University of Pennsylvania

Democracy on Display at the 2018 Women’s March on Philadelphia by Rachel Pomerantz @ University of Pennsylvania

As the follow-up to what was likely the largest single-day demonstration in American history, the first anniversary of the Women’s March had high expectations. Occurring last year on the first full day of the Trump presidency, the first Women’s March set off a year of protest, activism, and a reckoning on the treatment of women in public and private life. Additionally, after a year of Trump administration actions that call into question its commitment to democracy, this year’s march had to define its place in a complex political landscape. The 2018 Women’s March on Philadelphia demonstrates successful resistance to the erosion of American democracy.

On January 20, I attended the first anniversary of the 2018 Women’s March on Philadelphia. The event began with a march from Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and then concluded with a rally featuring speakers and performers. The speakers included not only local female politicians but also female activists and community members. The march organizers’ prioritization of diversity came through in the perspectives and voices represented at the rally. Despite the large crowd size, the event was peaceful: March organizers coordinated with the police to obtain a demonstration permit, close down streets along the march route, and maintain order. The most prominent form of political expression at the Women’s March were the homemade signs displayed by almost every participant. Sign messages ranged from feminist (“The future is female”) to anti-Trump (“Orange is not the new black”) and issue specific (“Human rights are LGBT rights and LGBT rights are human rights).

Some have wondered if the Women’s Marches are an exercise in political polarization that is damaging democracy. Now, political differences by no means necessitate democratic erosion. However, as Svolik argues, political polarization can facilitate democratic erosion by raising the cost of voting for the other side. Specifically, political polarization disincentivizes voting against an incumbent undemocratic leader. If the other side of the political spectrum is sufficiently demonized, then an undemocratic leader is not relatively as bad as the other side.

To a certain extent, the Women’s March demonstrates the degree of political polarization in the United States. While the Women’s March is not an explicitly partisan event, the openly anti-Trump and liberal leanings of the March’s organizers and the majority of attendees made conservative women feel unwelcome at the event. In general, the political expression at the Women’s March reflected intense animus towards Trump. Various signs compared the Trump administration to the authoritarian regime in Handmaid’s Tale and described the extent to which participants see Trump not only as a political opponent but also as personally reprehensible.

Additionally, this event demonstrates the “reduction in dimensionality of political conflict.” Even though the march was billed as protesting gender inequality, the signs and speeches referenced a range of political issues. From disaster recovery in Puerto Rico to immigration and healthcare, the participants advocated liberal positions on issues, in lockstep with the liberal position on women’s equality that by and large defined the march. Again, even though the mission statement of the march and the march organizers claimed that the event was open to all aspects of the political spectrum, the march clearly reflected an adherence to a liberal political platform.

Perhaps this event is a part of a balancing of a political polarization that has already occured. Barbar and McCarthy argue that most of political polarization in the US comes from Republicans asymmetrically moving to the right. It is possible that, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has begun to right this imbalance with a shift to the left. However, while many Women’s March participants had not been previously engaged, the Women’s March was and is not a particularly radical movement. Demands for gender equality and reproductive rights are not to the political left of the position that the Democratic Party has taken over the past ten years.

In spite of claims to the contrary, this Women’s March does not represent a dangerous furthering of political polarization. Part of political polarization involves the middle of the political spectrum becoming disengaged and apathetic. However, the Women’s March featured previously politically-apathetic women becoming politically engaged. Instead, the Women’s March best fits into the picture of democratic erosion in the United States as a manifestation of the resistance. Though the organizers of the march do not openly call themselves members of the resistance, the slogan of the march, “We Resist. We Persist. We Rise.” clearly references the resistance movement.

Additionally, the Women’s March shows signs of being a successful resistance movement. Chenoweth argues that successful resistance movements include diverse and powerful segments of society. The Women’s March has mobilized middle class and older women with more political power than the typical profile of politically-engaged liberals. Furthermore, the participants at the Women’s March have focused on civic engagement as the path to express their anger. Many signs at the rally in Philadelphia extolled the importance of voting. In addition to demonstrating the political power of the Women’s Marches, this messaging shows continued faith in American political institutions.

Finally, the Women’s Marches produced direct pro-democratic consequences. In addition to representing an important act of civic engagement for all participants, the marches have inspired women to run for office. After a local New Jersey official posted on Facebook mocking the Women’s March participants, a woman who was upset by the comments ran against the official in November 2017 and won his seat. The Democratic pro-choice group Emily’s List has a new slogan to recruit women to run for office: “You marched. Now run.” The candidates and elected officials who spoke at this year’s Philadelphia march demonstrated similar inspiration from the Women’s Marches.

Overall, this year’s Women’s March on Philadelphia represents an important exercise in the resistance to the Trump administration’s undemocratic tendencies. In Philadelphia, the energy and enthusiasm for civic engagement and, specifically, more gender equality in civic engagement, permeated the air. Following up the success of last year’s march, this event demonstrated the formation of an effective resistance movement.

*Photo by Rachel Pomerantz

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