How Popular Protest Protects the Policy Space

Written by: Nicholas Accattatis

Governments, in democracies at least, strive to concoct a mixture of policies which reflect the public will and satisfy their diverse interests to the greatest possible degree. Thus, people taking it upon themselves to protest – sometimes violently – is strong evidence to suggest that their government is not fulfilling this function as well as it should be. As it stands, this phenomenon has become global. In Hong Kong, protests were sparked by the introduction of a bill which would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to China. Across the Pacific, urban areas in the United States are still witnessing widespread anger and protest as black people continue to be murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Hopping over the Atlantic to Belarus, it is the sham elections which continue to grant President Alexander Lukashenko authoritarian rule over a population agitating for democratic reforms. The list is endless, and the reasons for protest appear to be diverse. Nevertheless, at its root, popular protest, whether in Hong Kong or Belarus, is caused by the same underlying reason: the people not being heard.

This is not as simple as lambasting politicians for not fulfilling election promises. Instead, it is a deeper indictment of the shrinking of the space within which political candidates articulate their positions on issues. This space can be referred to as the policy space; in its broadest form, it encompasses all the policies for which a candidate can profess their support. The reduction in the policy space can be a major source of discontent for the masses as it is generally the issues most pertinent to them that end up being crowded out. Understanding the mechanism behind the shrinking of the policy space relies on a basic understanding of collective action, or action taken by a group to achieve a common goal. Mancur Olson, an American economist, outlined a particularly pessimistic view of collective action problems since “rational, self-interest individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” He argued instead that small, organised groups of similar individuals will be more likely to overcome collective actions. In 2014, two Princeton professors in political science, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, carried out a study testing whether this theory could translate to collective action of a political nature in democracies. They found that, of the four major theories of how policies are decided in the United States, the prevailing theory is that “organised interest groups have a very substantial independent impact on public policy.” The implications of this dynamic on the policy space are of enormous significance. Since organised interest groups carry so much influence, political candidates must pay more attention to them if they want their support for re-election. Support can come in a variety of forms, none more obvious than campaign financing. As a result, only candidates which propose favourable policies on issues pertinent to a small minority of the population will be selected for election. In other words, candidates that try to incorporate issues pertinent to the masses, such as redistribution, will enjoy less funding than their minority-backed counterparts do, and thus, over time, will become less and less competitive until they ultimately drop out from the political scene altogether.

At this point, one could ask whether this problematic feature is built into democracy. It could very well be. Fortunately, democracy has another feature which counterbalances the effect of the shrinking of the policy space: popular protest. In The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist, identifies three waves of democratisation occurring at different times throughout history. Accompanying each wave is a reverse wave, as reactionary forces win back control and suppress democratic sentiment, at least for the period of time until the next wave. This concept of waves and reverse waves can be applied to the same dynamic at play between the two opposing forces – special interests and popular protest – affecting the size of the policy space. As the shrinking of the policy space inches towards a threshold, the people grow restless, and as soon as this threshold is crossed, the people take to the streets in protest. The protest is a signal to politicians and elites alike that, if the policy space is not expanded once more to include policies and issues in their interests, then perhaps these protests could lead to something even more impactful: revolution. At this point, it is in everyone’s interest to expand the policy space again to include issues pertaining to the masses. Yet, the erosion of the policy space commences almost immediately; each time its shrinking becomes more slow and methodical, and the popular backlash more intense.

            The arguments in this article are two-fold. The first offers an empirical explanation for the underlying motivation behind the protests we see today, and also those have seen throughout history. The second is a normative one; protests, although sometimes criticised for being destructive and counter-productive, are the masses’ most powerful tool at their disposal for conveying their anger towards the political establishment, and it is one which they have a right to keep and use when they see fit.

Please Note: This article should have been part of The Protest Issue – NO.21 from May 2020. If you want, you can check out the whole Issue in our Dialogue Section!

Bibliography

Akhtar, A., 2019. A world on fire: Here are all the major protests happening around the globe right now. Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/all-the-protests-around-the-world-right-now?r=US&IR=T#several-protests-are-ongoing-in-france-including-an-almost-year-long-movement-by-yellow-jacket-demonstrators-4 [Accessed November 11, 2019].

Caramani, D., 2017. Country Profiles. In Comparative Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 453–477.

The Economist, 2019. Why are so many countries witnessing mass protests? The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/international/2019/11/04/why-are-so-many-countries-witnessing-mass-protests?cid1=cust/dailypicks1/n/bl/n/2019114n/owned/n/n/dailypicks1/n/n/EU/336900/n [Accessed November 11, 2019].

Gilens and Page Gilens, M. & Page, B.I., 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(3), pp.564–581.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1991. The third wave: democratization in the late twentieth century.

Olson, M., 1965. The Logic of Collective Action and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Picture Source: https://nypost.com/2020/09/29/belarus-detains-500-at-weekend-anti-government-protests/

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