Does protest really work in cosy democracies?

Steve Crawshaw at LSE Impact Blog: “…If it is possible for peaceful crowds to force the collapse of the Berlin Wall or to unseat a Mubarak, how easy it should it be for protesters to persuade a democratically elected leader to retreat from “mere” bad policy? In truth, not easy at all. Two million marched in the UK against the Iraq War in 2003 – and it made not a blind bit of difference with Tony Blair’s determination to proceed with a war that the UN Secretary-General described as illegal. Blair was re-elected, two years later.

After the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017, millions took part in the series of Women’s Marches in the United States and around the world. It seemed – it was – a powerful defining moment. And yet, at least in the short-term, those remarkable protests were water off the presidential duck’s back. His response was mockery. In some respects, Trump could afford to mock. A man who has received 63 million votes is in a stronger position than the unelected leader who has to threaten or use violence to stay in power.

And yet.

One thing that protest in an authoritarian and a democratic context have in common is that the impact of protest – including delayed impact – remains uncertain, both for those who protest and those who are protested against.

Vaclav Havel argued that it was worth “living in truth” – speaking truth to power – even without any certainty of outcome. “Those that say individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.” In that context, what is perhaps most unacceptable is to mock those who take risks, and seek change. Lord Charles Powell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, for example explained to the umbrella protesters in Hong Kong in 2013 that they were foolish and naive. They should, he told them, learn to live with the “small black cloud” of anti-democratic pressures from Beijing. The protesters failed to heed Powell’s complacent message. In the words of Joshua Wong, on his way back to jail earlier in 2017: “You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds.”

Scepticism and failure are linked, as the Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz made clear in a powerful video which helped trigger the uprising in 2011. The 26-year-old declared: ‘”Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful or people, I want to tell him, “You are the reason for this.” Sitting at home and just watching us on the news or Facebook leads to our humiliation.’ The video went viral. Millions went out. The rest was history.

Even in a democracy, that same it-can’t-be-done logic sucks us in more often, perhaps, than we realize….(More)”.