All that said, I do want to figure out what actions would be the best use of my time. Like any good policy wonk and data nerd, I turned to empirical research to identify which actions can have an impact. I found* a great paper on this very subject: "Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement" by Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott, published the Quaterly Journal of Economics.
In this paper, the authors attempt to identify whether showing up at a protest is going to have any political impact.
Because protests and political outcomes may be correlated through some latent variable, identifying such a causal impact can be difficult. Regions with large protests are likely to have election results consistent with the political leanings of those protests. I live in Oakland and near Berkeley; I see protests all the time. Liberal stalwart Barbara Lee represents my district. That doesn't mean the protests push her to be liberal. It is pretty likely that my district just has many liberal-minded people living in it. Whatever made us liberal and made us decide to live in this district, may be the very thing that causes us to vote for liberal representatives and to show up at protests. Barbara Lee would likely be my representative and would stand up for progressive causes, whether or not there we protests.
So the question is, does my showing up at a protest have any impact on broader policy? This is hard to figure out. It's not like we can just run an experiment, where we randomly decide which congressional districts have a protest and which don't and then observe what happens. The authors of this paper identified something almost as good. They realized different districts would have different weather on protest days, and the weather could effect the size of the protest. Because rain in specific location on a specific day is relatively random, they could use the variation caused by weather to measure the impact of protests on politics.
On April 15 2009, the Tea-Party planned and organized large Tax-Day protests, not unlike the Women's Marches on the Saturday following inauguration day. So essentially, the authors were asking "did rain on the day of the protest effect who got elected a year and a half later ?" They also looked at other outcomes, like how representatives voted in congress in years following the protest. The result they got was a pretty strong "Yes." Furthermore, it seems extremely reasonable to believe the only way rain on that specific day would affect outcomes is through the protests.
The authors state:
... we find that the weather-driven exogenous variation in rally attendance on Tax Day 2009 affected the eventual impact of these rallies. Where it did not rain, the number of local Tea Party activists was larger than where it did. Grassroots organizing increased, as did contributions to associated PACs and attendance at subsequent rallies. The population at large adopted the conservative-libertarian views of the protesters, and voter mobilization rose. This then led to more conservative voting both in the 2010 midterm elections and in the U.S. House of Representatives, and encouraged Democrat incumbents to retire.
Specifically, they find that "for every protester, Republican votes increased by seven to fourteen votes." That's pretty powerful.
They don't believe showing up the protest is sufficient. By measuring attendance at future rallies, donations to conservative groups, and press coverage, they are actually arguing that these protests likely set off a pathway of events which eventually lead to the political outcomes. If you miss a protest, but make a donation you may have the same impact as if you did after showing up at the protest. But, a larger protest makes it more likely you donated in the first place.
While the authors create estimates for the change number of votes (and other outcomes) for each protest, they admit that this requires a strong assumption: the only causal mechanism between weather and the outcomes is attendance. They are pretty clear the only way the would expect weather on a specific day to influence outcomes is through the rally, but other elements about rally can be affected by the rain. Maybe less press shows up, or maybe people have a better time in good weather causing them to be more likely to return to the next one. The authors have no strategy to separate the impact of attendance from press coverage from quality of the experience.
The authors also do some interesting tests to make sure this is not a spurious correlation. The most interesting was looking at variation in weather on other days. They look back nearly 20 years, and find all days where at least 10% of districts had rain (representing enough variation to run the experiment). This provided a sample of over 100 days that had no particular political significance to see if rain had an effect on elections: testing a placebo. Unsurprisingly, the effect on April 15 was often near edge of the distribution, suggesting that it is unlikely that by random chance that this particular day was significant. However, it also demonstrated that there were a small number other days where rain was more impactful, even though there was no theoretical reason to think it would be. But hey, thats statistics.
Finally, the authors present a therotical model for the impact of protests. They suggest to mechanisms that protests can influence politicians: persuasion and information. Persuasion is about applying political pressure to move to change their positions. Information is about letting them know how the electorate stands. The authors conclude that if information was the driving mechanism, the effect of the rallys would decrease over time, when the empirical evidence shows the opposite. This suggests that protests can pursuade politicians to change their behavior.
Overall I found the paper both clever and persuasive that protests matter. Simultaneously, there is no evidence that protests are either sufficient or necessary. If an individual would be politically involved by donating money or in an organization, regardless of weather or not they went to a protest, this does not prove that they should have. Similarly, going to a protest, but not being involved afterwards may not change votes. All this paper proves is that going to a protest is part of a causal path to influencing electoral outcomes.
So I'll keep on doing all the things. And while its unclear the Women's March will have the same result as the beginning of the Tea-Party, I look forward to reading the research that lets us know
*recommended through the Linear Digressions podcast