A story in Commentary about choices and behaviors within anti-Trump organizations pointed me towards this interesting (and accessible) piece of academic research that discusses experiments on the impact extreme tactics have on popular support for political causes and organizations.
The paper looks at what “counter-normative, disruptive, or harmful” political tactics do for two key goals of any social movement: (1) raising the profile of a movement and its causes and (2) gaining support from the wider public (which can take the form of increased membership, donations, or general friendliness towards the movement’s goals).
In theory, profile-raising and support-building should go hand-in-hand since the public needs to know about a group and understand its mission and purpose before they can support it. But in our media-saturated age, it often requires extreme tactics to gain attention – especially when competing with other causes, or with other individuals and organizations claiming to represent your issue.
This is where extreme tactics such as “inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic, and damaging property” come into play since such rhetoric and actions are likely to get you on the nightly news (as well as more web site hits and social media likes) than quietly cultivating the public through rational discourse. But, as it turns out, even those friendly to causes such as animal rights, Black Lives Matter or the anti-Trump movement (the subjects of the study linked above) become less likely to support those causes if their proponents turn to such extreme tactics.
In the meaty discussion section of their piece (starting at page 17 if you want to skip the description of their experiments), the authors of the study try to answer the question of why social movements turn to such tactics, given that they seem to be empirically counterproductive. One explanation they suggest is that participants don’t understand or appreciate the negative impact of extreme tactics, confusing increased attention with increased support.
The authors also qualify their findings by pointing out that some activists might have goals outside of winning popular support, towards which extreme tactics might make sense, priorities such as “winning funding, impacting powerful elites, psychologically empowering disadvantaged individuals, fostering commitment in existing supporters, and cathartic expression.”
To this list I would add another item drawn from experience dealing with the decades-long extremism of the BDS “movement:” fantasy-politics in which the public does not even exist to protestors, except as props in a drama taking place within the protestor’s own individual and collective heads.
Scientific evidence that the BDSer’s choice of tactics is likely to limit their effectiveness is a useful thing to know. But such insights can also guide our choices in fighting against BDS and other forms of anti-Israel propaganda, highlighting the importance of tactics and language that will make those we want to persuade feel not just good about us but good about themselves for supporting our cause.