Kelly: When it comes to protest, optics matter


Courtesy of Glenn Fawcett

Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen introduces Vice President of the United States Mike Pence during a 15th anniversary celebration of the formation of DHS held at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., March 1, 2018. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Glenn Fawcett

Tom Kelly

In June, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted by a group of protestors — angered by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding illegal immigration that led to the separation of families at the United States-Mexico border — while eating dinner in Washington D.C.

The protestors shouted, “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace,” and also led chants of “Shame!” Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America released a statement from a member of its steering committee: “We will not stand by and let Secretary Nielsen dine in peace, while she is directing her employees to tear little girls away from their mothers and crying boys away from their fathers at our border.” Nielsen left soon after the shouting began.

Four days later at a rally in Los Angeles, Representative Maxine Waters called on her supporters to publicly confront members of the Trump administration, also in response to the administration’s illegal immigration policy.  

“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” said Waters. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

Last Monday, a group of protestors confronted Senator Ted Cruz while he and his wife were eating dinner at a Washington D.C. restaurant, chanting “We believe survivors,” in reference to sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The protestors repeatedly questioned Cruz about his opinion of Kavanaugh and whether or not he planned to vote to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate.

Much could be said about these instances, but one question they raise is: is public confrontation an effective political tactic?

It should be noted that, here, “effective” has a context-dependent meaning. Others who share the beliefs of a group of protestors that publicly confronts a politician may support such a tactic and be motivated to vote or to become politically active after seeing such a confrontation.

But since a politician’s voting base alone usually cannot carry him or her to a general election victory, for the purposes of this column the question of whether or not public confrontation is an effective tactic will be answered based on two criteria. First, does publicly confronting a politician persuade those who agree with the politician’s stances to consider or embrace the protestors’ points of view? Second, does public confrontation encourage or discourage men and women of good character to run for political office?

As to the first question, publicly confronting a politician generally will not win over those who share some or all of that politician’s beliefs. The tribal tendency of humans is to view groups of which they are members as tribes and to defend members of their tribes at all costs.

Whether one believes that public, verbal confrontation is “over the line” or not, it is undeniable that some people who agree with a politician’s stances will interpret such behavior as an attack on their tribe, motivating them to rally behind that politician, and that public confrontation can be interpreted by other observers — who may agree with the protestors’ points of view — as unjustified and uncivil, if not immoral.

Therefore, it is difficult to argue that public confrontation is an effective tactic for garnering widespread support for a certain viewpoint.

As to whether or not public confrontation encourages or discourages men and women of good character to run for political office, it should first be noted that politicians have long been regarded as one of the least trustworthy groups of people in societies all around the world, and many Americans believe that politics is (or has been) corrupted in the United States—for some good reasons.

Wouldn’t the election of upstanding men and women, then, be one of the most direct methods of “cleaning up” politics?

Yet if honest and good people repeatedly see politicians being confronted in public — sometimes for “holding” opinions that they have not conveyed and may not hold — and see other politicians encouraging such behavior, why would they be motivated to run for office?

In this way, public confrontation is generally a self-defeating tactic. Protestors believe that the politician they are confronting — or at least his or her stance on an issue — is deplorable. They seek to influence that politician’s vote or to persuade those who share some or all of that politician’s beliefs to change their minds by confronting that politician publicly.

Yet in doing so, they discourage men and women of good character from running for political office by demonstrating that, if those same men and women were elected to public office, they could be confronted almost anywhere for holding any opinion. What’s more, a politician who is confronted while eating or shopping will likely be angered by such a confrontation and double down on whatever stance or belief was being protested.

None of this is to say that citizens should not protest politicians’ stances. But the optics of confronting a politician “in a restaurant”, “in a department store” or “at a gasoline station” are, in general, not good, and such behavior is unlikely to change people’s minds or encourage principled men and women to run for office. Thus, it is difficult to argue that public confrontation is an effective political tactic.