Coming around again

Matt Yglesias asks “What are Today’s Protests Missing?” Turns out he asked much the same question a few years ago, and I had some thoughts at the time about what seems to be a common feature of both the left and right: When compared to the protest of ye old days, contemporary mass mobilization is greeted by public intellectuals with a sigh and either one of a) regret that it isn’t ye old days anymore when protests were coherent and organized, or b) dismissive sneering about how the hippies have never been good for anything and still aren’t good for anything.

This time around, Matt makes a really important point, that coherence of movements often is really only sensible in hindsight:

Both Gandhi and King led movements that were committed to vaguely defined and quite sweeping visions of social change that, among other things, included opposition to capitalism and all forms of war. Their goals look well-defined in retrospect because they achieved a great deal so, in retrospect, MLK’s leadership resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Gandhi’s leadership led to independence for India. But all mass-movements are prone to ill-defined goals.

That’s a part of one of the key observations I made in response to this same thread a few years ago:

The single largest event of the period was a Washington, D.C., antiwar rally of November 15, 1969, attended by an estimated 250,000 people. A quick read of the coverage of that weekend—like yesterday’s march, it really was a series of events, not a single event—demonstrates that participants were there to take part for many reasons, although they all ended up under the anti-war banner: Students protested the draft; religious activists ranging from Catholic to Quaker participated; radical leftists were there, as were elderly women and parents with their children, as were small groups seeking violent confrontations; also present were African American organizers and advocates for the poor, protesting the war’s diversion of funds from domestic programs. This is still an oversimplified list of participants; it’s clear that while the war was the most tangible target of the protests, many grievances actually brought protesters out. Like this weekend’s march, officially organized by United for Peace and Justice, that series of events had a nominal set of organizers, but plenty of other groups also participated. In a sister protest across the country, where another 100,000 people demonstrated, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Gay Liberation Front were among notable organizations represented.

This is not to say that the context for contemporary protest hasn’t changed: Political opportunity structure is different, modes and tools of mobilization are transforming, and movement organizations are functioning in some very different ways. But we need to be aware of the reality of the good old days of American protest in order to make sense of what has changed and what hasn’t changed.


Update: Brayden King, one of my old office-mates, has more thoughts on this topic. Typically for him, it’s good, smart, well-researched stuff.