While activists planned Monday’s “Medicare for All” march on Washington to channel energy toward a policy goal, some are becoming skeptical of whether large marches in the capital accomplish much at all as they are becoming somewhat routine.
With the GOP’s effort to repeal the 2010 health care law stalled, many Democrats and those further to the left are rallying around single-payer health care as an alternative. But with Democratic leadership largely opposed to the idea, activists are looking for ways to show public support for it and pressure lawmakers.
Some activists think a large march would be the perfect tool to bring single-payer to the forefront.
The “Medicare for All” march joins the women’s march, the scientists’ march, the climate march, and the immigrants’ march, among others, that have attempted to focus national attention on an issue by drawing large numbers of people to downtown Washington.
The Medicare march, as the women’s march and others did, also features events across the country, from Nome, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Members of a Washington, D.C., socialist group were among those to throw cold water on the idea of another march in a statement released Wednesday called “Marching nowhere” that appeared to strike a chord on social media.
In their statement, members of the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America lambasted the “tactical exhaustion and limited strategic effectiveness of big marches,” which they said is especially evident to D.C. residents.
DSA has seen its membership surge in recent months as anger at Donald Trump’s presidency and at Democrats’ perceived inability to counter Republicans has driven a profound move left, especially among young people. DSA has become a focal point of that energy.
What makes a protest successful?
Adrienne LeBas, associate professor of government at American University, said that waves of protest usually “emerge in a context where the normal pathways to influencing government are blocked … increasing distrust of Congress and political parties, those measures of public opinion suggest people are more frustrated with normal institutionalized ways.”
Though LeBas said that the idea of a “march on Washington” clearly has cultural and historical resonance, one of the most important things to a protest movement’s success is its ability to draw on existing organizational structures and build new ones in order to keep people mobilized for the long term.
The fact that social media has made it easier to turn out large numbers of marchers without much organizing has been exciting for many activists, but skipping the laborious organizing process could be counterproductive in the long run.
The current protest movement “will only be successful if participation is sustained over time,” LeBas said, but “these groups don’t have really socially embedded structures letting them turn people out into the streets.”
John Krinsky, political science professor at the City College of New York, said that individual marches could still have positive effects, insofar as they demonstrate “what the late sociologist, Charles Tilly, called ‘WUNC’ — claims of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.” Compared to more radical action, he said, “they aren’t particularly high-risk affairs (unless the police overreact, as they sometimes do) but they do involve showing up, making signs, etc., which is completely outside our daily routine.”
Considering Republicans are “flailing” on health care and Democrats “aren’t really doing anything in terms of providing alternatives to the ACA,” Krinsky said “there’s a good argument to be made for [the Medicare for all march], as long as the numbers aren’t so low that it harms the cause” by making support seem low.
The question of tactics
But experts say other types of protests can often be more effective.
Widespread airport protests as Trump’s first attempt at the travel ban went into effect in January show one possible avenue. Those demonstrations attempted to directly impede the implementation of the ban at airports across the country, rather than trying to influence public opinion with large numbers of marchers.
And specifically on the issue of health care, recent weeks have seen small groups of protesters putting themselves in the way of business as usual in the House and the Senate, blocking members’ offices and public areas to show their opposition to the Republican health care bill, and often in favor of single-payer health care.
LeBas said that as far as what actually occurs at a march goes, disruption of day-to-day business is an essential feature of effectiveness. In terms of a “general strike that shuts down large parts of the infrastructure and the city, with a high level of participation, that gets demands met. Highly disruptive protest gets the government to respond. The question is: How do you sustain that over time?”
Cathy Schneider, an American University associate professor studying social movements, said a citywide or nationwide general strike would be most effective, but emphasized the huge amount of work necessary to make one successful. She described a Chilean strike that “was preceded by organization of rolling protests for six months,” building enthusiasm and organization and “culminating in a general strike.”
Of course, more disorderly forms of protest risk a police crackdown. Schneider said the “draconian measures” taken against Inauguration Day protesters “really hurts” the prospect of this kind of protest, since “anyone who was kettled in a two-block radius” is being charged even though “there’s no evidence those individuals specifically engaged in violence.”
News outlets began talking about “resistance fatigue” as early as a month after Trump’s inauguration, a high point when protests seemed to be happening daily.
Protesters joked that “protest is the new brunch,” a weekly gathering with like-minded friends instead spending money on food and booze at a restaurant.
The statement “Marching nowhere” says that way of thinking about protest “captures both the low stakes of these marches and the privileged social position of most of the marchers.” Polling, as well as observing the protesters, makes clear that these protests draw a disproportionate number of attendees from richer, whiter segments of the D.C. population.
“The danger with the number of marches is that their frequency might drive down numbers and their messages might be lost,” Krinsky said.
But even a successful mass march faces major challenges if its goal is to influence lawmakers. D.C., of course, has no voting representation in Congress, and members are aware that those among their constituents who travel to D.C. to march will likely be part of a small minority of particularly dedicated activists.
In contrast, the DSA members praised protests that “exploded at the margins of America,” like Ferguson, Missouri, protests against police violence, and action at Standing Rock Reservation action against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Local marches and protests often have more impact, more visibility, and more likelihood to get people in power to negotiate,” Krinsky said.
The DSA members’ statement looks at the history of mass marches, saying those in the suffrage and civil rights movements were more effective because just holding a protest would often bring on intense police repression with the media watching.
But now, “When the right to participate has been decisively won,” the statement said, simple gathering and converging “on some symbolic or ceremonial center of power” is more likely greeted with a yawn.