Do Protests Matter? What the Tea Party Movement Can Teach the Trump Resistance

This is how rallies grow into movements and create social change.
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Hundreds of thousands of people fill the National Mall during the ‘Restoring Honor’ event on August 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Tea party favorite and conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck hosted the event.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Donald Trump was sworn into office to the angry, chanting, defiant tune of the largest demonstration in U.S. history. A year later, we are still protesting, and in powerful numbers, as the recent marches around the globe would attest.

But rally fatigue has set in among even the most resolute of resisters who have spent a full year swimming against the deluge of chaos flowing daily from the White House. And at the front of my mind is the nagging and unshakeable question:

Does protesting really matter?

People who care about grassroots social change might be afraid to ask this question, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t all thinking it. The answer can compel us to use our collective power, or it can spread a culture of defeat and apathy. A close look at the research on the success of past protests gives us reason for optimism. There are lessons we can learn about how these rallies grew into movements, and about their inherent power to bring about change. But they’ll take us to some uncomfortable places.

On Tax Day 2009, a series of rallies were held in just over 500 U.S. cities to protest what organizers saw as wasteful government spending and promote a more conservative-libertarian political agenda. The rallies gave rise to the tea party and a political movement that over time engineered a massive right-wing takeover of Congress, transforming political leadership in this country.

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The political impact of protests remains an open question in many cases because it’s difficult to isolate it from other closely related political forces. For example, it’s hard to be certain whether it was the strength of a protest that brought about a political change, or if something else was at play, say an economic or cultural shift in society. There is comparatively little empirical research out there to sort it all out. For this reason, it is challenging for anyone to answer the question for themselves: Does it matter if one more person shows up at a rally?

In 2011, researchers at Harvard and Stockholm universities attempted to answer that very question. They came up with a way to measure how turnout at early tea party protests affected the long-term political success of the movement. The result of their work is contained in a report entitled: Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party.

Since the 2016 election, there has been an anti-Trump protest every single day, somewhere in the country.

Their technique was to use rainfall on the day of tea party rallies as a random and independent proxy for turnout. Basically, we know that turnout to public political events declines with bad weather. So, rain serves as a strong measure of protest size, independent of any other political factor that could contribute to right-wing political success, such as the strength of the tea party in the area.

They also accounted for the fact that people who lived in places where it rains a lot would be likely to go out, regardless of rainfall. The researchers then tested for political change in all of the regions where rallies were held, accounting for variation in voting trends, tea party membership and campaign contributions. They also tested for demographic differences such as household income and unemployment, other variables that would affect the size of the protests’ effects on political outcomes.

Their results reveal the political impact of the early tea party rallies, which drew between 440,000 and 810,000 people in 2009. In places where there was no rain on Tax Day leading to a larger and more robust rally, there was an increase in voter turnout in subsequent elections that favored Congressional Republican candidates. There was also a notable right-wing shift in the voting record of incumbents in those districts. That trend was consistent over the next two years, showing that the effect of the rallies on policy choices did not fade over time.

Perhaps the most significant of their findings was the rallies’ impact on voter turnout during the 2010 mid-term elections. A 0.1 percentage-point increase in the share of those protesting, lead to a 1.2 percentage-point increase in the Republican vote share in districts across the country. This means that for every additional protestor who showed up to a Tea Party rally, there was an expected increase of 12 additional votes for conservative candidates. It is estimated that tax day rallies nationwide lead to between 2.7 and 5.5 million votes for the Republican Party in the 2010 House elections.

The result was the biggest losses for the Democratic Party since the Great Depression. Republicans in 2010 took control of the U.S. House, expanded their minority in the U.S. Senate and gained nearly 700 seats in state legislatures.

Think about that: one more person showing up at a rally meant 12 more votes for Republicans. Now extrapolate that figure across the massive protests that we’ve seen since Trump took office. The 2017 women’s marches drew between 3 million and 5 million people in more than 650 towns and cities. That’s about six times the number of protesters as the tea party rallies in 2009. And marches this year saw estimates of between 1.6 million and 2.5 million people. In fact, since the 2016 election, there has been an anti-Trump protest every single day, somewhere in the country, adding up to between 5 million and 8 million people actively denouncing Trump’s policies.

Already, we see that the resistance may be yielding results.

Already, we see that the resistance may be yielding results. Last November, Democrats made significant legislative gains across the country and swept key seats in Virginia and New Jersey. Moreover, it was people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates – the very groups derided and targeted by Trump—who made the real headlines in November, breaking barriers and revealing a new and perhaps more energized electorate than we’ve seen in recent years. The election of Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate from Alabama over Trump-supported candidate Roy Moore—underscores that point.

So, is protesting effective?

You bet. But it’s important to look closely at why. While some scholars have argued that the power and function of protests is in the revealing of private views in the public realm, and thereby shifting public perception and sending cues to lawmakers, authors of the tea party study say this theory doesn’t fully explain their results.

They believe that one of the main reasons the tea party rallies were successful was the social networks they created, which built on the movement’s strength. It wasn’t necessarily just sign-waving or demonstrating itself that shifted political decisions, but the fact that people met one another, bolstered each other’s opinions, and made ongoing plans to work together to unseat their representatives. “Protests led to more grassroots organizing, to larger subsequent protests and monetary contributions, and to stronger conservative beliefs,” the authors wrote.

There’s lots to work with and a lot to look forward to.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a perfect blueprint for progressives. Grassroots organizing on the left is far less hierarchical and far less centrally funded than the Koch brothers-financed tea party. What that means is that to make use of our far more impressive numbers, we have to self-organize and remain vigilant. Luckily, follow-up action from groups such as IndivisibleSwing LeftKnockEvery Door, the Sister District Project, and a host of Independent local action groups, like the one I worked with in Seattle, offer clear avenues for engagement.

Staying connected after the protests and turning our energy into active participation and votes is imperative. Our sheer numbers and a bit of recent history suggest there’s lots to work with and a lot to look forward to with regards to the upcoming midterm  elections.

So as you cringe through the State of the Union address this week, remember that the people who showed up to tea party rallies could not have predicted that they would catalyze the largest national seat change in U.S. history in nearly 80 years.

Similarly, the millions of you who showed up against Trump all year could turn the tides and push for transformative, progressive policy change on all levels of government. But that depends on your ability to use the connections you built or deepened at the march or rally you attended.

With the 2018 primaries only months away, it may be time to trade your cardboard sign for a clipboard; invite people to town halls, make calls, knock on doors, and make sure your friends can get to the polls. All those protests will end up making a difference.