How disruption and discomfort is driving political change


As a professor of political science at the University of Washington, Clarissa Rile Hayward was at the forefront of the protests and disruption that followed Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014. even interrupted brunch at upscale restaurants to advocate in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And she found herself thinking about what tactics were working and why. She believed that the conventional wisdom about such protests – that they only work if they present a “brutal confrontation … between good and evil” in the words of renowned sociologist Doug McAdam – was incomplete. She set out to develop a new model, one that takes into account the demonstrations that disrupt “the establishment of the agenda of the elites”, and thus transform the political calculation.

Hayward explained on Saint Louis on the air she was drawn to more controversial stocks because of the backlash they elicited in people.

“I’ve heard so many people bring up issues about these kinds of protests, things like ‘I support the protesters’ message, but shutting down a freeway or interrupting brunch seems like the wrong way to do it,’ he said. Hayward recalls. “I wanted to explore what, if anything, political work was done by disruptive actions that are not necessarily popular.”

Credit courtesy University of Washington


Clarissa Rile Hayward of the University of Washington.

And the work, she found, is real. As she detailed in a article published last January in the Journal of Politics, disrupting privileged spaces (such as brunch or the symphony) can pull people out of their “motivated ignorance”. This may force them to choose sides.

And, by making the news or breaking into social media, it can help set the agenda. In a two-party system like ours, that can be critical, explained Hayward.

Presidential candidates like Joe Biden must “find a way to whip up an electoral majority made up of some pretty weird bed-mates,” Hayward said. “He has to try to win over the people who are to the left of the mid-level Democratic voter and also the independent voters, and maybe even some moderate Republicans. And to do this, its strategy must be to avoid conflicts that would threaten its ability to bring this coalition together.

People parading across the United States to claim that “Black Lives Matter” – or, yes, even blocking freeways in cities across the United States – is forcing politicians like Biden to stop ignoring the problem, even if it seems too controversial for the proverbial big tent.

“This is a key point of what a disruptive political protest can accomplish, even if it is not very popular,” she said. “It may put a problem on the political agenda that the elites are going to be enticed by the two-party system to try to suppress.”


Hayward said she believes the current protests sweeping across the United States have been effective.

“They are doing the job of setting the agenda,” she said. “I also think in this case it might be too early to tell, but it looks like they might be earning that part of the audience sympathy as well, which might actually do what the point of view Conventional demands of any disruptive policy: incite the public to identify with and be sympathetic to the protesters.

Saint Louis on the air”Brings you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah fenske and produced by Alex heuer, Emily woodbury, Evie hemphill, and Lara hamdan. The sound engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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