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.