There is something dispiriting about the fact that more than 70 protesters were arrested last week for disrupting the confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s second nominee for the Supreme Court. I won’t pretend that Senate hallways are sacred precincts in which no voices must ever be raised, but the protesters cannot seriously believe that disrupting the hearings can do any good.
Let me make clear what I’m not arguing. If Democrats want to engage in dilatory tactics to try to block a vote, they’re just playing an old Senate game, not entirely polite but entirely in keeping with the body’s convoluted rules and traditions. Similarly, I’m not telling anybody who is passionate about the nomination not to protest.
I’m only suggesting that would-be protesters first figure out whether their plan is simply being self-indulgent.
Half a century ago, in his influential article “Towards a Theory of Protest,” the economist Kenneth Boulding offered a simple model that has held up well over time. “Protest is most likely to be successful,” Boulding argued, “where it represents a view which is in fact widespread in society, but which has somehow not been called to people’s attention.” Where the nation is divided, however, matters are “much rougher,” because a movement aimed at changing the society tends to give rise to counter-movements. If the tactics of the protesters are sufficiently alarming, “the net result of the protest is to move the system away from the direction in which the protesters want it to move.”
I’m not suggesting that the “good old days” were ever pure on this point. Boulding penned his essay when the movement against the Vietnam War was in its infancy. Protest isn’t the same as self-expression. Protest is theater. The protester is constantly on stage. The purpose of the performance is to advance the cause. Whatever doesn’t advance the cause should be avoided.
When I make this point in argument, the usual answer is something like this: “I should be free to say what I want” or “I couldn’t live with myself if I stayed silent.” Perfectly fair points. But an unstrategic saying what one wants or an ill-thought-out choice not to stay silent isn’t necessarily a contribution to the goal the protester supports.
Like many who write about protest movements, Boulding sets up as his exemplar the civil rights movement. And — also like many — he no doubt romanticizes the movement a bit. Nevertheless, there are lessons here. Consider the arrest of Claudette Colvin for riding in the “white” section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin’s arrest occurred eight months before Rosa Parks’, but the NAACP made no attempt to capitalize on the episode, because Colvin was considered (perhaps unfairly) a less-than-suitable icon. Nathan Heller of the New Yorker chronicles the importance of what happened:
“What is striking about the bus boycott is not so much its passion, which is easy to relate to, as its restraint, which — at this moment, especially — is not. No outraged Facebook posts spread the news when Colvin was arrested. Local organizers bided their time, slowly planning, structuring, and casting what amounted to a work of public theatre, and then built new structures as their plans changed. The protest was expressive in the most confected sense, a masterpiece of control and logistics. It was strategic, with the tactics following. And that made all the difference in the world.”
The civil rights protests were carefully structured and coordinated, because the leadership understood that it was engaging in theater and had a sense of how the theater could advance the cause.
Disrupting the Kavanaugh hearing, however, looks more like adhocracy. The protests cannot possibly do anything to derail his confirmation.
My only advice is that those who find themselves in passionate opposition stop and ask themselves whether particular tactics are likely to help their cause or constitute potentially harmful self-indulgence.
Stephen Carter is a
Bloomberg Opinion columnist.