Political theater, democracy “in the streets” — it’s supposed to feel like the 1960s again.
The high so far was likely the impassioned but mostly orderly march in Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Drawing a half-million people, it included a broad range of participants. The low came not quite two weeks later, when 100 or so masked militants disrupted an appearance by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, forcing administrators to lock down the campus.
The backlash began almost immediately. Trump threatened to cut off Berkeley’s federal funding, and Republican legislators in as many as 10 states have introduced bills to curtail certain forms of protest.
Some of those sympathetic to the anti-Trump movement cautioned that even the peaceful protests are futile and may backfire. “Your demonstrations are engineered to fail,” wrote the journalist David Frum, an outspoken conservative critic of Trump’s.
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The question is, when can protest politics actually work? Here, the 1960s may offer a model, if we look at two examples: the civil rights movement and the conservative movement.
Both had big successes in the 60s. Carefully planned demonstrations against Jim Crow laws in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
In the same period, campus activists in the Young Americans for Freedom helped revitalize the Republican Party through events like the Conservative Rally for World Liberation, which drew more than 18,000 people to Madison Square Garden in 1962. It made a star of the featured speaker, Sen. Barry Goldwater, who went on to capture the Republican nomination two years later.
Leaders in both groups conceived their demonstrations less as protests against (an unpopular president, “the establishment”) than as campaigns for (racial equality, a more ideologically rigorous conservatism). They forged alliances with politicians who espoused similar ideas, then tried to prod them toward stronger action.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approved the strategy of including young children in the Birmingham protests, he calculated that the brutal response of the local police, who loosed dogs and high-pressure hoses on the children, would expose the underlying lawlessness of Southern authorities. The message came through to President John F. Kennedy, who made a speech calling for new laws that would grant African Americans equal justice and opportunity. “Birmingham Strife Spotlights Kennedy Civil Rights Approach” read a typical headline from the time.
Right-wing activists also looked to more established figures. In 1960 about 100 young conservatives, most of them college students, gathered on the Connecticut family estate of a 34-year-old elder, William F. Buckley Jr., and approved their founding document, the Sharon Statement. Instead of rallying behind a third party — always a strong temptation on the right — they supported conservative Republicans like Goldwater and John Tower of Texas.
By working within the party, and helping conservatives gain control of it, they showed how “organized and dedicated conservative youth can materially affect the course of political events,” the YAF chairman, a student at Yale Law School, explained.
The Sharon Statement itself was a skeletal list of conservative principles — anti-Communist and pro-market. It was less stirring than the Port Huron Statement, adopted in 1962 by the Students for a Democratic Society, with its Camus-tinged references to “loneliness, estrangement, isolation,” and its vision of a new leftist politics that might also guide the young toward “finding meaning in personal life.”
But it was the more practical approach that yielded results.
An example came in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965, a pivotal episode in the decade’s protest politics. When administrators would not allow students to hand out leaflets and fliers on a busy campus plaza, conservative students joined with leftist ones in the call for free speech.
Eventually some on the left embraced ever-more aggressive tactics, including clashes with the police and even bomb-building. But young conservatives stuck to electoral politics. Some worked on Buckley’s run for mayor of New York City in 1965. Others found a new and more electable Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, whose ascendancy in California in 1966 was closely tied to citizens’ anger over the unrest at Berkeley.
The same left-right differences resurfaced in the Obama years. The opposing models then were the tea party insurgency and the Occupy Movement. With their slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” Occupiers had some early success. They made income inequality an issue and inspired Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
But with his loss, protesters withdrew from broader politics or adopted fiercely adversarial views. Hillary Clinton “is a true enemy of the people,” the Occupy website declared at the time of the Democratic National Convention. “Her lies have infected the body politic of our global community.” Today the site boasts of being “a leaderless resistance movement” and highlights the accomplishments of a member who directs “an activist think tank specializing in impossible campaigns.”
This purism resembles that of the 1960s Berkeley organizer who later vowed, “The day I tone down is when we have a Marxist-Leninist revolution and justice for all the people.”
Compare this with tea party rebels. They too began as “take it to the street” dissidents, with their anti-tax rallies, the tricorns, their placards with caricatures of Barack Obama, their disruptions of town-hall meetings. But many soon educated themselves on constitutional issues. Some got involved in practical politics with strong results.
Tea party groups helped sweep in a new generation of national politicians, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee and Rand Paul. Tea party principles also helped create the powerful Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives. (Once in power, many continued to act like insurgents, repeatedly challenging the Republican leadership.)
Many would-be activists are now studying the Google document “Indivisible.” Put together by former congressional staffers, it includes a list of tea party successes (from changing votes in Congress to helping elect conservative Republicans) and argues that progressives can do the same.
This isn’t to say that careful protests are guaranteed to work or that gains come quickly. Most of us think of the civil rights march on Washington in August 1963, highlighted by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” as a peak moment in American history. At the time it was met with skepticism from many whites. After the Civil Rights Act passed a year later, just over 50 percent of people polled in one survey approved of the legislation, and only a third opposed it.
A parallel example of protest strategy today might be with Trump’s travel ban. Crowds thronged airports and courthouses. Civil-liberties lawyers filed briefs, and federal judges responded. But it’s not clear how many minds, if any, were changed. Trump supporters, many of whom voted for him because his anti-immigrant stand, favor the ban, as does about half the public at large.
Nevertheless, the protests could have a lasting effect. What began as a show of solidarity with the targeted refugees and immigrants evolved into a test of the separation of powers and a robust debate about executive orders and the power, and limits, of the presidency to interpret broad national policy.
These questions go to the heart of U.S. democracy, just like the questions asked by the great early protesters who founded the American Republic. The most effective protests have usually celebrated American principle and tradition.
The dawning Age of Trump may offer many more occasions for dissenters to do so again.
Sam Tanenhaus is the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers.” He wrote this for Bloomberg View. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.