrators protesting against U.S. President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida, February 4, 2017. JOE RAEDLE/AFP

Protests and demonstrations are part of the political fabric of democracies. But does demonstrating really influence election outcomes? Do protests influence policy, even if elections are nowhere near? Or are they “merely symptoms of underlying shifts in policy preferences”?

Until now, the impact of oppositional behavior by the public has been a matter for anecdote and assumption. But now the actual facts are in.

Social sciences has always been plagued by the dearth of data from which insights could be extracted. It’s tricky to conduct live experiments in the humanities. Surveys can be done. Thought exercises and tricks may be carried out on the brains of psychology students, but the options are limited.

Sometimes, seemingly unrelated data may turn out to be relevant – analyzable in terms of human behavior.

A group of economists from Harvard identified just that in data on, of all things, rainfall.

In 2009, following the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, conservative tea party organizations launched protests around the United States. Hundreds of demonstrations were scheduled to take place on a specific “Tax Day,” April 15.

Marchers protesting against President Donald Trump, in Houston, Texas, February 4, 2017
Tim Warner/AFP
"Jack" joins demonstrators marching in protest against the executive order fast-tracking the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, in Los Angeles, February 5, 2017.
MARK RALSTON/AFP
Protesters using phones and flashlights during an anti-corruption protest in Victoriei Square, Bucharest, February 5, 2017.
INQUAM PHOTOS/REUTERS

As the devil would have it, the weather differed in the various hundreds of locations. Where it rained, hard, about 40% less people showed up than in areas where it didn’t pour that day.

The researchers collated the data on precipitation wherever the tea party protests were held, and cross-referenced it with information about the election results in those places; plus donations to conservative candidates, the direction of policy and legislation following the demonstrations, and the trend and intensity of media coverage.

Influencing policy

The results were unambiguous. It turned out that the more people participated in the tea-party protests, the more people donated to conservatives – and the more likely the Democratic candidate was to quit the race.

The number of demonstrators also influenced policy itself. The broader the protest, the more conservative the policy adopted for the area.

The amazing part is that the researchers even found a sort of mathematical multiplier effect. For each participant in a tea-party protest, the Republicans added 7 to 15 votes in the 2010 midterm elections. That is an impressive figure.

So, protests in the United States do have an effect on the political process – and their influence grows with the size of the crowd. And the weather, mainly rain, also has a significant effect on political policy.

That isn’t all. According to the researchers, the results shed light on the mechanism by which protest influences politics.

“Policymaking was also affected, as incumbents responded to large protests in their district by voting more conservatively in Congress,” the paper wrote.

According to political economic theory, this mechanism has two basic possibilities: either the demonstration reveals new information to voters; or there is something else that hones the protesters’ determination.

Changes in mind following demonstrations are not a one-time event, as one might think. They actually grew stronger in the two years following the protest.

Small groups of people participating in protests create growing social media circles of other people who want to act along the same political lines – which is how one protest can wind up affecting election results, locally and even nationally.

“Together, our results show that protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policymaking,” write the authors, led by Andreas Madestam: “They do so by influencing political views, rather than solely through the revelation of existing political preferences.”

It won’t rain on Israel’s parade

If this is all true, new U.S. President Donald Trump is starting his term as a lame duck.

According to the U.S. media, the Women’s March protests that began immediately after his inauguration were the biggest the United States has seen in decades. Maybe ever. Millions of people in hundreds of cities took part.

Demonstrations rocked airports after Trump decided to restrict entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Big technology companies are infuriated with him over his policy on immigration and work visas.

Less than three weeks have passed since Trump’s inauguration. Obviously, it’s too soon to say whether all these protests will affect the elections four years down the line. But if the researchers are right about the mechanism they found, these protests could be affecting Trump’s decisions, and he might be signing even crazier executive orders without them.

Can the weather in America shed light on the protest movements in Israel? Many would say no.

The United States has a different political system; it’s vastly bigger; Israel has no tradition of mass protest and, if one happens, it immediately gets cynically categorized as “left” or “right.” And the climate here is great most of the year, so that won’t affect the willingness to hit the streets.

Many Israelis feel that the wave of mass protests in the summer of 2011, over the cost of living in Israel, achieved nothing. The government didn’t change, and housing prices didn’t drop. Nor did the protests against the government’s natural gas plan cause anything to be shelved.

But it isn’t true, even if no empirical studies have been done in Israel to prove it. How do we know? Because politics and policy aren’t yes or no, black or white. The positions of voters and politicians have shades of gray. Liberal to conservative is a spectrum, and people may move along that spectrum.

Yet the Israeli protests clearly did affect political policy. They clearly impacted the subsequent two Knesset elections since 2011. Agendas changed, as did resource allocation – even if Benjamin Netanyahu remained as prime minister. The protests against the natural gas plan did change its final form, because it had originally been even kinder to the gas monopoly.

A demonstration howling under a minister’s home is going to affect his decisions more than people think, even if not that many demonstrators show up. And a viral protest on Facebook absolutely makes decision makers change policy.

So if something really, really matters to you, and you want change – hit the streets. Get out there. Protest. Demonstrate. Wave placards. Fight the good fight. Why? Because it works. Even if it’s raining.