Throughout history, social movements in the United States have had major, lasting impacts.
Want an example? How about the American Revolution?
More recently, social movements from the Tea Party to Occupy to Black Lives Matter protests cause national conversations, become trending topics and grab plenty of media attention.
But do they gain enough traction to register a difference inside the voting booth? Or are they simply a blip on the political landscape?
According to Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State, it’s not always easy to quantify the effect a social movement has on voting behavior. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t move the needle.
They certainly can. If you think of the civil rights activities and movements of the late 1950s and into the 1960s, they really did activate Black voters, particularly in the North, then in the South after the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It made it possible for Blacks in many areas for the first time to register to vote and actually turn out at elections. So they can activate people. And I think the civil rights movement is probably the best example of that.
Not long thereafter, there were a lot of anti-Vietnam protests and social movements, and they again activated voters. It’s hard to know how many. With the civil rights movement, we’re talking about increased registration and turnout by Blacks in the south. You can almost track those increases from the time that those social movements started.
And if you think of the women’s suffrage movement, that was certainly one where there were peaceful marches that built the pressure over time for an amendment to the constitution to give women the right to vote.
There are a lot of things going on right now. There have been movements on the political right among conservatives and sometimes ultra-conservatives, most notably the Tea Party movement. There’s been a lot of reaction and protest marches against recent episodes of police treatment of African Americans. But there are also counter movements. What we’ve seen on the right is an attempt to sound a law-and-order theme, saying protestors are too violent.
The battle is for the 2020 election. All these movements energize people to use the primary vehicle they have for change: their vote in an election. Would they have voted anyway? Many would have. But it also may activate or mobilize others into the electorate.
Social media have been very important, as is the media in general. It has a mobilizing effect. It links people together.
These movements usually start with a spark. In the case of Black Lives Matters, the spark was a shooting. It was concentrated initially in the area of the shooting but it spread quickly through social media.
If you look at the Vietnam protests, for example, why they originated mostly on college campuses was because students were communicating face to face and energizing a movement. If you go back to the civil rights marches, why was it that African Americans throughout the South were marching, demanding their rights? The activating role was played prominently by Black churches, where ministers were communicating with one another, spreading the word, ‘We need to stand up against these violations of our basic human rights.’
There’s nothing like the ability of social media to carry the message in a broad way. It’s harder to do when people are more remote from one another.
George McGovern in 1972 was able to carry his way to the nomination for President on the Democratic side because of his anti-war stances. And in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, probably lost the presidency because of the reaction against him by people who were pro-Vietnam and the reluctance of the most ardent anti-Vietnam activists to support him.
So they do have an impact. Politicians are always very quick to side themselves with what they think is a protest or counter protest that will win them votes. We’re certainly seeing this in 2020.
Let’s say Trump wins re-election; these movements will intensify on the left. If Biden wins, I think movements on the right will intensify.
We’ve been headed in this direction for several decades. We’ve reached a point where the electorate is so polarized between Democrats and Republicans that they are seeing the world through very different eyes.
The current political campaign is going to be very divisive and very polarizing, and the polarization is going to continue beyond the election. We’re in for some very vitriolic times, unfortunately.