The Progressive Movement Needs To Drop Its Fetish For Protesting

Progressives don’t have a monopoly on avoiding introspection, but we have managed to turn it into an art form. There was a time when, upon realising voters weren’t buying what you were selling, the losing side would take stock, look at what the voters were telling them, and formulate a new strategy that incorporated the ideology that inspires and directs them but also the prevailing opinions of the electorate. It was compromise – the sort of compromise that grown up politics and government is built on. But no more. After the 2015 General Election Labour commissioned a report into their defeat which found that Labour weren’t trusted on immigration, welfare, and excessive spending. Both reports were ignored and Labour snuggled even further into the ideological comfort blanket. After the Brexit results became clear, the reaction of too many Remainers was one of bewilderment at plurality of voters who didn’t know what was good for them. There was no self-examination, no difficult questions being asked, nobody wanted know why we lost – we just decided our opponents were awful people and left it at that. The same thing happened in the US in November 2016. Indeed, across the Western world the established Centre Left parties are reeling. In France the Socialist Party came a distant third in the most recent General Election. In the Netherlands the socialists fared even worse.

Left Wingers do protests. Right Wingers do elections. It’s an old adage, and if it isn’t then it should be. The recent Extinction Rebellion protests follow a proud tradition of protesting when things aren’t going your way.

There’s a belief that our views are so evidently right that we scarcely need to bother to convince others, and that anybody who doesn’t already “get it” is either hateful or stupid. Protesting is in danger of becoming the default response to electoral rejection.

There’s a romanticism attached to protesting. From murals depicting of the storming of the Bastille to the Million Man March of the civil rights movement, Progressives have lionised protestor as a manifestation of social conscience. There’s a virtue to the act of protesting that you don’t have with the act of voting. If somebody is prepared to protest, then that person must care more. They must be more invested, more passionate, and therefore their opinions should count for more. Picking up a placard carries more emotional weight than picking a voting slip.

And the actual act of protesting is not without its appeal. You don’t need to hear anybody else’s opinion. There’s no challenge to your world view, nobody asks ideologically inconvenient questions, there’s no compromise or nuance or unwelcome scrutiny of your dogmas. You’re surrounded by people who agree with you. You’re not there to listen – you’re there to shout. It’s a singularly self-indulgent form of political expression. It’s tantamount to political masturbation.

However cathartic this is when the world is going the opposite direction you think it should, it severely hampers your interactions with those dreadful wretches outside your tribe. Our conservative opponents think we’re well-meaning but wrong, but we think conservative types are both wrong and bad. And when you think somebody is a bad person it taints everything else. For why would you want to understand a bad person? Why would you wish to examine why people are attracted to this bad person’s message rather than yours? It must be because they’re also bad people, right? We might as well write them off too. Your world quickly becomes monochrome, with you and your ever-decreasing circle peeking out from behind the ideological redoubt just long enough to shake your fist at all the bad people. Better organise another protest, pronto.

But weren’t the Suffragettes protesters? They got what they wanted. Indeed they did, but this a false equivalence. Women didn’t get the vote in France until the 1950s, and nobody ever accused our Gaulic cousins of being shy about protesting. The protests of the Suffragettes was part of a larger, broader campaign that also sought to extend the franchise to men who were previously denied it. There was debate, discussion, back and forth, nuance, respect for differing opinions, White Papers, Green Papers, town hall meetings, forums, and all the other unglamorous grind and minutia of persuasion required for meaningful change – all the dreary things our social media addled humours recoil at. There’s no instant gratification or self congratulatory endorphin hits to be had on this path. Far easier (and far more fun) just to join a protest. You can then say “you’ve done your bit”. So brave.

There’s a further point to consider. It’s not just that protesting alone isn’t enough – it has the potential to be counterproductive. The image of Bob Geldof jeering and flicking the V-sign at destitute British fisherman during the Brexit referendum epitomised what many wavering voters thought – that Remain was rarefied clique of metropolitan elites who didn’t care or understand anything about life outside the M25. This is obviously erroneous, but the image was undeniably powerful and the damage undeniably done.

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Nor are the negative impacts of protesting restricted to imagery, for certain groups seem to revel in the disruption they cause members of the public. Gluing oneself to a train may get you noticed, but it won’t win you many friends. You’re not hurting the train company, you’re hurting people trying to get home from work. You’re hurting people on low incomes getting to their second jobs and having their wages docked for being late. You’re hurting parents unable to collect their children.

There’s nothing brave or noble about making life harder for people who are struggling as it is. If you want to ‘stick it to The Man’ there’s plenty of ways to do that without negatively impacting the 99 percent you claim to speak for. Progressives need to be willing to say this too. Reticence to criticise your own side isn’t loyalty, it’s cowardice.

And this leads me to my final point. Progressives are far, far too tolerant of the trouble makers and weirdos gate-crashing protests. If you had to present a serious business case to an audience of shareholders or investors, would you get a bloke in a penguin suit to stand next to you? If you went for a job interview would you invite a troupe of white middle-class dreadlocked bongo drummers to accompany you? Of course you wouldn’t. But nearly every protest turns in to a mobile carnival. Protest organisers (if that’s not an oxymoron) will tell you it’s a festival atmosphere. But it too often looks like bit of jolly – an excuse to have a day out with your mates and smoke weed on the streets with impunity. Climate change is a serious issue. Wars are serious issues. Equal rights are serious issues. If you want to be taken seriously, look the part, act the part, sound the part. And have the courage and sense to tell the professional protestors and attention seekers they’re not welcome – this is too import for them and their nonsense.

There’s nothing wrong with protesting. The problem comes when that’s all you do. We’ve given up debating because we don’t even think there’s a debate to be had. We’ve become intellectual children, cosseted and petulant. It’s become a vicious cycle – we can’t win elections so we protest. And the protesting culture and mindset calcifies, and we forget how to fight and win elections. So we protest again. If we don’t snap out of it, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent it.

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