You don’t have to be popular to win

Dave Powell argues that disruptive direct action tactics are more effective than public support.

In 2013, Bay Area transit workers shut down the massive train system that serves 400,000 commuters. This incredible disruption to the city’s basic function was extremely unpopular. Regardless of its unpopularity, the Amalgamated Transit Union claimed a significant victory after five days out. Some may have argued that a strike would hurt the ATU’s chances because of how many people it would anger.

Conventional wisdom dictates that if you make your cause unpopular, you will hurt it in the long run. People also tend to believe that good ideas will (eventually) succeed on their own merits. In my own union in Canadian post-secondary, this has been a constant theme. In recent years, as we began to build organizing capacity in the face of an aggressive employer, there was significant concern about language that may be too confrontational or actions that could alienate bystanders. The desire from a lot of members was to work politely through formal channels, and if we had to engage in actions, do so in a way that was appealing to the general public and minimally disruptive. After all, we were in the right, and if we phrased our position in just the right way, we would prevail.

The lessons of history teach us the opposite: you don’t have to be popular to win. Most victories in history came from disruptive campaigns that were unpopular at the time. By contrast, political movements which rely too heavily on their own righteousness fall prey to magical thinking.

The Sanders campaign aimed for success through good and righteous ideas. His signature policy, single-payer healthcare, is wildly popular in the United States. Since voting is a popularity contest, people will vote for a popular policy. Simple. The strategy was to build a movement, get Sanders in office, and have that movement force Washington to implement his policy. However, Sanders had a populist campaign, not a movement capable of applying any real pressure to politicians. When he legitimately lost to a candidate with no policy to speak of, the campaign ended. Neither candidate in the 2020 election will run on what is probably the most popular policy in the country.

The 2017 Women’s March was noteworthy for being the most well-attended protest in American history. The media surrounding it was slickly produced and constructed to maximize reach and appeal. Millions upon millions of women and allies gathered to tell Donald Trump exactly what they thought of his misogyny. It didn’t work. That one gigantic march didn’t move the needle on any of its goals, and subsequent marches have crashed in attendance.

The Civil Rights Movement was a direct inspiration for the 2017 Women’s March. JFK’s 1960 election platform explicitly noted that the civil rights protests signaled that it was time for legislation. The Women’s March was an attempt to recreate the scene of the 1963 March on Washington and get the same results. But the 2017 march was just playacting, lacking the decades of grassroots organizing and disruptive direct action of the Civil Rights Movement, which included strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts. JFK’s civil rights stance was due to the movement that predated his presidency and continued despite him being elected.

The tension between popular actions and effective ones is demonstrated in a series of polls about civil rights, starting in 1961. They show that a public which had become somewhat sympathetic to the cause felt that disruptive actions such as freedom buses or sit-ins would undermine the passage of civil rights legislation, and that peaceful picketing would garner more support. The fact the questions focus so much on whether these actions would hurt the cause is telling.

As another example, the women’s suffrage movement was a prolonged and often violent movement with significant opposition. Also, unlike Sanders supporters, they didn’t wait for the right candidate to come along. Woodrow Wilson was no feminist but was the one to finally capitulate to a movement that didn’t care who was in power. Universal suffrage was not voted for, it was taken.

It’s not surprising that successful actions from history are sanitized and simplified, the few inspiring moments detached from the reality of the daily grind. But one consequence of this misremembering is our current set of unwritten rules of protest, which center decorum over disruption.

Modern organizing efforts tend to be very concerned about optics: craft communications to avoid looking like the unreasonable party. Protest in designated areas. Push your message through establishment channels like elections. Scuttle confrontational actions to avoid offending bystanders, and instead spin inoffensive actions as knockout blows. At best these practices are handwringing. At worst they are like concern trolling, the practice of faking sympathies to undermine a cause with doubt.

Winning doesn’t come from magic words; it comes from building power and using it effectively. It doesn’t matter how right you are or how much time you spent crafting your argument. While there certainly isn’t much to be gained by being excessively offensive or destructive, effective actions almost always end up upsetting more than a few people.

In the last year or so, my union has changed significantly. One-on-one organizing and a steady stream of honest and regular communications has members stepping up to directly confront management in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The naysaying is now minimal and our outreach to members shows very strong support for the union. 

If you want to win and expand your cause, reach out to people with whom you have collective leverage, bring them on board to carry out actions, and get tangible results from those actions. Do that, and you’ll be popular with the right people. 

Dave Powell works in IT and is Vice President of the Athabasca University Faculty Association.