The United States government has just undergone the most abrupt and perhaps radical power transition in the country’s history, and with it comes a wave of protests planned for the days ahead. The Women’s March has gained both momentum and organization, making it poised to be one of the most consequential social movements in generations. Moreover, the force of the movement has not been confined to Washington or even the United States: as of writing this, more than 60 countries have joined to create a global call to action with more than 600 separate marches planned. What started as a critical response to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has evolved into a surge of opposition to the waves of populism that brought Trump to the White House in November.
We thus stand on the cusp of a defining moment that may well span beyond generations, and whose reverberations stand the chance of being felt for decades to come, if not at least the next four years. So it is imperative that this march be more than a chance to blow off steam, or a bit of kindling in the coming wildfire of dissent.
But what makes a protest transform into a policy shift and, by contrast, what makes protests fizzle out before they’ve even had time to take real shape? Because it is important, essential even, to exercise the right to assemble and peacefully voice our grievances as a collective for the democratic experiment to fulfill its mandate. But it is just as important, if not more important, to make sure that the movement builds into something that can be a vehicle for challenging an increasingly divisive world order.
Protest movements have a shaky history of transition into social movements, with the May 1968 Paris protests and the Occupy Movement serving as two of the most notable instances where a powerful groundswell of collective frustration failed to translate into a cohesive platform for direct action. Some have had greater success: the Suffragettes successfully lobbied for universal franchise in Western democracies from New Zealand to the US, and the American Civil Rights movement established the rights of people of color in the United States, forever changing the political landscape.
So what makes some successful while others fizzle out? Broadly speaking, there are five factors that contribute to successful social movements: organization, mission, time, opportunity, and sacrifice. Sidney Barrow, the sociologist who studied social movements and their effect on the political process, outlines a great deal more and for anyone who is interested in the more lengthy study than allows for here, the read is worth it. For all those who plan to protest tomorrow, it is worth keeping these in mind.
Social movements that succeed by something more than chance are organized. Like it or not, the Tea Party had a tremendous effect on American politics by developing small, localized information and support groups nearly instantaneously and holding regular meetings with a focused agenda on endorsing and electing sympathetic candidates into government. While operating less on a broad-based call to action platform than many social movements, the Tea Party was able to engage people who felt disenfranchised by the political process and wanted to take tangible steps to change it in their favor. The fact that they have had some heavyweight donations has certainly helped, but the fact that they were already organized with some cohesive ideas may well be what drew donors to them in the first place. And for those who proclaim the Tea Party dead, one need only look at the most influential members of Congress to unearth the foundations of the movement, and the markers of its success.
One of the most frequent complaints about the Occupy Movement, to take one example, was its lack of a clear mission. While a spontaneous (or not so spontaneous) day of action is admirable, important and even necessary, it alone is not enough to translate into a platform behind which people can assemble. The Suffragette movement was clearly defined as fighting for the campaign to secure voting rights for women, and even while internally there were divisions, (not to speak of regional and national divergences in context) the movement itself did not stray from this central goal. Social movements are led by ideas more than they are by charismatic leaders, and without a clear idea of what people are protesting for or against, the spark that brought people together fizzles.
Hindsight has a kind way of compressing events into neat packages, but the reality is much more complicated and requires significantly more patience. Successful social movements take time. The African-American Civil Rights Movement that began with Brown v. Board of Education took 12 years to achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Soweto Uprising in 1976 that most consider the beginning of the anti-Apartheid movement took 18 years to bring the system down. These are not quick fixes for broken systems, these are generations that dedicate themselves to fundamental social change. Everyone planning to attend the Women’s March tomorrow should do so with the belief that their voice will be heard, and their presence noted. But just as Rome was not built in a day, neither will a social order fall (if that’s indeed what your goal is).
For all that people can organize, articulate and dedicate, success is often left to finding (or stumbling upon) the right opportunity for collective voices to be heard and legitimate grievances to be addressed. The Solidarnosc movement in Poland gained tremendous support and had millions of dollars in funding from both state actors and non-state actors (such as Pope John Paul II) but it was not until the weakening of the Soviet Union in 1989 that they were able to take control of the political discussion and force free elections that led to Lech Walesa’s historic win. The repression that characterized the nearly ten years before the movement’s inception and its eventual victory may have been significantly longer (if it had happened at all) had the opportunity not presented itself.
Finally, the history of social movements is a history of personal, political, and social sacrifice that requires more dedication than Facebook posts and angry tweets. Social movement leaders have gone into hiding, been ordered into exile, and given up their lives for the success of the cause, and the greater the stakes, the greater the likelihood that such sacrifice becomes necessary. Indeed, groups like Las Continuadoras or Las Madres del Plaza de Mayo began with the sacrifice of their sons and daughters to repressive regimes, and many of their activists joined those lost over the course of the struggle.
None of this is to say that the Women’s March in Washington DC and indeed around the world cannot or should not be seen in itself as a significant achievement and an important moment in contemporary history. But if it is to be a counterweight to the now President Trump and his administration, it must be something more than a one-off. To make a March into a Movement is a challenge, perhaps a larger one than we have seen in recent memory. But it may be one of the last times such an opportunity presents itself, and such opportunities cannot be wasted.