Protest will never be comparable to policy

Lewis Thomas 17 February 2018

Last week, we saw the “Kiss in for Rees-Mogg” in response to Jacob Rees-Mogg coming to speak at the Union.

Earlier in the academic year, we saw rallies for decolonising faculties and in support of the #TimesUp movement. These protests are good, and help put issues in the public eye. But in terms of impact, they can’t compare to sustained legislative engagement and campaigning on a political and judicial level. Getting in the headlines by protesting a situation is nice – changing the situation through practical policy is better.

Broadly speaking, there are two purposes to any campaigning movement- to raise awareness, and to enact change. The protests outside the Union against ReesMogg and outside the UL for the #TimesUp movement fulfil the first purpose – anyone walking past them will have been made aware of what was being protested and (presumably) why.

But they failed in the second: protests do not change laws, nor do they necessarily change the minds of the opponents to a policy.

A protest without engagement risks existing in a vacuum; participants feel that something is being said, and that action is being taken. But, outside the protest, little change occurs.

Legislative engagement, on the other hand, can enact real change. To demonstrate this, we can look at the Civil Rights movement in the US.

he March on Washington made excellent headlines, and ensured that the campaign for Civil Rights remained in the public eye. However, it did not lead to change by itself – change came from legislation pushed by Congress and the Presidency.

To pass Civil Rights, President Johnson did not go on protests, or hold placards in the street; instead, he compromised when necessary, did the legislative legwork (or had his allies in the House and Senate do it for him), and worked as part of a coalition to ensure that Civil Rights were achieved in the face of organised resistance from the Southern Caucus in Congress.

History is seldom made by the headline grab – it certainly wasn’t in the case of Civil Rights.

It was made by careful dealing, legislative pressure, and shepherding fragile laws and ideas through the political system. The March on Washington, or protestors standing outside statehouses, did not get the Civil Rights Act passed – Hubert Humphrey’s manoeuvring to get enough Senate votes to end Robert Byrd’s filibuster did.

Protests look good, and eases the consciences of their participants. But they cannot stand alone.

We live in a community defined by laws, and institutions of government – to enact change, we must engage with those institutions and seek to use them to attain our goals. Equal Marriage was not achieved through protests – it was passed through a parliamentary vote in the UK, and a Supreme Court decision in the US.

Looking at the current political climate, those ideas of nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia that have come to define the modern Republican Party and the Trump Presidency had a substantive effect not when their proponents started protesting, but when they worked out how to pressure legislators and put their own idealogues into legislatures (and, finally, the White House).

A movement may be virtuous. It may have widespread support. But it cannot achieve anything substantive without engaging with governmental institutions.

If you want to keep the Rees-Moggs of this world from enacting policy, don’t just hold protests and risk being dismissed or falling into a virtuous echo chamber.

Campaign for candidates you agree with; hold your representatives to account; participate in the political process in order to make the world you want. Because if you don’t, the people you disagree with will.

Don’t remain in the cell of impractical protest, salving your conscience while shouting into a void.

Bismarck said that politics is the art of the possible – it is also the art of compromise, wheedling, and legwork. You sometimes have to shake hands with the devil in order to build a world of the angels.

Words are a start. But deeds? Deeds are how you change things.