The Numbers Trap

Well, yes, size matters, but it’s not the only thing.

Large labor unions, the NAACP, and hundreds of other groups from the center to the left of American politics, staged their demonstration, a March for One Nation Working Together, Saturday.  Although activists estimated 175,000 the New York Times suggested the turnout might have been less than that:

Significant areas of the National Mall that had been filled during Mr. Beck’s rally were empty. In a broadcast on Thursday, Mr. Beck criticized the liberals’ march, saying his supporters paid their own way to drive to Washington, while labor unions chartered hundreds of buses to ferry demonstrators to Saturday’s rally.

Of course, the unions used their resources to build a turnout at the rally.  Beck is more than a little disingenuous in not acknowledging that his partisans did the same.  In addition to publicizing his rally on Fox, groups like Americans for Prosperity chartered buses to his rally.  (Recall that CBS estimated, with aerial photos, 87,000 at Beck’s rally.)

Organizers always try to make a statement with a large turnout, and the sheer number of rallies makes it harder and harder to generate that large turnout.  This fall, we’ve seen: Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally, FreedomWorks’ smaller Tea Party rally (9/12) (to the right), the One America rally, and the upcoming Comedy Central (Stewart/Colbert) rally.

Some union activists and Democratic partisans have criticized Stewart/Colbert for undermining their efforts to generate turnout for their rally, and potentially for undermining get out the vote efforts before the election.  And some Tea Partiers criticized Beck for stealing their thunder and undermining their turnout–and staging an event that was weak on explicit politics.  They realized that media coverage would focus on the size of the rally.

The focus on size, mostly shared by activists, puts activists in a box.  A large turnout makes it harder to hold another rally on the mall, because a smaller turnout will be read as a sign of a fading movement.

And generating people at those rallies takes lots of time, money, and effort.  Obviously, publicizing the event is a big deal, but even more difficult is coordinating logistics of sound, stage, security, and transport.

Although the turnout matters, more important is the larger effort in which the rally plays a part.  (I think of large rallies as punctuation marks in larger campaigns.)   If participants go home and organize other campaigns, a rally is a success.  If the event itself overshadows everything else, and neither message nor activism continues, it’s a sideshow.

The 1963 March on Washington, which featured ML King’s “I have a dream speech” came in the middle of a much broader and diverse set of campaigns for civil rights, which included civil disobedience, demonstrations, lawsuits, legislative lobbying, and electoral efforts.  The Dream had resonance because of everything else around it.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to The Numbers Trap

  1. Amy Hubbard says:

    Hey David,
    I went to the rally on Saturday and I have to say it was pleasant and rather amorphous. There was no clear strategy put forth – other than vote Democrat, which as you know is rather meaningless for those of us who live in the District. But if I had been an NAACP member attending with her sorority sisters from out of state or a union membermarching under the banner of my union, I might have felt differently. I think the test for whether this rally had an impact will be in what happens now that those folks are home and in a position to organize.

  2. Philip Cohen says:

    What’s a march? Not a movement. I thought I remembered Angela Davis saying this about the Million Man March, and sure enough: “the 1963 march on Washington, for example, that march wasn’t this moment that was organized against the backdrop of nothing else. It was a demonstrating of the organizing that had been going on for years and years and to assume that one can call a march on Washington [the M.M. March] and have that be a movement in the 1990s is I think a tremendous mistake.” (

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