It has been a life-long hobby of mine to observe crowd behavior, whether it be mass delusions, demonstrations, riots, or other forms of collective behavior, some pathological, some not. In its extreme forms this kind of behavior strips people of their individual judgment and sometimes even their self control. Riots are an example of this extreme. Mass delusions differ from the other forms in that, although they influence behavior, they don’t necessarily produce actions, but may play a part in demonstrations and riots.
Demonstrations are a closely related but different animal. Demonstrations are frequently the predecessor to riots, and any motivated and skilled agitator can turn a demonstration into a riot. I have personally witnessed, during my student years in South America how this can be, and is accomplished. Which is not to say that all demonstrations are preludes to riots.
An interesting and important aspect of demonstrations is that they are almost exclusively directed at grievances toward actions or policies of institutions (e.g. government or large businesses) which the demonstrators feel otherwise powerless to influence. By demonstrating en-mass, the participants hope to show those in power that they are opposed by a large number of people. The demonstrators carry signs and shout slogans justifying their positions and demanding solutions. But few if any participants believe these arguments will have any significant direct impact on the target of the demonstration. And in fact, very few demonstrations directly produce changes the demonstrators demand. Through publicity and in some cases implied intimidation, however, they can influence outcomes. But only a change in opinion or attitude, or fear within the target institution can produce the result the demonstrators argue for.
Another very important role of the demonstration is to encourage and reassure the demonstrators and their sympathizers, thus building more support for their positions. People like to join and root for what they perceive to be a winning team. And the larger the demonstration, the more effective it is likely to be. Those who run institutions are often no less susceptible to peer pressure than the average teen ager.
The implication of the foregoing is that: a)demonstrations are born of frustration in that no other means are apparent, and b) demonstrations are unlikely to directly produce the change demanded, but do build support.
Who demonstrates and why? Demonstrations are unnecessary and a waste of time when other means of change are available. Likewise, demonstrations are only useful to oppose large entities, such as government. This suggests that, in a well-functioning democracy there are ample means of influencing desired changes, and therefore the frustration needed to motivate demonstrations is removed. As government gets involved in ever more aspects of life, however, citizens are presented with an increasing number of issues over which they may feel powerless to change. This produces frustration, and frustration motivates demonstrations. One can observe this phenomenon in countries where the government controls large and important sectors of the economy. In France it is common for farmers to block roads with tractors because farm prices are low. If the government doesn’t control something there is no motivation to demonstrate. If the government does control something, then demonstration may be the only means of seeking change.
In the past, demonstrations have been a rarity in the U.S. compared with more statist societies around the world. Limited government, economic flexibility, and free speech are responsible for this. Post-WW-1 bonus marches, 1960’s civil rights demonstrations, and anti-war protests resulted from large-scale social movements or perceptions of large-scale injustice. Ordinary personal matters such as health insurance do not justify demonstrations. Demonstrations in a democracy are a symptom failure.
The “Tea Parties” we’re now seeing result from the perception of a government completely out-of-touch with the American people. There is a frustration with huge increases in spending, increasing government participation and regulation of the economy and intrusions into individual choices such as health care. A large segment of the American public perceives that these things are changing for the worse, and that these changes are out of their control. Government isn’t listening, they’re frustrated, so they demonstrate.
If the Obama crowd succeeds in implementing enough of its agenda of government expansion, then we’ll see a lot more demonstrations. We can demonstrate for better automobile warranties, lower prices, health insurance coverage for absent-mindedness, whiter teeth, availability of lettuce, ad-absurdum.
More demonstrations, more to demonstrate about, less freedom to make changes absent of demonstrations. This isn’t a change we should believe in or want to encourage.