The Efficacy of Protest, Part I
This Press Release
from the University of Washington breathlessly touts a "conclusive" answer to a common controversy: "Protests more help in passing environmental laws than working on 'inside'
." ScienceBlog posts the PR without generating any comments
, but I am dubious at best. The study being promoted is a presention made a couple weeks ago by University of Washington doctoral student Jon Agnone, in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Assocation. From the Press Release:
"''Contrary to conventional wisdom, working from the inside has not had much of an impact and, in general, public opinion doesn't matter,''
[Agnone] said. ''Most people say they are for the environment and lawmakers say, 'Yeah, yeah,' but they don't do anything unless people start protesting. Protests amplify public opinion by directing politicians' attention to the public's interest.''
. . . The actual impact of individual protest acts on whether legislation passes is relatively small, with each protest event that occurs in a given year increasing the number of pro-environmental bills passed by about 2.2 percent, Agnone said. That means in a year in which 20 protests occurred, about 44 percent more pro-environmental bills would be approved, he said.
I would really like to get a better handle on Agnone's statistics, because being able to quantify a correlation between protest events and bill passage seems highly unlikely to me. If you're only looking at a dated list of protests and a dated lists of bills passed, you are treating all protest events equally and the weight of passing all bills equally. Are we talking about benign resolutions to praise the condor or hardhitting and complex legislation to decrease mercury output from coal burning plants?
Moreover, there is nothing in this press release about how Agnone quantifies the efforts of those "working on the inside" and correlates those efforts with bill passage. That makes any comparison of the two effects weak and unconvincing, exactly unlike this declarative headline. There are a lot of people who would like
to believe that protests get a lot done, but that doesn't necessarily make it so. The fact that Agnone's homepage
opens up with an emotional quote from Howard Zinn* doesn't exactly fill me with confidence in the objectivity of his analysis. However, it may be that the UW Press Office was overstating the sweeping magnitude of the Ph.D. student's conclusions--unfortunately, I can't yet find the actual conference preceedings online.
This press release is interesting in light of a somewhat toungue-in-cheek post by Matthew Yglesias yesterday
, and the resulting back and forth of comments:
"If there's anything I hate more than the Farm Bill, it's protestors. Absolutely hate 'em. If people put all the time, energy, intelligence and ingenuity that they currently spend doing these things into boring jobs in Washington that involved ties and desks and offices then progressive politics would be about five times as effective as it is"
said Matt. Most of the responders are angry, "you-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about" types, and they make good points. Our Republic was founded in protest, and it's right there in the First Amendment
after the freedom of the press. Not everyone can get those inside jobs. Creative protest is one of the great assets of the Left. Etc. Etc.
On the other hand, we must admit that despite huge protests, Iraq was still invaded. When I graduated from Berkeley, I was more conservative than when I had started, and the local protest culture was big part of the reason why. My mother always reminds me that when one has limited time and energy (as we all do) one has to direct that time and energy in the most effective way, and think hard about efficacy. I know that this common sense is sometimes strangely hard to follow, but we should at least try instead of hiding behind platitudes. Careful sociological and economic scholars can be helpful guides in making intelligent, informed decisions about political activism--but they have to be sincere in wanting to find the best answer, and they have to use good math.
*Don't get me wrong, A People's History of the United States
was one of my high school history books, and Zinn
is a great writer and provider of information. But the whole idea of the title is that some people are more qualifed to be called "the people" than others--and those others are strongly correlated with persons "working on the inside."