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Why the Women’s March may be the start of a serious social movement

- January 30, 2017

This is the fourth post in our series on what social science can tell us about the Women’s March on Washington. Here are the firstsecond, and third. — TMC editors

It didn’t take long after the historically massive Women’s March on Washington (and sister marches around the world) — just one day, in fact — before skeptical commentators began asking whether this was a movement or a one-day wonder. Part of the question, as previous contributors to this TMC series have noted, was whether its many different demands and interests could be channeled effectively.

Can a movement embracing such wide-ranging goals — from protecting immigrants to stopping climate change, from racial justice and religious diversity to reproductive freedom — channel its support into sustained political action? Other recent movements, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, may have offered insight into and prominence for their issues, but they haven’t delivered major policy shifts.

Research into civil resistance (the term commonly used by nonviolence activists) suggests five reasons the Women’s March may succeed as a movement where others have failed.

1. This march drew support from many different corners of society.

Civil resistance scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan argue that the success of civil resistance hinges on its ability to bring in support from many corners of society. Having broad and diverse sources of support means that state security forces, officials, bureaucrats and police are more likely to know someone who is a member of the movement. They are, therefore, more likely to be sympathetically swayed by their message, less likely to enforce policies that go against the movement handed down by the government and less likely to take negative actions even under direct order, like firing into a crowd.

Similarly, other scholars find movements are more likely to succeed when they have members in positions of power within governments, and movements with broad reach are more likely to accomplish this.

The Women’s March drew support from a broad swath of civil society, from old guard civil rights organizations like the ACLU to the new guard like Black Lives Matter. It mobilized groups working on issues like climate change, immigrants’ rights, LGBT rights, religious and interfaith initiatives, upper-middle-class white women who felt their equality and bodies under threat, and survivors of sexual violence.

In other words, the Women’s March movement has something that Black Lives Matter and Occupy haven’t been able to harness (although the LGBT movement did): crosscutting mainstream appeal to the moderate and the wealthy. People who didn’t feel threatened didn’t mobilize for Black Lives Matter or Occupy, leaving those movements isolated in society at large. But those moderate and wealthy people feel threatened now, ready to go into the streets for principles they hold dear.

2. The march was successfully nonviolent.

No arrests were made in these marches. While that is in part because white middle-class women are far less likely to be arrested than black men or women, it does bode well for the potential for this to become a movement. Research shows that disciplined nonviolence helps a movement’s chance for success — and makes it more than twice as likely to succeed as a violent movement.

3. The U.S. has a strong, independent court system

Some of the rights people are arguing for in this movement already exist. For example, grabbing women without their consent is a crime (indeed, many states class it as felony sexual assault); same-sex couples nationwide won the right to marry under Obergefell v. Hodges; and federal hate-crimes laws protect people based on their race, color, sex, disability status or country of origin nationally.

That may mean this movement may have better success at protecting the rights of certain members of the movement than it will at protecting others. Though certainly it is possible to erode existing rights, it is harder for a government to remove rights than it is for a social movement to gain new ones.

Rights established in the law can’t be abridged or eliminated without due process of law, meaning, a fair hearing in court — and as we have just seen with the refugee travel ban, the courts are willing to step in.

Creating new law, on the other hand, or expanding legal protections to apply to a group that has been historically excluded, requires establishing precedent through the Supreme Court or through the legislature.

Studies show independent courts are critical to the rule of law and upholding democracy. Social movements have deep (and complicated) relationships with the law and are more likely to succeed in democratic countries.

Legal systems offer a valuable tool for social movements and can help social movements move from protest to policy change. While Trump’s Supreme Court appointees could alter the landscape over time, for now, the U.S. judiciary is considered to be one of the strongest and most independent in the world. Only Japan and Luxembourg have more independent courts, according to one study. That’s great news for the Women’s March and its new brand of liberal populism’s chances for success.

4. Movements need a common elevating goal.

Many have critiqued this lack in the Women’s March. Across the history of successful protest, most movements have been focused on a single issue or tightly related group of issues. In the United States, women’s suffrage, civil rights protections or the 1960s antiwar movement were all narrowly drawn.

For the people marching on Saturday, opposition to Donald Trump as president — and not a single, well-defined issue — is the unifying goal. Outrage and opposition to a sitting government have prompted a variety of movements internationally, including, recently, the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe, as well as much of the Arab Spring.

While the Jan. 21 march didn’t have a goal as coherent as toppling a government perceived to be dictatorial, what unity there was came in part from outrage at the new president’s conduct and, among some, a sense that his election was illegitimate. Unity also came in part from what was expressed as patriotism, with some carrying American flags, and marchers chanting “this is what democracy looks like.”

5. “Relative deprivation” is a powerful motivation for action. That’s the fear that your rights and opportunities will be diminished. 

Political scientist Ted Gurr, in his findings on revolution, offered the idea of “relative deprivation.” According to his model, people only revolt if the rights and opportunities they received were less than those they expected to receive. People took to the streets on Saturday not because of new issues, but because values and protections they thought they could safely rely upon were under threat.

All this suggests not a one-time eruption, but a movement that’s about to dig in.

Emily Kalah Gade is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on political violence, civil resistance and militancy.