What Can the March for Racial Justice Teach Us About Democracy? by Dakota Fenn @ Brown University
On October 1st, nearly 11 months after the 2016 presidential election, I attended the “March for Racial Justice RI”. Although it is impossible to guess what the event would have looked like had Hillary Clinton won the election, we can all imagine for ourselves. But Clinton lost, Trump won, and that reality undoubtedly had an effect on the march, especially in the context of democratic erosion.
I want to give some brief thoughts on the event, and what I learned from standing in the crowd. There are three main points I wish to stress.
- The march served as an example of polarization and as a polarizing force.
- The march demonstrated populist tendencies, but should not be classified under the umbrella of populism.
- The march operated as a form of resistance to democratic erosion.
Before discussing the implications of the march, I’d like to give a brief summary of my experience at the event.
Arriving at the march was no small feat. After looking up the location of the event online, we arrived to the supposed location (India Point park). As I walked into the park, chalk arrows drawn on the sidewalk directed marchers to the field where the event would occur. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and a number of people had taken advantage of the weather to show up early and set up booths. Among those with tables were prison abolition groups, LGBTQ activists, and the Democratic Socialists of Rhode Island.
As the event began we quickly realized that there would be no actual marching. Instead, speakers assumed the stage to rail against racial injustices. These speakers ranged from a Native American leader to a former inmate, from a local administrator to leaders of immigrant rights groups. Nearly all those who spoke represented minority groups in the US.
- This march is an example of polarization and is also a polarizing force.
If I were inclined to wager, I would feel safe guessing that over 90% of the attendees at the march did not approve of President Trump. While not an anti-Trump rally, the march undoubtedly attracted individuals of a particular political stance. Almost irrefutably, it was a politically polarized event along both party lines and ideological positions.
One manner of looking at this march would be to consider its inherent polarization an inevitable effect of the current political environment. However, we should take a minute to reflect on the significance of polarization in the context of this march. The event was explicitly supporting “Racial Justice,” a seemingly agreeable concept, yet it takes the form of a politically controversial topic that comes with a number of connotations, many of which the speakers alluded to-larger amounts of funding for certain school districts, restructuring the justice system, etc.
However, this march was not just an example of the effects polarization. In Cass Sunstein’s book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, he examines the phenomenon of group polarization. Sunstein understands group polarization as the tendency of likeminded group members to hold more extreme versions of their original positions after conversing. Group polarization increases the overall polarization of a society.
This march appears to bear the hallmarks of group polarization. Likeminded people came together to converse, and hear each other speak. In doing so, they reaffirm their preexisting beliefs and become more extreme. Assuming that most of the assembled crowd was in favor of the proposed ideas originally (increasing education funding, decreasing military spending, ending the school to prison pipeline), or disliked targets that the speakers presented (Donald Trump, the police, racist behavior), this event likely further polarized the audience.
Whether or not one agrees with the speakers at this event is not the question. There is a distinct possibility that those leaving the rally were less inclined to look favorably upon Trump and the police, for instance, than when they arrived. This could just as easily have been a Trump campaign rally, and the same group politicization would be in action.
- The march demonstrated some populist tendencies, but should not be classified under the umbrella of populism.
Populists, using a definition from Cas Mudde, sees society in two homogenous and antagonistic groups, the true people of a nation against the corrupt elite. It is generally classified as both anti-elite/anti-establishment and anti-pluralist, since it seeks to concentrate power in one of those two camps.
In many respects, the march was anti-elite, where the elite are represented as the political establishment. The speakers railed against certain establishment institutions, such as law enforcement, repeatedly. At one point, a speaker shouted out, “F**k the police, and f**k the undercover cops in this audience!” The speakers’ remarks were also littered with the failures of establishment politics to address the issues at hand.
However, the march failed to satisfy the second condition for populism as populist, as it was expressly pluralist. Populist movements promote the interests of the true people, however that is defined, over all others. This march expressed itself as accepting of all individuals, an inherently pluralist viewpoint.
- This march was a form of resistance to democratic erosion
While not immediately obvious, the march operates as a form of resistance in two ways. First, it gives activists a space to be relaxed and buoyed up by their compatriots. After leaving this march, some attendees may have summoned the energy to call their congressman or donate to a civil society organization. This singular event also forms part of a network of similar organized demonstrations, and while an individual event may not have great impact, the summation can be significant.
The recent elections may have revealed some of the effects of these protests. As Democrats take office in Virginia and New Jersey, they seem to signal that anti-Trump activism can bolster election results. There is also reason to believe that court victories against the Muslim Ban, or the failure in the Senate of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, were strongly linked to activism like this march.
Some may say that this event cannot resist the erosion of democracy in the US, if they believe democracy is not eroding. Rather than launch into a lengthy and empirical discussion on the state of US democracy, I would reply that resistance to democratic erosion can exist even if democracy is relatively stable. Through the performance of protest in a public space, events such as the march resist democratic backsliding by reaffirming the rights of liberal democracy and enabling opposition parties (the Democratic Party in this instance) to gain support and members.
At any rate, the march clearly distinguished its relationship to democracy to me in three ways. First, it took place in a polarized atmosphere and it contributed to that atmosphere through group polarization. Second, its populist aspects do not make it populist. And third, it was a form of resistance to democratic erosion.