Brown University

The Sisyphean Constraints of a Polarization-Era Protest. By Amalia Perez at Brown University.

The steps of Rhode Island’s state house rung electric on Sept 7, 2016, as hundreds gathered in protest against restrictive immigration policy and in support of DACA-mented individuals. The feverish desire for change was palpable. Babies, grandmothers, and all ages in between were in attendance. If one were to study this moment within a perfect vacuum, it would imply that massive, unprecedented change was imminent.

And yet, the fact that the crowd of proud progressives was protesting on the steps of one of the most progressive state legislatures in the country underscores an insidious irony: the protests’ speakers, as well as the protest writ large, are preaching to the choir — are, more alarmingly, left with no choice but to preach to the choir. This underbelly of semi-conscious helplessness has imbued Trump-era protests, from the Women’s March to Providence, with a pregnant tension: everyone knew that everyone around them already knew about what was being preached.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle implicit in this echo chamber is how to disseminate this information to the “outside”, or “other half” of the country who reject its very principles. The obstacle is, in other words, hyper-polarization. And it is an obstacle that protests like this one, to no fault of their own, are unable to mitigate nor overcome, insofar as the goal of the protests is to change policies and, in doing so, change peoples’ minds about dogmas as ingrained as immigration.

This is not to undermine the protests’ irrefutably positive impact, for it fostered solidarity, safety, and community where these were previously lacking. Conceptualizing protests as having distinct internalized and externalized impacts, these benefits are internalized. And they are important. I am problematizing the structural factors — specifically, the hyper-polarization of both politics and values — that inhibit small-scale protests from externalizing their impact beyond their echo chambers.

Sunstein’s “Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide” (2009) helps make sense of this phenomenon as it relates to the characteristics of the Sept 7th pro-DACA protest. Two arguments made by Sunstein are the most relevant: first, Group polarization — wherein groups of like-minded people push individuals in that group to the extremes of an issue — is at the heart of the polarization that characterizes U.S. politics today. Second, a lack of new information being disseminated would increase the levels of group polarization, which, in turn, increases levels of both individual and social polarization.

The Sept 7th protest was, without a doubt, a group of like-minded people. This is the nature of a protest: people who care about an issue gather with others who do and take a stand against an injustice. In an era in which, according to a 2016 Pew Research Study, “Partisan divisions over presidential performance are wider now than at any point going back more than six decades”, this characteristic of protests is a structural barrier to their externalization of their message. In order to bridge the divide, both political and social chasms will need to be addressed. The hundreds of protestors on Sept 7th, while irrefutably passionate and, in my humbly progressive opinion, on the right side of justice and of history, faced chasms far too wide to bridge. A consequence of this is that their message disseminates throughout a group that was already familiar with it and already agreed with it. DACA, most everyone knew, is a form of temporary immigration status, and if rescinded would ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of largely Latinx immigrants. It would be a grave in justice. And everyone agreed on this, both before and after.

This surely contributed to the further polarization post-protest that Sunstein predicted. I had a friend afterwards say that she was considering communism to be “more and more attractive” — an indication, albeit a hyperbolic one, of her having moved even further to the left than she was before the protest. I myself even felt further left on the ideological spectrum than I had before, and I have spent two of the last three summers representing undocumented immigrants at legal services organizations.

These lessons by Sunstein offer one side of the story: that of the protest itself, and how the inherent characteristics of a protest are no match for the de jure and de facto hyper-polarization that surrounds it. It shows how the objective ideological homogeneity of the group itself, and the implied ideological homogeneity of their anti-immigrant adversaries, deepens the national divide and exacerbates polarization. Sunstein’s work, in other words, helps explain why no hearts nor minds were changed on September 7th. All hearts and minds in attendance were already in the place that the protest wanted to convince them to get to, while all of those not in attendance are the ones that need to be convinced if we, as a country, are to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in my lifetime.

The other side of the story does not concern the characteristics of the protest, but rather the characteristics of the world enveloping the protest; of those not in attendance at the September 7th protest. How does hyper-polarization operate as an external threat to an individual protests’ efficacy and externalization? This question recalls the work of Kinder and Kam (2010): ethnocentrism as a mental habit, in which there exists a predisposition to divide human world into in groups and out groups, pervades American political thought. (I want to offer a friendly amendment: it is a mental habit that pervades the political thought of those writing the increasingly restrictive, blatantly xenophobic, nativist immigration laws of the past and present.)

Insofar as said ethnocentrism is an expression of social identity — per one of the theories of ethnocentrism described by Kinder and Kam — there will be a prevailing tendency to erect distance between one’s group and the other group, even when it diminishes what is enjoyed by their own group. The adversaries that the protest is calling upon to change laws see themselves as standing to gain far more from restrictive immigration laws than inclusive ones. Building the wall is a mere physical manifestation of this deeply ideological need to distance themselves ever further from an immigration stream that has demonstrated positive economic, social, and political effects on the country. How can a protest led by the “out group” penetrate a wall (pun intended) so existential?  In short, they unfortunately can’t.

It is important to note that the readings I drew from to understand my experience at a protest were not from authors writing on resistance, as it would conventionally be assumed. They draw from authors who write on polarization; on scapegoating; on exclusion and paranoia. These are the forces that a protest is up against. These are both what a protest implicitly targets and what dictates a protests efficacy.

Protests like the one I attended on Sept 7th should keep gathering if only for the sake of the internalized benefits. DACA-mented individuals need to feel protected now more than ever. If we are going to address the hyper-polarization that threatens and undermines them, however, it will not come from protest, but from penetrating the roots of the hyper-polarization itself. Without this, protests and their external impact are doomed to a Sisyphean climb.


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