The conditions that help protest movements grow also generate institutional efforts at resistance. So, sorting out the impact of protest on policy is tough.
Scholars generally want to employ tight measures of protest movements (the number or size of demonstrations, the volume of publicity, for example), and measures of influence at least as rigorous, like measurable changes in policy or Congressional votes on a resolution. But something that matters might not be so obvious or easy to count, and influence may play out over a longer time frame than an activist or analyst hopes.
Really, I’ve gotten notes from former students who explain that they now see the importance of something we’d discussed in class a decade earlier. The recognition matters, but it won’t change any grades.
Here’s another example that makes the point:
Yesterday, in trying to puzzle out the consequences of the airport protests, I ran through reactions from government officers, elected officials, activists, and the media. I should have mentioned protest within the State Department.
Since 1971, the Department of State offers its officials the opportunity to express dissent without fear of reprisal:
a. It is Department of State policy that all U.S. citizen employees, foreign and domestic, be able to express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy, in a manner which ensures serious, high-level review and response.
b. The State Department has a strong interest in facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues within the professional foreign affairs community, and a responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty. The Dissent Channel was created to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.
Over the past forty-plus years, foreign service officers have regularly responded critically to government policies, expressing their presumably well-informed opinions. Wikipedia reports that cables are typically signed by a few committed officials; sometimes, a controversial policy might generate a few dozen signatures.
Opposition to the travel ban was far more extensive: the dissent cable included about 1,000 signatures. (Here’s a draft of the cable unearthed by Josh Rogin at the Washington Post.) People who worked in diplomacy and foreign affairs saw the travel ban as unwise and unAmerican.
Rogin quotes the memo: “We are better than this ban. Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.”
It’s hard to believe that an official would change his or her mind on policy in response to protest, but it’s not difficult to imagine that protest in the streets might intensify the sense of urgency that officials feel. Surely, it’s tougher to be the third signature than the 300th, and each signature makes the next one a little easier to collect. The official considering support might see a distant cousin sporting a pussy hat in a Facebook photo, reminded of just how provocative the new policy is.
The unprecedented opposition to the policy within the State Department was yet another factor that activists, attorneys, and even judges might consider in plotting out their next actions.
Many things can matter.